One of the Boys: Reflections on a Milestone Play, 50 Years On

The Boys in the Band: the play that no one thought would—or could—be produced.  The playwright, Mart Crowley, had no track record beyond serving for years as a best friend/gofer to actress Natalie Wood. Literary agents wouldn’t touch it, and the one who eventually agreed to rep it wouldn’t use her office stationery to do so. Producers were instantly allergic, assuring Crowley that it was too raw, too toxic, too bold to find a mainstream audience. More to the point: it took an unsentimental and explicit, look at the lives of a handful of gay men, and who could possibly care, beyond its own narrow universe?

Eventually the script found its way to Richard Barr, a gay producer who had shattered conventions five years earlier with his award-winning production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But even someone with Barr’s standing found it difficult to cast, with actors’ agents prophesying (often accurately) a ruinous future for any client who’d agree to play an openly gay man.  Even some of Crowley’s peers recoiled. In the 2013 fascinating documentary on the play’s history, Making the Boys, Albee rather smugly calls it, “a highly skillful work I despised … [a play that could do] serious damage to a burgeoning gay respectability movement.” Albee later admitted that he was sorry … not for his assessment, but for his decision not to invest in the play.

Crowley has declared that Boys was created out of “fear and anger”—fear that this might be his last chance at enjoying any kind successful career, and anger over a controversial and notorious 1966 article written by Stanley Kaufmann. the then-chief critic of The New York Times (his tenure was mercifully brief), called “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” in which he called out the three most prominent playwrights of the day for masking gay men as women.  Kaufmann named no names, but it was clear to anyone with a cultural pulse that he was targeting William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Albee. Why don’t they write about their own lives? was Kauffman’s implicit peevish plea. Crowley’s fuck-you response: OK, I will.

Gathering a fine cast of little-known actors and a superb director, Robert Moore, Barr booked a tiny Soho theater for a handful of tryout performances.  The first played to a partially empty house, but immediate and electric word-of-mouth had ticket-buyers waiting in a long line in the bitter cold the next day. Within months, Boys settled into an intimate new space on West 55th, where it played more than 1,000 performances, spawned an excellent film version with the original cast directed by William Friedkin (who would later helm The French Connection, The Exorcist, and the cringe-inducing, homophobic Cruising), and began its own quiet revolution as the first gay play to make a sizable impact on American culture. As playwright Terrence McNally would later say, “There is only one historically important gay play, and that is The Boys in the Band.”

  The original cast, recreating a dramatic moment

The original cast, recreating a dramatic moment

Boys did not break barriers in a vacuum. Disturbing events were fomenting unrest in a country bedeviled by the Vietnam War and civil rights protests. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated some three weeks before its opening; Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s murder would follow that Jun.  On Broadway, the musical Hair was shattering the aging conventions of musical theater, with the beginnings of its multi-year Broadway run 15 days after Crowley’s play arrived. (Historians may note that these two celebrated productions of 1968, playing just eight blocks apart, both extolled the joys of fellatio.

Crowley drew on his own life and friends to fashion his play, placing his characters in a classic dilemma—an outsider’s intrusion into an established social order.  Laughter or tears (actually both) ensue. Set in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the play’s center is the host of a birthday party: Michael, a recovering alcoholic gadabout who sleeps around, travels, and has trouble paying his bills. The guests:  Donald, Michael’s bookworm therapy-addicted chum; Emory, the effeminate “butterfly in heat”; Hank and Larry, a committed pair with relationship issues; the waspish Harold, Michael’s oldest friend, whose birthday is being celebrated; Bernard, the conservative African-American; and a character known only as Cowboy, a $20 hustler bought by Emory as a gift for Harold.  Add some booze and dope and the scene is set. The unexpected arrival of Alan, Michael’s former schoolmate, brings heterosexuality into the mix—or does it? Michael’s insistence that Alan is closeted and has a homosexual past sets the second act in motion, with Michael diving head first off the wagon and taking his venomous frustrations out on everyone in his path. A sadistic party game (“call the one person you truly love and confess your feelings”) results in emotional chaos.

Chief among the play’s champions was the city’s most influential theater scribe, Clive Barnes: “By far the frankest treatment of homosexuality I have ever seen on the stage,” he wrote, “and it makes Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem like a vicarage tea party.” That titillating phrase alone was a siren’s call to theatergoers.

When Boys opened, I was a Northwestern theater major. My cohort and I were unrepentant geeks, obsessive miners of nuggets sifted from the Sunday Times, Variety, and whatever other pre-Internet resources we could find.  We spent the days studying Lorca and O’Neill and Beckett, and the evenings rehearsing productions of Sophocles and Sheridan, but in our free time dissected out-of-town reviews of new plays and musicals (was this new thing called Cabaret going to fly?) like monks poring over an illuminated manuscript; debating the subject of Hello, Dolly!—Pearl Bailey or Carol Channing: who was better?—and floating in the clouds when it was announced that the Tony Awards were to be televised nationally for the first time in 1967.

One Thanksgiving weekend we piled into a borrowed car to drive all night to share a room at the Waldorf, which then, incredibly, offered affordable student rates. Getting to see a celebrated flop musical, How Now Dow Jones, before its early demise gave us bragging rights for years.

We were gay men, but gay in a late 60s, Midwestern, white, semi-closeted kind of way. We slept with men, but weren’t out to our parents or officially to anyone outside our circle, although in a fairly small theater department, there were few secrets. In public conversation, we were forced to change the pronoun gender of the guy we slept with the night before. It was the “friend-of-Dorothy” era, occasionally replaced by the similar code phrases. Is he musical? Is he family?

We were apolitical in our privileged suburban Chicago bubble, where maids came Monday through Friday to our dorm rooms to dust, make our beds, and once a week change the sheets. And while we well knew that in most states our sexual encounters were breaking the law and to many shrinks we were officially suffering from a mental disorder, we had no knowledge of jobs denied or lives ruined—or lost—as a result of homophobia. Stonewall was a year away, and the initialism of LGBTQIA many decades ahead of us. We were G’s, of course, but knew no L’s (we weren’t really looking), and those who claimed to be B’s we were certain were lying. The T’s we would have found totally mystifying.

For a long time we were merely tantalized by the reputation of Boys without details to savor. Ed Sullivan did not invite the cast to recreate scenes on his Sunday night variety hour; the actors were not booked for morning talk show appearances. But as if by a miracle, the original cast recorded the entire performance on two long-playing vinyl discs. And suddenly Crowley’s astringent language became our own:

“Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?”

“You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman”

“It takes a fairy to make something pretty.”

“Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?”

“Mary, don’t ask.”  (This a kind of catch-all phrase roughly translated as “I don’t want to talk about, but of course I will.” A distant cousin to “Yasss Queen” and “Bitch, please.”)

Rather pathetic that we were trying to fit into the tailored rhetorical garments of Manhattan sophisticates, but in terms of gay culture, the landscape in 1968 was bleak. We had no mirrors for self-reflection, no road maps for our futures. There were underground newspapers and magazines charting the slow progress of gay rights, but they weren’t sold where we went to buy. Onscreen or onstage, we were pansies (always good for a laugh), weaklings, victims, or villains. Lillian Hellman’s 1961 film version of The Children’s Hour found the benighted teacher, Shirley MacLaine no less, who hysterically admits her lesbianism before hanging herself. Robert Anderson’s 1953 Tea and Sympathy assured us that the cure for a young man’s emerging same-sex lust would be to share Deborah Kerr’s crumpets. And let’s not forget the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and its film adaptation, Advise and Consent, wherein a senator from Utah chooses to slit his own throat rather than fess up to his homosexual past. I could go on…

In pop culture, there were the hiding-in-plain-sight fags like Paul Lynde and Liberace, but they were easily categorized by the public as just silly guys, and were bachelors because they hadn’t found the right girl. My own bête noir was a character devised by the brilliant 1950s television artist Ernie Kovacs, whose repertory of characters included Percy Dovetonsils, a preening, lisping “poet,” whose bad verse was not as much an object of ridicule as his effeminacy.  I learned early on from my parents’ reaction that girly ways on a man (not to mention the whiff of faux-high culture wafting from his person) were easy objects of ridicule and not to be emulated. I blame Percy for my being yanked from my junior high class every week to spend an hour with a speech therapist to rid me of what were deemed my sibilant s’s.  I eventually learned “proper” tongue placement—tip of the tongue behind the lower teeth—but not to stop fantasizing about my handsome history teacher, Mr. Circone.  (Years later, when I played the effeminate Emory in a student-directed production of Boys, when I was teaching at Cal State University at Chico, I used all of my limited acting abilities to invest the character with as much humanity and empathy as I could muster; take that, Percy.)

Percy Dovetonsils: What passed for humor in the 1950s

Until college, I knew no adults who were in committed same-sex long-term relationships. (OK, there was Miss Less—you can’t make these things up—our advanced English teacher in high school who lived with a female “roommate”—but no one gossiped.) What little I was able to glean about gay life from books pretty much began an ended began and ended with John Rechy’s City of Night, a surprise 1963 NYT best-selling novel that followed an unnamed hustler in his cross-continental sexcapades—a sordid litany of seedy rooms, loveless encounters, raw lust, violence, and degradation. Midnight Cowboy without the laughs. Its raw Genet-like power influenced many writers in its wake, but for a 16-year-old it seemed an engraved invitation to misery. I didn’t know exactly how I’d end up, but it was a good bet that it would involve back alleys and bedbugs.

So the appearance of Boys found a welcoming audience: Eight (maybe nine!) gay men at a birthday party demonstrating loyalty, comity, warmth, affection, and generosity. Or not. They were also bitchy, back-biting, racist, and mean. But funny, too, and smart and worldly. Critic Ben Brantley has said that seeing the film for the first time in middle school terrified him into finding a (temporary) girlfriend. But for me, there was something oddly aspirational about their lives. Michael had a wicked cool apartment, a smart wardrobe, and guess what? Someone might give you a live cowboy for your birthday.

By the time I saw the play in New York, the original cast had been replaced once or twice, so the devastating impact of the performances I knew so well on disc was somewhat muted. But it was still wickedly funny and almost unbearably poignant. (I’ve never seen a production of Boys that didn’t play with audience-pleasing electricity.) As the audience filed out, I remained in my seat trying unsuccessfully to halt the tears. Something about the experience turned on the waterworks, and I don’t think it was because it was Mother’s Day.

But time and the 1969 Stonewall revolution took a swift and merciless toll on the play and how it was regarded. A newly emboldened and fierce gay rights movement declared Boys a relic, an affront, a cesspool of stereotypes. They would have none of what seemed to them an injury to the image of a gay man as out, proud, and strong. Boys to many was a gay Uncle Tom’s Cabin—groundbreaking, perhaps, but embarrassing.  Certain moments, both spoken by Michael in the aftermath of his apocalyptic breakdown, were reviled: “You show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” “If we … if we could just … not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so much.”

Gay pride was the goal post-Stonewall. “Gay is Good” was the slogan of choice. So not surprisingly, the 1970 film version enraged—to the point of picketing— gay rights activists. They had their enablers in critics like Pauline Kael. “What was bad [onstage] is now worse,” she wrote about the film.

  Celebrating friendship in the 1970 film.

Celebrating friendship in the 1970 film.

The scourge of AIDS in the 80s merely strengthened that divide, and new, strong plays grappled with issues of life-and-death importance—Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, William Hoffman’s As Is, Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, and of course, the greatest of  gay-themed plays, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—but also movies as well: Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, and television’s An Early Frost.

But by 1996, it was thought that Boys might deserve a second look. A superb off-Broadway production allowed audiences to reevaluate. Ben Brantley’s grumpy opener to his review: “It is apparently, O.K. to like The Boys in the Band again.”  It was a modest hit, and no longer thought of by some as written with the devil’s typewriter.  

  1996, off-Broadway

1996, off-Broadway

­­Ten years later, a 40th-anniversary reprinting of the text boasted an admiring and insightful introduction by Tony Kushner that invites readers/audience members to appreciate the pay’s intertwined pluses and minuses. Calling it a “wonderful and wonderfully strange play,” he writes:

The Boys in the Band has its ungainly imperfections. Like most plays that matter, its flaws are an essential ingredient of its strength, of what makes it matter. What’s compelling to me…apart from how much fun it is, is how upsettingly off-balance it is as well.

In 2010, New York City’s Transport Group staged an excellent, immersive production, performed in a loft where audience members sat tantalizingly close to the characters as they made merry and opened their guts and hearts.

And this year, the 50th Anniversary, celebrated with a major production (its first on Broadway), fully cast for the first time with openly gay actors. And what may have seemed a mere stunt becomes strikingly relevant when viewed in the perspective of the original production, none of whose gay cast members—seven of the nine—could be publicly honest about their sexuality. (Sadly, five of them died of HIV/AIDS.)

In his entertaining history of queer New York, The Gay Metropolis, Charles Kaiser writes of a 1993 screening of Boys for three generations of gay men: “Those in their forties [said], ‘We’re not like that anymore.’ The thirty-year-olds said, ‘We’re more like that then we’d like to admit.’ And the twenty-year olds said, ‘We’re just like that.’”

Twenty-five years have passed since that screening, so it seemed about time to revisit the subject. In a much more informal way, I invited seven smart, articulate cisgender gay men of varying backgrounds and ethnicities for a casual afternoon discussion: six under 30; one in his mid-thirties; and representing the eldergays, myself and David Greenspan, the multi-Obie-winning writer/actor who triumphed as Harold in the 1996 revival.

Most of the group were unaware of the work’s existence until I asked them to participate. For many of their generation, film is the medium of choice, not theater. Two of them, acting students at Juilliard, had studied the film as part of a course, Vibrant Traditions in American Theater, via the works of Wilson, Miller, O’Neill, and, surprisingly, Crowley. One of the actors’ responses was at first entirely negative: “I have no problem with it as an historic document, but as emblematic of the gay experience, no” said Henry. “My feelings are less explosive now, but I don’t agree with those who feel it should be seen by everyone.” He feels that if it is produced at all, it should be in tandem with another vehicle that offers a less stereotypical slant on the subject.

Whereas, Ramzi, this Juilliard colleague, feels the play is “absolutely relevant”—humor as a collective defense system (“therapeutic snark”) and “an underlying love among the men that was palpable.

Alex, an account executive, spoke for many of the play’s detractors: “Why are these people friends?”

It has always been a play people love to hate. David Greenspan reflects that the 1996 production was “disliked by activists who thought they were being portrayed; they weren’t.” In an effort to lure gay audiences, he says, there were midnight performances for those who were bar-hopping and ready to sit down for a two-hour play. Not many were.

“It’s often overlooked that the play is about friendship and love,” he says. After Michael and Harold eviscerate each other without mercy, Harold’s farewell is a simple, genuine, “Call you tomorrow.”

What many in the group found particularly poignant about the play was the specter of the AIDS era that followed about a decade later. “When I saw [Larry Kramer’s] The Normal Heart in its recent revival,” says Ramzi, “I went nuts. It did everything good political theater should. I couldn’t imagine how I’d feel if people started dropping dead, with no idea why. After so many years of oppression, then to have this plague happen.”

Crowley attempted a Boys sequel, The Men from the Boys, written in 2002, that revisits many of the characters, and adds a few more, 35 years later. AIDS has affected the crew—how could it not?—but so has aging, infidelity, and the death of one’s peers. It has never had a major production in New York City.

As parched and deprived as I felt trying to find my way to a gay sensibility, these younger men could have drowned in the waves of performers, films, music, and books during their formative years: Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Will & Grace, Lady Gaga, Rent, Brokeback Mountain, The L Word, Carol, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Falsettos, Freddie Mercury, American Idol, Weekend, Marvel Superheroes (“the closest thing to porn I had,” said Greenspan). Even Streisand and Garland, icons of my era, haven’t lost their influence: “They were beasts, they were fierce,” said Ramzi, who admits to being able to “fangurl” over certain female singers—“and to love an 11:00 number as much as anyone.”

It’s easy to envy younger LGBTQIA generations and how gracefully they seem to wear their sexual orientation—but naïve to think that this era hasn’t brought its own darkness. For every newly married gay couple, there’s an asshole Colorado baker and a skewed Supreme Court to back his prejudices. For every fearless queer actor who comes out, there are countless who don’t, or were wrenched from their secrets only after criminal charges are pending. For every Christine Harwood of Maine, who may well be the country’s first transgender governor, there’s another diabolical attorney general pushing to ban transgender military recruitment. For every gender-twist on the classics—the oh-so-stodgy Rodgers & Hammerstein firm’s recent decision to allow a production of Oklahoma! to transform the traditionally heterosexual romantic couples to two same-sex duos—there’s a Pennsylvania high school that cancels a production of Spamalot because it includes a same-sex wedding. For every Barack Obama, there’s a Donald Trump.

This group was far from sanguine about the future, wondering anxiously as they do that, as unexpected as AIDS was to the community, so might the next terror to rival the mass shooting in the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse. An increase in indiscriminate gay sex, and a decline in condom use, the shaky dependence on PrEP to prevent HIV infection, a new strain of gonorrhea, all serve to darken the horizon and suggest a new epidemic may not be far away. “At every swipe, there’s porn on demand,” says Ramzi. “We are all hyper-stimulated.”

“Politically,” says Matt, a magazine editor, “we’re not really in a safer space than when Reagan was in office. “As Larry Kramer says,” offers Will, a web editor, “we’re a gay population, not a gay community.”

Kramer, relentless but essential as always, issued this recent jeremiad in The New York Times: “For gays, the worst is yet to come, again,” deploring the absence of millions of gay men who aren’t taking to the streets to protest the “plague of hate” that has infested our government.  “We still have no respected and accepted leaders who can speak for us as a people,” he writes. “The biggest fight for our lives is ahead of us. And yes, it makes me sad. And still imploringly angry.”

  2018

2018

The Boys in the Band ended its 15-week, nearly sold-out run on Broadway on August 11, its success fueled almost entirely by its starry cast of pop culture celebrities, with the added modern marketing flourish of all of them being openly gay—a detail that would have gobsmacked the original cast, some of whom never escaped the taint of their identification with the play. Such a glam production will likely not come this way in a long while, although the play itself has a way of returning with a certain predictable irregularity, certainly far more often than many of its 1968 peers, including the Pulitzer winner that year, The Great White Hope, which has yet to enjoy a major New York revival.

If another classy Boys is mounted several decades hence, how will my queer young friends see it? Will it be as outdated and anodyne as a naughty French postcard? Or will it still sting?

And will any of them experience something akin to what I did several weeks ago, when without warning I had a vivid image of myself when the play was new—anxious, excited, naïve, confused—and for a brief time watched the play with the younger me, both of us nearly overwhelmed at five decades crowded with incident. “Isn’t. This. Something.  Look at us then, look at us now.”  It was over in a flash, but so potent; not exactly Proustian, but in the general arrondissement. (If the younger me had stayed any longer, he’d probably ask me when it became ok to call ourselves queer).

So I’m grateful to Crowley for this time travel excursion. Plays don’t have to be great to be important, and Boys has earned its own quirky—but impeccably designed—corner in the pantheon.

After that final performance, I was presented with another vivid reminder of the passage of time and sensibility as I lingered in the lobby of the theater. The canny marketing of Boys 2018 appropriated some of the homophobic slurs that have wounded us for decades, set as a backdrop to fashion-friendly shots of its handsome cast:

SWISH

MARY

SISSY

QUEER

PANSY

FAGGOT

The words found themselves on souvenir T-shirts, which were selling like mad at a steep discount. Thinking as I often do that I never came out to my parents, and that they chose to ignore the most obvious signals (“there are none so blind as those who will not see”), I saw one young guy walk away with his purchase, just about to join his companion, before stopping short.  “Wait!” he called to his friend. “I’m gonna get one for my mom.”

Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.