“Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?” – The Boys in the Band (1968)
In the spring of 1967, CBS Reports aired an episode titled “The Homosexuals.” It was the first-ever national broadcast on homosexuality and proved to be a deeply destructive hour of antigay propaganda. A little over two years later, in June of 1969, the monumental Stonewall riots marked the beginning of the modern movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Right in the middle, in a small Off-Broadway theater in New York City, openly gay playwright Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band premiered. It portrayed Crowley’s personal experiences, featuring characters based on himself and his gay friends.
It was undoubtedly a tumultuous time in LGBTQ+ history to tell the story of Michael (Kenneth Nelson), a critical, biting lapsed Catholic and struggling alcoholic hosting a birthday party at his apartment; Harold (Leonard Frey), the birthday boy, a former ice skater turning thirty-two and bemoaning his aging body and face; and the six other party guests who witness Michael’s increasingly brutal attempts at outing his former college roommate Alan (Peter White), also in attendance. The Boys in the Band was initially slated to run for just five performances at Theater Four, but was surprisingly successful and despite long odds closed in 1970 after 1,001 performances. And the same year the curtain fell, the play was adapted for film – director William Friedkin’s version cast the entire theatrical ensemble.
Reviews for the film were generally favorable, if cautious and shrouded in complex iterations of homophobia. For example, the Los Angeles Times praised the film but refused to run advertisements for it. Time described it as humane and moving but said overall the film simply wasn’t the hit that the play had been. Even much of the LGBTQ+ community didn’t welcome it with open arms. There are a handful of reasons why that may have been, but the biggest one is this: between the play’s first performance in 1968 and the film’s debut in 1970, the landscape of the LGBTQ+ community had shifted. The Stonewall Riots took place just 50 blocks from Theater Four. In the wreckage of this monumental moment in queer history, what gay audiences were looking for had also changed – and would keep changing, year after year, brick after brick.
Not that this had any influence on the mainstream. At the time, none of The Boys in the Band’s nine actors were openly out as gay. Many of them had been advised not to take on their roles in either the play or the film. And the show’s unexpected success in two mediums wasn’t without consequence; after the release of the movie, many of its actors found their reputations damaged irreparably. Perhaps the most notable victim was Robert La Tourneaux, who struggled to find work after playing Cowboy and eventually worked in prostitution. He was arrested, attempted suicide in prison, and passed away of AIDS-related complications in 1986. Between 1986 and 1993, five of The Boys in the Band’s nine cast members would be lost to the AIDS epidemic: La Tourneaux; Nelson; Frey; Combs; and Prentice.
So where does all of this leave The Boys in the Band a half century later?
In 2018, the answer was onstage at the Booth Theater. Its glittering marquee heralded the revival of Crowley’s landmark play, and its exterior was adorned with huge posters that reclaimed, in capital letters, the words that had undoubtedly been weaponized against the same production and its creatives several decades earlier. And in bright pink letters, no less: “SWISH.” “MARY.” “FAGGOT.” “SISSY.” It was just one testament to the way times had changed, the new era in which The Boys in the Band now lived.
That year’s limited run, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original production, employed a starry cast of all-gay, all-out actors: Jim Parsons as Michael; Zachary Quinto as Harold; Matt Bomer as Donald; Tuc Watkins as Hank; Andrew Rannells as Larry; Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard; Robin de Jesús as Emory; Charlie Carver as Cowboy; and Brian Hutchison as Alan. Despite its early-season premiere and comparatively short eleven-week run, The Boys in the Band went on to win the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. (Additionally, Robin de Jesus was nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his sparkling, engaging performance as Emory.)
And, just as it happened in 1970, the entire Broadway cast reprised their roles for a film adaptation: Netflix’s stunning 2020 tribute to the original movie, again to celebrate its 50th anniversary. In a nearly shot-for-shot remake with very few lines changed (Michael answers his phone with “Backstage, Funny Girl” in place of the original line, “Backstage, New Moon”) and the removal of suggestions of racism that fit the earlier time period but didn’t serve the plot – the adaptation proved true to the film’s original vision. While richer visually, the remake captured the look and feel of the 1970 film and offered a second window into what life was like for gay people in a pre-Stonewall New York.
It would be easy to assume that after five decades, in a world where once-vicious slurs can mark the facade of a Broadway theater with no fuss, that the overall reception to The Boys in the Band today would be markedly different – that audiences in the 21st century would accept the story more easily than those in the 20th.
But did they? Yes and no.
Both new iterations of Crowley’s story have been received with mostly acclaim, particularly from the press and on the awards circuit. In the big picture, it is true that The Boys in the Band has come a very, very long way from where it began in the late sixties on the cusp of a huge movement for LGBTQ+ rights that continues to this day. But not everyone was happy to see the story dredged up and retold to a new generation. In fact, modern LGBTQ+ audiences offered most of the criticism for The Boys in the Band this time around. Many felt it was outdated, a version of LGBTQ+ life that was no longer relevant, or one that cast a dark shadow on the queer experience. Rather than feeling represented, they felt perhaps dragged backwards into a reality that they had hoped to have moved on from. Some even went so far as to hate the play, or to say that it did a disservice to the LGBTQ+ community.
At its core, the story is a moving presentation of an encapsulated kind of queerness that, while from a different time, feels strangely familiar – even uncomfortably so – to modern queer audiences. This familiarity is reflected in Emory’s camp, his lisp and his posture, and the way he calls himself and his friends “she”: sometimes casually, sometimes much more pointedly. It’s also there in Larry’s railing monologue against monogamy, his thirst for sexual freedom. And in Hank’s compusion for heterosexuality, in his stoicism and insistence on forcing an imitation of heterosexuality on his own life and his relationship with Larry. It’s there in Donald’s anxiety, in the so-called “constructive escapism” he attempts to practice. It’s in Harold’s overly critical view of himself and his appearance, in his picky, elegant manner of speech. It’s even there in Alan, the ostensibly straight character who goes so far as to punch Emory and hurl slurs at him in a show of violence that’s difficult to watch, in either medium. And it’s there, maybe most of all, in Michael.
When the party is over and everyone else has left, when Michael’s attempts to out Alan have failed, and the apartment is empty again except for himself and Donald, we witness Michael’s perhaps inevitable breakdown. As a viewer, it’s virtually impossible to be unaffected by either film adaptation in these moments: Michael hyperventilates, sobs into Donald’s arms, chokes on a Valium, and whispers, “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so very much.”
He then leaves Donald in his apartment and leaves to attend a late-night Mass. And we are left to assume that the lives of these men will go on mostly unchanged by the events of the evening. The Boys in the Band really is just a glimpse into the mundanity of their lives, no matter how dramatic it may feel when staged. It’s all something that LGBTQ+ people can recognize. And perhaps it’s that which leaves audiences feeling uncomfortably seen.
Ultimately, the same thing that draws criticism serves as the exact reason why we need to see stories like The Boys in the Band told over and over again, presented to new generations of queer audiences like a dug-up time capsule. Yes: it is vital to tell new stories that represent more of our community than the bitchy white cisgender gay man or the fluttering, campy stereotype. It’s vital to tell stories of LGBTQ+ people who don’t hate themselves; inclusive stories of queer and trans joy; stories that have triumphant, happy endings for queer characters of color; trans and nonbinary characters, bisexual characters, and more.
But The Boys in the Band, for all of its moments of pain and fear and self-laceration, isn’t the anti of those stories. Rather, it’s a building block, a piece of LGBTQ+ history on which we are still building today. Crowley once said that his motivation for writing the play was not activism, but anger – that he “wanted the injustice of it all – to all those characters – known.” He added, “I didn’t know what hit me. I just wrote the truth.”
The Boys in the Band was and remains just that: the truth of a life lived by a gay man in a time before our own. These are precious portrayals of real LGBTQ+ men, who lived and loved and fought, who battled against the world and themselves daily, whose everyday lives and joys were inexorably intertwined with the injustice of their time. Yes, Michael hates himself. Yes, Alan is stuck inside the prison of his own life. Yes, Donald is riddled with anxiety. Yes, Harold is tortured by the existential dread of facing the rest of his life. Yes, Bernard faces immense prejudice as a Black gay man, prejudice that seeps into every corner of his existence. And yes, The Boys in the Band does paint a sometimes bleak, undoubtedly uncomfortable picture of life as a gay person.
But that’s not all it does.
Near the end of Act One, Larry asks Bernard, “You remember that dance we used to do on Fire Island?”
“Oh, that was in so far back, I think I’ve forgotten,” Bernard answers.
But Emory chimes in with a lilting, “I remember!” and moments later they are all doing the steps, laughing together and dancing with carefree charm and abandon on Michael’s apartment balcony, to the song “Love is Like a Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas. The scene is achingly familiar to LGBTQ+ people of any time or place, a breathtaking, transcendent moment of queer joy unbridled by anything going on outside those four walls, one that becomes a safe space for all of these characters to be just who they are. Be it joyful, self-loathing, or both, it’s all suspended in that moment. That transcendence appears in other moments throughout the story: when Emory happily serves homemade lasagne to his friends; when Harold smiles in childlike glee at the spinning ice skater figurine atop his birthday cake; when everyone cackles at the bejeweled knee-pads Bernard gives to Harold for his birthday.
What The Boys in the Band has to offer us today is a real, poignant, sometimes devastating, and sometimes uplifting look at a slice of our history, one that weaves heartfelt emotion with caustic wit and a steady back-and-forth rhythm highlighting all the pillars of a culture that has, against all odds, survived and thrived. This is what we can choose to take away from it, as well. If we treasure them, the building blocks of queer literature, theater, and cinema will weather decades of progress, shifting and changing alongside us. They are valuable glimpses of our history. Just like us, they will survive.