Fifty years ago, before momentous catalysts of change for LGBTQ people like the Stonewall riots, the AIDS crisis, and marriage equality, a play opened mid-April at Theater Four in New York. Still a bitterly cold spring in the city, theatergoers found revolutionary warmth that night gathered around what was hailed as the first honest depiction of gay life on the stage.
The play was Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which makes its 50th-anniversary reprise on Broadway in May. Directed by two-time Tony award winner Joe Mantello (The Humans, Other Desert Cities, Wicked) and featuring a cast of all gay men — Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Robin De Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Charlie Carver, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins — the show continues in its founding message of pride in authentic, gay representation.
Up until that point in 1968, relatively few productions had achieved (or tried to achieve) a picture of gay men as they saw themselves. Shows that had featured gay characters generally ended their stories in death, whether by suicide, murder, or a host of other tragic means. This was the future theater could see for gay men and, unfortunately, the only future many gay men could see for themselves.
Crowley saw a different one. His characters in Boys are each unique, with loves, goals, demons, and histories that extend beyond the stage and take on new lives in the imagination. Their humanity is intertwined with pride, shame, and fierce, unstoppable wit. They are at once razor sharp and incredibly vulnerable. In short, they are human — deeply so.
Precisely because of this, audiences and critics responded en masse to Crowley’s Boys as it opened in 1968. The Times’ influential Clive Barnes hailed it as “by far the frankest treatment of homosexuality” he had seen onstage, and he wasn’t alone in his sentiment. The show would go on to influence Angels in America’s Tony Kushner, The Normal Heart’s Larry Kramer, Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty, and countless other playwrights in the development of their artistry.
“It was the first time I saw gay men represented in any other way than as a pathetic fuddy-duddy old bachelor or a figure of complete hatred and mockery,” Kushner told the Times in 2010. “It was really my first intimation that there was a world beyond Lake Charles, Louisiana.” He even credits Boys with giving him “the freedom to write [the character of Roy Cohn] as big and theatrically” as he wanted.
Kramer, an executive at Columbia Pictures when he first saw the play, was taken by what Crowley had accomplished in drawing audiences in night after night to an unabashedly gay story. And although some saw the play as a collection of tragic stereotypes, he didn’t agree.
“There was a lot of brouhaha over the years that the characters were all stereotypes. But stereotypes are often the truth,” he told the Times. “If it’s not how we actually acted, it’s how we saw ourselves. We didn’t think of it as negative when we saw the play. We laughed.”
And the play is deeply funny. In a time when virtually every facet of society told not just gay men but every LGBTQ person to remain silent, isolated, and to live life in constant fear, Boys shook off heavy shackles with relentless one-liners, glimpses of what men embracing each other could look like, and a realistic but hopeful image of gay community in ‘50s New York.
At times, that image is tough to watch. The boys tear at each other throughout the show, making jabs about what a gay man ought to be and how each fails in their own way to assume that picture of perfection. But those jabs played out in real life throughout the gay liberation movement that paved the way for our rights and into the present day. Racism, monogamy, rigid gender roles, and religion’s intersection with sexuality are discourses that very much exist in turbulence today, fifty years later.
The Boys in the Band was incredibly brave to address these issues as early as it did. For that, and for fighting through the toughest days of them, it deserves to be remembered. It deserves to remind us why we should be proud, why we should continue to fight, and just how far we’ve come.
The Boys in the Band opens May 31 at Booth Theatre, with previews beginning April 30, and runs for a strictly limited 15-week engagement. Purchase tickets here.