The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play about gay and bisexual men in New York City, may have premiered in 1968. But as noted in The Advocate's new cover story with its ensemble cast of out actors — Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins, Robin de Jesús, and Brian Hutchison — many of its themes still resonate today for gay and bi men.
In the following Q&A, The Advocate spoke with Rannells about some of these timely issues, as well as his character, Larry, a fashion photographer who has a partner but is not committed to being monogamous. The actor discussed the politics of navigating relationships with lovers as well as with gay friends, for whom shade-throwing is a time-honored if tricky tradition.
The Advocate: So, how does it feel to be in The Boys in the Band?
Andrew Rannells: Very good! This is my first time. I've known [director] Joe Mantello before, but just as friends. We never worked together. It’s been really exciting getting to work with him. He's such a fantastic director. He's taken such good care of all of us through this process. It's just a great group. This is a group of guys I knew … but had never really worked with.
Matt [Bomer] and I worked together on a couple of little things, and Zach [Quinto] and I didn't really overlap at Girls, but we're in some of the same episodes, so we've never really gotten to work together. This has been such a treat to get to hang out with your friends all day. And that's been wonderful.
And what a production to work on together!
I know! We were saying yesterday, on our break in between the scenes, we basically just were sitting around talking and laughing and telling stories. That's essentially what a lot of the show is, is just us, sitting around and chatting, so it's a lot of fun!
You have your own band.
Why is this a show that you wanted to be a part of?
I think this is a show that is, I hate to use the word "important" because that sounds important. But it was self-informative, I think, to our community, to the gay community. I think occasionally it can get a bad rap ... I've certainly heard people talk about it in a way that's sort of, “[Oh, that’s] reductive, and a stereotype, and it's not relevant."
[But] from the first time that we sat down and read the play as a group, this is over a year ago, we all immediately noticed that it's very relevant, and a lot of these conversations are still conversations we're having today. I think the play [is] maybe not always given its proper due and its place in gay history, so I'm excited to get to share it with a group of people who maybe have never seen it, and to share it with people who maybe think they know it, because I think it lands very differently now. Obviously, when the play came out, it was a huge success, and people were very taken by it. But I think over time, its message has gotten a little confused. I'm excited to take it to share with people so they actually see what we're actually talking about.
What themes do you think are still relevant today, specifically for gay men and about gay relationships?
[My character] Larry and [his partner] Hank are the only two characters that are in an active relationship. They come in, already mid-argument, and their trouble is a very common question in a lot of couples, and particularly a lot of gay couples, is this idea [of] "is monogamy something we should be striving for?" Is that sort of heteronormative mold ... something that men, and gay men specifically, should be trying to attain? Maybe that's not realistic. And for Larry, it doesn't feel like a realistic goal for him or a very honest goal.
First of all, to have a couple that is committed to each other in many ways, in 1968, but yet still struggling with this idea of, should we open up the relationship, should we not open up the relationship? I mean, that's a conversation that, certainly, people are still having today.
A tale as old as time! I wonder if you have any thoughts about that debate between monogamy versus polyamory, and how couples can have that conversation.
Well, I think it's different for everybody, right? I think the danger is saying that "this will work for everyone." And that's not the case. And even from relationship to relationship ... I've had many different boyfriends. And everyone is different, and every relationship is different, and I think the rules can change, and feelings can change. It's not only about who you're with, but also where you are in your own life, and your own process. I don't know. I think that just has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I love that Hank and Larry are in the midst of hashing all of this out in this party. I feel it's a very contemporary conversation to be having, and it's amazing it was written 50 years ago.
There's no place like having that conversation than in front of all of your friends. [Rannells laughs] When did you first see Boys in the Band?
I saw the movie when I was in high school. There was a community theater production of it in Omaha, where I am from. I don't remember seeing it, but I remember people talking about it, and then finding the movie at a Blockbuster, when there were Blockbusters. And watching it. And being really — I must have been like 16 or 17 — I think a little confused as to why they were all friends, because they were being so mean to each other. There was a part of it, though, that was — aspirational is not the right word — but this idea, especially coming from Nebraska, of being like, look, I can have a life where I'm just with my friends and throwing parties, and even though the party goes off the rails. There was something really appealing about this idea of living your authentic life in New York City, where I wanted to be. I was very taken by it. The tone of the friendships, even the tone of the film, I don't know if I really quite could wrap my head around it at that age, but I do remember it had a definite impact on me.
So many of the issues in this play, like friendship, aging, femme-shaming, gay-straight relationships, I'm sure that you've gained new insight into that as you're getting older, and I'm curious as to what that might be, and what the play really got right.
I feel very fortunate, that while I had a little bit of personal panic or maybe a little internal struggle as a teenager, really coming to terms with the fact that I was gay, and also knowing I was going to have to tell my family. And, how was that going to affect things? And would it affect things? And ultimately it did not. My coming-out was pretty seamless. I'm very lucky that I have the family that I have, and that I moved to New York when I did. I was just having this conversation with someone the other night, that when I moved to go to college in New York, I didn't have to keep coming out to people. I arrived at New York, and I went from being Andy Rannells from Nebraska to being Andrew Rannells in New York who was gay. And those were just the facts.
So I didn't have to go through a prolonged coming-out to people when I met them, or anything like that. It was great. It was really a seamless transition. But in this play, particularly Michael and Donald, they talk so much about their analyst, and being in analysis, and coming to terms with being gay, or maybe trying not to be gay. There's a couple lines towards the end: Harold says to Michael, "Maybe that's something you won't always be if you work hard enough." And the fact that in 1968, men were coming to terms with self-acceptance, let alone figuring out what their feelings were, but also maybe even struggling to change that, and going to analysis to try to figure out why they were gay, and how they could change it? That is really an important part of our story as a people, that we're hopefully far beyond that, that we don't have to go through analysis to try and change who we are fundamentally.
What do you think has changed since then, in terms of how gay men treat each other?
I don't think there's much different about the way we treat each other. And that's people in general. I'm pretty sure [for] gay men, I feel obviously there's a lot of value placed on wit, and intelligence, and sometimes that comes in the form of taking people down — and in the most clever way, and the most creative way. We talk a lot in rehearsal about reading each other, and that it's valued. My group of friends, we sort of go at each other pretty hard sometimes. And it's half performance, half truth that you can say cutting things to your friends that might be a little true, but as long as you package it in a joke, it becomes a little more palatable. And it can even be valued. I have friends, if they get in a zinger that's funny, I'll take it. If it's not funny, that's a different story, but if you're come up with a good one about me, I will give you full credit for that.
In playing with a lot of these scenes then what we're figuring out is, when Donald says something mean to Michael, or Michael says something to Harold, everybody else is laughing. And sometimes the people who are the focus of the lines are also laughing. This is the way that we communicate with each other. And you know, when taken too far it doesn't feel great, and it's not helpful. I've certainly noticed as I have become more visible in our community, just as an actor … while there is often praise, there is a lot of times people will put you down.
I'll be honest, the same week I did the Out 100 [list of LGBT influencers] — I did my photo shoot and I was feeling great — Out magazine, online, ran a thing about the most annoying gay characters on television, and I think I was number two. And that was in the same publication. I called [Out’s editor in chief] Aaron [Hicklin] and I was like, "What the fuck? How is that possible that on the one hand you're like 'Congrats! You're so great! You’re visible,' and at the same time one of the most annoying characters on television?" I only bring that up to say it is still something in our community.
We have to find where that balance is. And look, some people are better at it than others, you know what I mean? Not everybody is smart enough to come up with the quick lines and the cut-downs. Sometimes it just is mean. That's when it becomes a detriment to our community, is when it's just mean, because that's not helpful.
If you're gonna be mean, be clever about it.
You have to be clever about it! I feel like that's the way I grew up. In my family, we definitely made fun of each other a lot, but it had to come from a place of love and protection. And also, you could say it, but nobody else could say it about your family. There has to be some loyalty behind it. I think that's what these characters in Boys in the Band actually really have a lot of, is they do have a lot of loyalty for each other. They do go to the mat for each other. As "mean" as they are to each other, they are also there to support each other. One of the last lines of the show, is when Harold leaves and says to Michael "I'll call you tomorrow." They've had this huge evening of fighting and being so mean to each other, and yet, at the end of the day, he says "I will call you tomorrow," because they are still friends.
Why do we need Boys in the Band today?
Why do we need it? With that movie Love, Simon just coming out, which I think is such a sweet and fantastic movie. ... The story is, it's a teenage rom-com, and the lead character happens to be gay. There's not a huge statement about it, other than it exists, which is incredible. ... And this play, Boys in the Band, I think existed on that level. This is pre-Stonewall, 1968 that it came out, and it was just a story. It was a slice of life about these gay men having this birthday party. It was the first of its kind. All of the characters were gay. This is just a little glimpse into what life was like at this time. And for a brief period of time, it didn't represent every gay person, it was just a play where everyone happened to be gay in it.
And then history happened, and Stonewall happened, and unfortunately, the AIDS crisis happened, and then things needed to take on more importance. Maybe that's why this play gets a little lost in the shuffle sometimes. It's because it deals with "kitchen sink" situations for these people, and it didn't need to stand for everyone. It didn't need to stand for every gay person. Because at the time Mart [Crowley] wrote it, it was just about this particular group of guys, on this particular night. It didn't need to take on larger importance about what that means for every gay person. Unfortunately, and fortunately, a lot of things shifted in our society, and things happened in the world.
But now is a good time to tell it because we have some distance from everything, and our ears and our eyes can recalibrate and see these stories a little bit differently. We can take this play for more what it was meant to be. It's a really well-written, well-crafted story about this group of friends. It doesn't have to represent every gay person. This is just about these particular guys, and how they relate to each other.
I think it's much funnier than people give it credit for. Joe's done a really good job of finding those moments of lightness. It's not all just these guys going at each other. They love each other, and they have fun with each other. It's silly and fun, and yes, it gets tense in several moments. But these guys are friends, and they're each others' family, and I think there's a lot of heart in the show that I think people sometimes forget about.
Boys in the Band opens May 31 on Broadway. Get tickets here.