With an entire cast of openly gay actors, The Boys in the Band are back — and on Netflix
The film's director Joe Mantello on his starry adaptation of the iconic gay text
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
In both its incarnations as a 1968 off-Broadway play and 1970 film, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band is an exceptionally pioneering gay text. Featuring nine gay characters who meet (and unravel) at an apartment to celebrate one of their birthdays, it was one of the first representations of gay life to get any sort of mainstream attention. And now, some 50 years later, The Boys are back ... and on Netflix, no less.
As part of Netflix's deal with the gay representation machine that is Ryan Murphy, and following its 2018 revival on Broadway, The Boys in the Band debuts on the streamer September 30th. It features the full cast from the 2018 revival — Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins — and the same director, Joe Mantello. And in something that shouldn't seem novel or remarkable, all of the men I just mentioned are openly gay themselves.
"It's odd that that doesn't happen more often," Mantello tells me over the phone last week. "The fact they were all out gay men informs the way the story gets told. There was a kind of a camaraderie and an easiness and an intimacy that they have with one another that hopefully helps to mitigate the more brutal aspects of the story. Because the nine of them genuinely have this incredible chemistry and camaraderie, it translates in the story in some way. The camera picks that up."
Boys follows Michael (Parsons), whose hosting of a birthday party for Harold (Quinto) is threatened by both the arrival of his closeted college friend (Hutchison) and the fact that Michael and essentially all his friends are at various points of verging on nervous breakdowns. Mantello and Murphy stick very close to the original text, retaining its time period and setting — which in part seemed to be because if they updated it, all of the characters would probably spend most of the film on their phones sending Grindr messages.
"I think that there are certain truths about gay identity that are in it," Mantello says. "But there are technical reasons why you couldn't really update. I mean, primarily cell phones. At a certain point, they'd all just be on their cell phones. The setting as well. If you set it today, they could have this birthday party at a restaurant or a club and no one would give it a second thought. But there was something about this little tribe of friends having to go to this slightly claustrophobic setting because they weren't allowed to go anywhere else. So the claustrophobia adds to the dynamic of this powder keg that's about to explode."
Mantello calls Murphy a "remarkable creative partner" because what he does is provide "the very best elements that anyone could ask for in terms of telling a story."
Mantello says that for younger gay viewers coming to the text for the first time, he thinks it's important that The Boys in The Band teaches them "where we came from and how things have evolved."
"There's places where persecution still exists, even though it may have become kind of a more sophisticated persecution," he says. "I think of The Boys in the Band as an anthropological study of a history of a people."
It's also one that has caused controversy over and over in its half-century of existence.
"There's a percentage of gay men who find this a problematic text," Mantello says. "And this is not scientific in any way, but what I have found, or what we found certainly by doing the play, is that the younger generation doesn't have the same sort of baggage. So they're able to appreciate it as a very particular story about a very specific time and to take away from it a sort of modern relevancy. Where I found that an older generation, particularly of gay men — again, not scientific, but — have real issues with it. Mart was not writing about the monolith of gay white men or gay men. He was writing a very, very particular story. And he was the first. But there's this kind of feeling that you get sometimes of, like, 'We need to bury that in the basement and it should never be heard from again.'"
Thanks to Mantello, Murphy and Netflix, The Boys in the Band will be far from buried as long as we have internet connections — though it comes at a bittersweet moment. The original mind behind the story passed away this past March. And Crowley's death (on March 7th) was followed by two other goliaths among gay men: Terrence McNally (on March 24th) and Larry Kramer (on May 27th). Mantello directed the 1997 film adaptation of McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! and starred in the 2014 HBO adaptation of Kramer's The Normal Heart.
"It was an understatement to say it was a profound loss," Mantello says. "But, you know, I've chosen to focus on what I learned from them, how fortunate I was to share creative moments with them. These were our role models, and certainly my creative role models. They were pioneers in terms of what they did and I just felt so privileged to share a bit of the road with them."
We can all share a bit of the road Crowley helped build when The Boys in the Band premieres on Netflix on September 30th.