1968, a year before the stonewall riots. Homosexuality is illegal in the United States and gays are almost invisible in the media. In New York, a small off-Broadway theater dares to do something new: host a play about a group of gay friends. Against all odds, the success of The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley is huge and the play opens up an unprecedented discussion about homosexuality in the country. Fifty years later, Netflix is streaming an adaptation by Joe Mantello, produced by Ryan Murphy, with a golden cast (Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver and Andrew Rannells in particular). Times have changed, but the work of Mart Crowley remains as relevant as ever.
An unexpected success
In 1967, Mart Crowley, a penniless thirty-something screenwriter, wanted to tell the story of the world in which he lives. Inspired by his life, his friends, his encounters, he imagines a birthday party that does not go as planned. In this camera, nine men will have fun, tear each other apart, grow up. The assumed homosexuality of the characters is frightening. The agent by Mart Crowley refuses to help her sell this play which she considers subversive, the theaters do not want more and the actors refuse to participate for fear of endangering their careers. Finally, the screenwriter’s stubbornness pays off. The play was quietly released in the small hall of Theater Four on April 15, 1968.
To everyone’s surprise, the play is a hit. For the first time, a work featuring bi and gay men is commercially successful. The Boys in the Band move into a bigger room. The stars, from Jackie Kennedy to Marlene Dietrich, passing by the mayor of New York John Lindsay, are in a hurry to go see her. Two years later, William Friedkin adapted it for the screen. It was then one of the first mainstream films to have gay men as main characters. Both the play and the film will be turning points in LGBT+ representation. Nothing will be the same afterwards.
The impact of The Boys in the Band will be felt across the country. For the first time, everyone can see the reality of the lives of bi and homosexuals of the time. Gays are no longer clichés. They were neither born psychopaths nor doomed to a tragic death as we saw in the works of the time, but complete and complex people, men who laugh, love and sometimes hate each other. The Boys in the Band do not avoid any subject. Mart Crowley depicts the ill-being of his characters, their flight into alcohol and drugs, their loneliness, their toxic relationships. But above all, he points the finger at the person responsible for the malaise of gays: the homophobic society in which they live. The media talk about it, homosexuality and homophobia are becoming topics in the country.
A piece loved, hated, rehabilitated
The piece is then adored by bi and homo who see in it a first honest representation of their lives. When the film comes out two years later, the tide has turned. The Stonewall riots brought about a new dynamic. LGBT+ people now want to celebrate their strength, they no longer want to be perceived as unhappy people who feel sorry for themselves, nor to be confronted with their traumas, but on the contrary to project themselves into a happier, more combative future. “They wanted pride, that was the word of the moment –be out and proudexplained Mart Crowley to CBS in 2018. I was asked “Why don’t you write something positive about the experience of being gay?” Well, there was nothing positive when I wrote the play”he recalls.
The room is gradually being rehabilitated. Ryan Murphy, the super producer who is passionate about bringing the LGBT+ of yesteryear to life (American Horror Story, Hollywood Where Ratched), decides to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the play. He buys the rights, asks Joe Mantello to take care of the staging with the help of Mart Crowley. They shorten the play, strip it of a few dated references and phrasing, and cast nine openly gay actors celebrated in Hollywood or Broadway. Like the first time, the play will be adapted into a film two years later, keeping the original cast. Mart Crowley won’t have time to see the film on Netflix—he died in March—but he will finally get a Tony at the 2019 Awards for his play thanks to the Murphy/Mantello adaptation.
The cast of Boys in the Band at the 73rd Tony Awards in June 2019 in New York City. | Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions/AFP
Fifty years after the release of The Boys in the Band, society has changed. Gays are no longer forced to live behind closed doors, hidden in their homes or in bars targeted by the police, and can more easily develop healthy friendships. But the piece still feels just as relevant. The themes addressed, such as internalized homophobia, racism in the community, the closet, the cult of youth, depression, addictions or even monogamy are still relevant in the gay community. “At the risk of…generalizing, it seems to me that there is not a moment, a reaction, a statement, a feeling, an analysis that these men have in this room fifty years ago that could not not and is not replicated daily in our lives as today’s gays –just maybe not to the same extent”explained to The Advocate Jim Parsons, the main character of the play, on the occasion of the release of the play.
A timely recovery
Joe Mantello and Ryan Murphy’s adaptation for Netflix helps bring this slice of gay history to a new audience. Like any archive, The Boys in the Band draws our attention to the difficulties of the past and the contribution of activists. “It’s important to know his story because, in addition to allowing us to appreciate what we have, I believe that it motivates us to protect the achievements and to enter the next phase of the liberation, whatever ‘she is”specified to to The Advocate Charlie Carver, who plays Cowboy. The discovery of the persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya when the play was released is cruel proof of this.
The output of The Boys in the Band in 1968 did not allow a sudden change in the living conditions of LGBT+ people. Despite the play’s success, no gay member of the original production has come out. Between 1984 and 1993, five of the six gay actors, director Robert Moore and producer Richard Barr died of AIDS-related complications. But fifty years later, the courage of these artists has paid off.
In this new version, all the actors, the director/director and the main producer are openly gay and for the most part very popular. Jim Parsons was the star of The Big Bang TheoryMatt Bomer of White Collar (FBI: Very Special Duo in France), Zachary Quinto of the new saga star trekAndrew Rannells of Black Monday, etc. If their gay pride had an impact on the opportunities that have been offered to them, this does not prevent them from playing both bi and homo characters as well as hetero in big productions. Times have changed for the better and it is partly thanks to The Boys in the Band.
The Boys in the Band is available on Netflix since September 30.
The documentary The Boys in the Band: Something in the bandin which Mart Crowley and the new cast discuss the legacy of Crowley’s play, is also on Netflix.