Photography by Robert Trachtenberg, with additional interviews by David Artavia, Neal Broverman, and Daniel Reynolds
The groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band had its debut in 1968, just 10 days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and mere months before Richard Nixon would be elected president. It showed a group of gay and bi men, on one precarious night in their lives. And while legions of viewers of the play and 1970 film have debated its merits, it should be noted that not a single one of the men dies in the end. In 1968, that was already a happy ending.
Now about a dozen gay men are staging its 50th anniversary revival on Broadway. TV power player Ryan Murphy has gathered a magnificent cast that includes A-listers, stage vets, and heartthrobs — Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins, Robin de Jesús, and Brian Hutchison — but can they make modern audiences open their hearts to these queer underdogs?
As actor Leonard Frey (as Harold) walks through the door in The Boys in the Band — first in the groundbreaking 1968 play and later in the controversial 1970 film — he answers another character’s accusations that he’s late, and stoned, with quiet reserve.
“What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own,” Harold says.
The retort perfectly sums up what Harold is all about — and what most of the men in that room, a birthday party full of gay and bi men, struggled with at a time when LGBT people were pathologized, unable to congregate in public, fired from their jobs, and even arrested for simply dancing together or wearing clothing that expressed a gender identity conflicting with the one they were assigned at birth.
While playwright Mart Crowley’s 1968 play was a smash hit, by the time it came out on film — a year after Stonewall — gay men in particular were at a different place politically. Many took offense at the self-deprecating wit of Harold as well as the stereotypical mannerisms of other characters, from the wispy femininity of Emory (clearly the queeniest of characters), to Larry and Hank (the couple struggling with monogamy vs. an open relationship), to Cowboy (the young and beautiful but dim hustler), to Michael, the angsty, analysis-driven, self-hating homosexual around whom the friends seem to pivot.
Viewing the play 50 later years, as thousands will do as it opens on Broadway May 31, offers a different perspective — a bit removed, but still one that may depend on your generation.
“I think in 2010 they asked audiences of this play in their 30s, 40s, and 20s how they responded,” recalls actor Charlie Carver, who plays Cowboy in the stage revival. “I think people in their 40s wanted to place some distance between identifying with a lot of these characters, but the young people really went, ‘Oh, wow, even though this took place and first premiered 50 years ago, this is me and my friends on some level.’ I do believe my friendships are very caring and supportive, but there is this absolute human ability to cut one another down. And so, when I read the play, I see some tragic things, but I also see some sort of humor and the humanity of what happens when a bunch of friends get together and drink too much in an apartment.”
Still a bit of a teen idol at 29, Carver—best known for his roles on The Leftovers and Teen Wolf — is the youngest member of a cast of leading men starring in the 50th anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band. Carver is perfect to play the hunky hustler, known only as Cowboy; as surely as Tuc Watkins, the 51-year-old former soap opera star who has had bit roles on everything from Parks and Recreation to Desperate Housewives, is to play Hank, a soon-to-be-divorced bisexual father.
Watkins, a father of two, and Carver aren’t the only queers among the cast either — all nine actors are gay. That includes The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons as Michael; Zachary Quinto as Harold; Matt Bomer as Donald, a guy eschewing his homosexuality; Andrew Rannells as Hank’s nonmonogamous partner Larry; Robin de Jesús as interior decorator Emory; Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, the only black guy at the party; and Brian Hutchison as Alan, the so-called straight college friend of Michael’s.
When Parsons first heard that producer Ryan Murphy (the gay powerhouse behind Glee, American Horror Story, and the upcoming FX musical series Pose) was thinking about putting together this 50th anniversary production of The Boys in the Band, he recalls, “I had heard the title, of course, but I had never read it. I had never seen it, and … I might have even gotten [the play] confused with And the Band Played On.”
When Parsons, whose role is at the center of the show, sat down and read it, he says, the “biggest thought I had was — and I hope this doesn’t sound insulting — was, What the hell is happening? The way that the men interacted with each other… I was like, what is going on?” That’s when he called famed director Joe Mantello, one of the original Broadway cast members of Angels in America, who is now directing Boys.
“I said, ‘I have to be honest, I find this both exciting — but also I’m not sure I fully get it.’ And I’ll just continue to be honest, do I fully, fully get things? No. We’re still discovering things … but talking with Mantello I immediately felt like it was an adventure and a challenge that I really wanted to take on, as long as he was helming it.”
At its heart, the play is an exploration of a group of gay men on one night of their lives, in a world where being gay is socially isolating and being out is unthinkable — because it means becoming a social pariah. Parsons acknowledges that there are “unpleasant and thorny [elements] about this play and the way these men deal with each other,” but says that is “a direct reaction, whether they know it or not, to the society and the oppression that they’re feeling.”
Brian Hutchison, who plays Alan, agrees. “I think this play in some ways accurately represents what life must’ve been like for so many people,” he says. “I don’t have situations I’m in … that are toxic in this way, where people are cutting each other down in this way, and I think that has so much to do with how far we’ve come, the ability to be out, to be able to live … without judgment, without hopefully too much legislation against you, being able to be married — there’s not [as much] concern of losing your job or losing your family or your livelihood or your social standing.”
Still, Hutchison admits that many people misread The Boys in the Band. “I think it is really important to understand why they acted like they did. It really wasn’t so much a choice to be unhappy or to be an alcoholic or to wallow in self-loathing … [they wanted] the same things we want: equality and freedom and equal rights and respect and dignity. And society wasn’t prepared to give that to those guys, and so there was this rage … even among their chosen family … there was still this bitterness and frustration.”
As for Alan, the masculine character who ends up punching another man, Hutchison says, “He’s so conflicted and so in denial and there’s really no answer to the question of is he gay or is he not gay. … I think many men who may consider themselves. … masculine don’t want to be associated with someone, in Alan’s words, that he would call a faggot, a fairy, a pansy, a queer. I think it’s probably his deepest fear that in any way he is associated with [femininity].”
Robin de Jesús, who plays Emory, perhaps the show’s most empathetic and least self-loathing character, says he couldn’t really engage with the 1970 film, “But when I reread the script … I instantly thought about … the concentration camps in Chechnya. Because what I saw in the play was the struggle of dealing with PTSD and all I could think about were all those folks … and what happens if and when they come out. Who knows what sort of torture they’ve been put through … or how they’ll be accepted by society if they’re integrated back.”
A double Tony nominee ( In the Heights, La Cage aux Folles), De Jesús sees the men in the play struggling with this trauma. “To be a gay man in that time period means you’re probably bound to stay in the closet,” he says. “Or if you were courageous enough to come out, you were probably kicked out of your family. Those that you’ve loved the most now just disown you. And living in complete secrecy, which leads to shame. So how can you healthily interact with other human beings? For my character, Emory, he is hands-down the most flamboyant, effeminate one of the group ... he couldn’t hide that. Everyone instantly knew that he would be a ‘nelly.’ I just imagine Emory as a kid being constantly told, ‘Stop being a little pansy. Act like a man.’ So that’s sort of the PTSD I’m talking about.”
He continues, “When you are part of an entire group of people who have all been told, ‘You’re not worthy, you’re not significant, you are no good’… it’s going to trigger some shit. And so, how do you deal with that? That’s what this play is about. There are a lot of people who have very harsh criticism of this play … because it makes them feel like this is a negative portrayal of us. But I think what they don’t understand is that it is a negative portrayal proving a point: that this is the effect of all the baggage that’s been put on us.”
Parsons, who has been with his husband, Todd Spiewak, 16 years now, says that LGBTs have made great strides in the past five decades, but we can’t rest on our laurels. “You hear the word complacency,” Parsons explains. “Be it about gay rights or the AIDS epidemic. A play like this is worth revisiting on many levels, but one of them being, it’s not impossible for this type of situation to happen again. [We] always run the risk of an oppressive ‘other’ rolling back the clock.”