Mart Crowley’s seminal play The Boys in the Band — about a bunch of gay friends living in New York City in the late 60s — is set to return to the screen courtesy of entertainment powerhouse Ryan Murphy. The film, which debuted on Netflix on September 30th, reunites the entire cast from the 2019 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival including Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, Michael Benjamin Washington, Robin De Jesus, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Tuc Watkins, and Brian Hutchison. Entertainment journalist Frank DiLella caught up with ‘the boys’ and their director Joe Mantello to chat about bringing this groundbreaking work to a worldwide audience.
FRANK: Joe, as someone who has a long history with LGBTQIA+ properties (Angels in America, The Normal Heart), why was Mart’s play so groundbreaking when it debuted off-Broadway in April of 1968?
JOE MANTELLO: It was THE gay play – the first. I don’t know if you know the story, but the reason Mart wrote the play was that Stanley Kauffman, formerly a critic for The New York Times, wrote this piece in which he took three leading homosexuals, called them playwrights, and at the time he didn’t name them, but they were Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge, and basically accused them of writing about gay life through straight characters. And he kind of took them to task and said, “don’t do that.” And so Mart read that as a challenge and thought, “okay, let me give that a whirl.”
What’s great about this film is that its a reunion of the celebrated Broadway revival and it features the original 9 performers who did the show in New York. Tuc, what does it mean to be a part of an ensemble of 9 openly proud gay actors?
TUC WATKINS: I feel like it’s pretty empowering. I feel like we have providence in our bag. I like to say that Ryan Murphy assembled a sort of gay justice league and he handed each of us our cape, and Joe Mantello told us how to use our superpowers. And we went out there and showed people that we can be out and proud and gay and work. And we’re not an exclusive group. We want others to join us.
Matt – when we last spoke, you told me that when you were a young gay man growing up in Texas, you weren’t exposed to this story. What does it mean to you to know that this story is now going to reach a wider and new audience?
MATT BOMER: I think it’s so important for us to get gay stories out there. And it’s such an insight into a particular time that I knew nothing about. When I came to this piece my understanding of our history really started with Harvey Milk. So, to get to go back into the 60s and understand what these men were dealing with in terms of oppression and the fervor that was building within the community leading up towards Stonewall, I think is such an integral part of our history. And I think it’s told in such an interesting and dynamic way with so many different characters who were fleshed out so well that I think there’s something in it that will appeal to everyone.
BRIAN HUTCHISON: I think it’s amazing that a new cross-section of people are going to be able to see the film from older folks that were around when the original film was out and have a history with that. But also younger people, a whole new generation of people.
Michael – you play the character of Bernard. And you’ve gone on record saying Bernard is learning to be comfortable in his own skin as two minorities: gay and black. Can you explain?
MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: What’s so exciting about Ryan Murphy’s universe is he goes back in time and he puts people who were the thing back into the story. And I’ve seen so few black professionals seeing gay men in anything. I write them – Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin. But to get to play one has been extraordinary because of the complexities of 1968 around the King assassination and the Bobby Kennedy assassination, where we were racially, politically, socio-politically, it’s been really exciting to walk that path and to know how free I really am. Jim Parsons said one day when we were in notes at the Booth Theatre, how hard it was to let go of the privileges that we have now and really escape into 1968 — it’s a different mentality. And to see that on a queer black man, it’s very rare. So learning to be comfortable in that, there’s been a four-year exercise.
Robin, you told me in a previous interview that you’ve been told over the years that as a person of color, you don’t belong in certain period pieces… how does it feel to be a part of this incredible journey?
ROBIN DE JESUS: It means that we’re putting a lot of people back in our history. You know the idea that a Puerto Rican man couldn’t exist in New York City in 1950 is completely fabricated. We’ve been here for over a hundred years. We didn’t just get here when the crack epidemic got here. And I think that’s how history sometimes remembers us. And to me, it only makes the movie better. You know, the nuances of the conversation of colorism are fully on display when it comes to me and the character of Bernard, Michael’s character, because now having these racial transgressions come from a light-skin perhaps passable Latino Brown man, that’s new territory for the piece.
Playwright and screenwriter Mart Crowley never got to see the completion of the film. He passed away at the age of 84 in March. What did you learn from Mart while working on this project?
JIM PARSONS: Mart showed me that you as a human being, can be both the most heartwarming kind person imaginable, and devastatingly truthful and honest in your work at the same time.
ZACHARY QUINTO: I feel a connection to that time in which Mart wrote this play, a connection to all of the people who forged the path that we so freely walk on now. I think Mart represented a connection to that lineage and yes, he’s not here sadly to see the movie released to the world, but standing behind him on the stage at Radio City and watching him accept the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play was just about the most memorable part of this whole journey for me.
CHARLIE CARVER: Mart really modeled a possibility of what it is like to grow older as a gay man. And sadly, there are too few elders out there. Something that I really admired about getting to spend time with Mart is how engaged he was in the world, both with the history, he’d been a part of it, but even the pop culture that he was living through. And I guess that just gave me a sense of my own dignity and how to carry that forward into adulthood. And that’s important to me.
Joe, this film is dedicated to Mart Crowley…
JOE MANTELLO: I think his generosity to not only me but to all of us who worked with him on this project was something I will be grateful for until my dying day. He couldn’t have been a better collaborator. He was so trusting. We tried to infuse the film with his spirit, which was so enormous and so generous. And I don’t know if you noticed it, but he’s in the film. In the scene where Andrew Rannells is in the bar talking to that young man. At the very end of the bar sits Mart having a Coke. It was important to us that he be preserved in the film both spiritually and for him to be present in the film as well.
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