When The Boys in the Band debuted Off-Broadway in the spring of 1968, it caused a sensation as the first mainstream play centering on a group of gay men. With biting humor and no-holds-barred honesty, the characters created by fledgling playwright Mart Crowley turned a booze-soaked birthday party into a must-see theatrical event that ran for 1,001 performances. Fifty years later, The Boys in the Band is headed to Broadway in an exciting new production directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello and featuring an ensemble headed by Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, and Andrew Rannells. A 15-week limited engagement begins April 30 at the Booth Theatre.
“This is a beautiful, funny, smart piece of theater,” says two-time Tony Award nominee Rannells (The Book of Mormon, Falsettos), who plays a free-spirited artist at odds with his partner over the importance of monogamy. Born 10 years after the play’s debut, Rannells views The Boys in the Band as “a very important piece of gay history. It’s set before the AIDS crisis, and yet it’s both timeless and timely in the way it addresses what relationships were like at a moment when I could have gotten arrested for dancing [in public] with my friends.”
As Rannells points out, The Boys in the Band opened at a time when gay men and women could be refused service at New York City bars and closeted gay couples felt compelled to call themselves “roommates.” Crowley, now 82, had been struggling to make a living as a screenwriter when he came up with “a vague idea for a candid play about gay men.” Inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rope and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he dreamed up seven friends of varied backgrounds and set them loose in an East Side duplex apartment, joined by a male prostitute and a visitor with ambiguous motivations.
“The play was very much influenced by things I had been trying and failing at,” says Crowley, who based the central character, party host Michael (to be played on Broadway by four-time Emmy Award winner Jim Parsons), on his own background as a conflicted gay Catholic writer from Mississippi. Perhaps not surprisingly, Crowley’s Hollywood colleagues, including producer Dominick Dunne, were less than encouraging. “When people got a whiff of what I was writing, they told me I was nuts,” he says in a gentle drawl. But by the time the play closed in 1970, Dunne eagerly signed on to produce a film version featuring the original cast.
Fast-forward half a century, and visionary producer/director/writer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Crime Story) and Broadway producer David Stone (Wicked, Next to Normal) decided it was time for a golden-anniversary production of The Boys in the Band. Murphy’s first call was to Mantello, a two-time Tony nominee for his performances in Angels in America and The Normal Heart, two celebrated dramas influenced by Crowley’s landmark play.
“When Ryan approached me about directing The Boys in the Band on Broadway, I was skeptical,” Mantello admits. “I thought, ‘Is it still relevant?’ Then I started thinking about what the word relevance actually means. This is a play that speaks truthfully and honestly about human behavior, and when I reread it, I was in awe of how well crafted it is. The first reading we did was with a gathering of friends, and when we listened to it we were all flabbergasted. It didn’t feel dated in any way, and it is wildly funny.”
It helps, of course, that Mantello’s friends include some of the finest openly gay actors working on stage and screen. “You now have a generation who are the beneficiaries of this play and many others that came after it,” the director notes. “They’re out, they’re celebrities, and they’re politically active, so to have this group of men come together and say ‘We endorse this play’ is really powerful.”
And yet in spite of 21st century political gains, The Boys in the Band sounds a cautionary note on the status of the gay community. “I’ve been criticized for the self-hatred of one or two of the characters,” Crowley says now, “but I very much felt that way about myself 50 or 60 years ago. It’s one of the reasons I left Mississippi.” Actor Robin de Jesús, cast as the most overtly effeminate character, identifies with the shame and repression that causes the partygoers to lash out at one another.
“The play is about outsiders who come from a place of being told they’re immoral because they’re gay,” says de Jesús, a two-time Tony Award nominee (La Cage Aux Folles, In the Heights). “They can muster up all this fabulousness and pretend to let everything roll off their backs, but the damage from that turns into self-loathing. That’s a pattern we shouldn’t forget. I hope [the revival] is a reminder of where we were as a society 50 years ago, and a warning of where we could be again if we don’t guard our laws and open our hearts to people who are different.”
On a lighter note, The Boys in the Band speaks to the universal importance of friendship and self-acceptance. “It’s more than a ‘gay play,’” says Rannells. “It’s about the family you make versus the one you’re born into, friends with different backgrounds and different ideas. It’s just a brilliant play, and I’m so happy we’re going to be part of telling it again.”
As for Mart Crowley, still feisty and active in his ninth decade, a Broadway mounting of The Boys in the Band featuring a blue-chip cast of gay actors, produced and directed by gay men at the top of their fields, “feels like a dream,” he says with a laugh. “It’s the culmination of the dream any young person has when starting out in the theater. It’s the greatest recognition I’ve ever had. I can’t believe my luck!”