Tony Kushner, the Pultzer Prize award-winning screenwriter and man behind the script for the critically acclaimed Lincoln seems to have been destined for greatness as a child.
“I can tell you that, from a bystander, Tony Kushner was brilliant as a child,” says Sandy Mugnier, a longtime friend of Kushner’s mother, Sylvia. “We thought he was very precocious — he wasn’t precocious, he was brilliant. When he was 7, 8 years old, he was doing things like making place cards for the dining table when his parents entertained. On one occasion, the place cards were James Thurber drawings — from a child of 8!”
Kushner grew up in Lake Charles in a family that served as the city’s cultural royalty. His mother was a bassoonist and his father a clarinetist; both were music professors at McNeese State University after playing in the New York City Opera orchestra; his father, William, was the director of the Lake Charles Symphony from 1978 to 2008. His brother, Eric, plays French horn in the Vienna Symphony and his sister, Lesley, has also moved to New York. Sylvia died in 1990 and his father in March of this year. Kushner fled Lake Charles in 1974 for Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in medieval studies, and went on to New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, finishing in 1984.
Kushner essentially put Lake Charles, a city where he never quite belonged, on the map when he won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in 1993. He won two Tony Awards in a row for Best Play: in 1993 for Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and in ’94 for Angels in America: Perestroika. He was nominated twice in 2004 for Best Book of a Musical and Best Score for Caroline, or Change.
“My husband and I were in Greece, and we were on a tour bus and we were seeing some of the sights,” recalls Mugnier, laughing, “and I picked up a newspaper and I was reading it while the bus was taking us to the next historical monument, and there was this little tiny three-by-five article about Tony Kushner winning the Pulitzer Prize. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, here I am in Greece and I’m reading about Sylvia’s son Tony.’ It just shows you how small the world is.”
Kushner, now 56, is in the spotlight again as Oscar buzz surrounds his screenplay for Lincoln, a collaboration with Steven Spielberg starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Kushner, collaborating with Eric Roth, worked with Spielberg once before on the screenplay for 2005’s Munich, but this time is the sole author of the script based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
“It was very scary,” Kushner said in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert. “I didn’t want to do it originally because I didn’t know if it was going to be possible. Doris Kearns Goodwin is a very persuasive and lovely person and a really great writer, and she talked me into it. And I loved working with Steven on Munich, so I figured it was a good thing to try.”
The Lincoln screenplay took Kushner six years to complete, mainly because of his apprehension regarding Lincoln’s legacy. “There are some human beings — Shakespeare, Mozart — that do things that defy human comprehension,” Kushner said at the PEN World Voices Festival in April. “They’re just better than us. Lincoln was one of them.” But Kushner’s works are not fluff — they tackle some of the most controversial issues of the day, and Kushner believes there are parallels between today’s political dysfunction and that of Lincoln’s time. But he also believes that theater and democracy are natural partners. “You know, the Athenians invented two things simultaneously: theater, and democracy,” he observed at the same festival. “And the thing that perhaps connects these two things is compassion. It’s the building of community and empathy.”
“I find his work ever-growing and improving on the basic foundation, which is his — in my opinion — commentary on social injustice in our culture,” says Mugnier. “I don’t think you can read anything that Tony Kushner has written and not understand and feel moved by the issue of his writings and the themes, the various themes that he repeats over and over again.
“I think one of the things that amazes me, and I’m a literature person, but one of the things I find so interesting is that Tony’s works are tough to read,” says Mugnier. “You feel like somebody has just hit you in the gut and you can’t ignore the power of his work. Here, I remember him as a talented, precocious, beautiful boy — gentle and loving. To be able to write as passionately as he does about social issues is genius to me.”