And the Band Plays On
Facebook “memories” are a funny thing. Yes, I’m aware that I should probably delete my account, given the very real social ills created by this tech giant, including data privacy violations, questionable policies around political advertising, and more. But in my sixth month of living like a hermit in the year 2020, it’s difficult to let go of what is sometimes my only contact with the people in my life on a given day.
But in addition to the posts, likes, comments, and conversations that Facebook provides, it also sends out “memories”—images, usually, from one, five, or 10 years ago that are a stark reminder of the “before times.”
More than once, I’ve been caught short by a photo of my dear friend Bobby, who died less than a year ago, smiling by my side. There are also photos of my almost-senior dog when she was a puppy, or selfies featuring me and my ex, before he was my ex. And just yesterday, a photo of myself and a group of friends in New York, seeing the revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band on Broadway in 2018.
The Boys in the Band was a groundbreaking play when it premiered off-Broadway in the late 60s. Gay audiences had been starving to see their lives represented in popular culture as something other than a tragic victim or homicidal killer. Gay folks lined up around a city block to see it when it premiered in the winter of 1968 for a five-performance run. After moving to another theater, it would run for another 1,001 performances.
The play centers on Michael, a gay man hosting a birthday party for his friend Harold. Michael spends money he doesn’t have on things he doesn’t need, but he finds comfort in his collection of friends. But when a supposedly straight college friend arrives uninvited, the previously sober Michael hits the bottle. Fueled by self-loathing and too much vodka, he becomes a monster, treating everyone around him with abject cruelty—which is all the more tragic when the person he hates most of all is himself.
By the time the highly anticipated film version came out in 1970, the world had changed significantly. After Stonewall, the gay community wanted to send a message of pride to the world. Embracing Frank Kameny’s credo that “Gay is Good,” this story of a group of men, some of whom were struggling mightily with self-acceptance, was not the tale they wanted to tell. And so, the film was met with protests and described as not only dated, but dangerous.
When the play finally made it to Broadway in 2018, many of the actors confessed that they were initially hesitant to take it on, wondering if it shouldn’t be thrown into the dustbin of history and left there to rot. But, as they explored the idea of putting it on its feet again, they were struck by how differently they saw it now. In the twenty-first century, The Boys in the Band is a period piece, and its portrayal of intense self-loathing was no longer a source of shame, but a testament to how far we’d come.
After the revival closed, producer Ryan Murphy wondered if his 50th anniversary revival shouldn’t be followed by a 50th anniversary film remake. The new film version of The Boys in the Band will be released on Netflix this year, and just as the 1970 film featured every single member of the original off-Broadway cast, all of the actors in the revival will reprise their roles: Jim Parsons as Michael, Matt Bomer as his sometime lover Donald, Andrew Rannells as the randy Larry, Zachary Quinto as the stoned birthday boy Harold, Tuc Watkins as the staid and butch Hank, Tony nominee Robin de Jesus as the flamboyant Emory, Michael Benjamin Washington as the quiet Bernard, Brian Hutchison as the “straight” interloper Alan, and Charlie Carver as the nameless sex worker hired by Emory to be Harold’s “present.”
Having thoroughly enjoyed the revival two years ago, I’ll be watching the new film as soon as it appears on my Netflix account. And as I watch, I won’t be filled with shame; like the original film, I celebrate my 50th this year too, and I’m lucky to have come out in a time that was far easier than the setting of Crowley’s play. But I will revel in the bitchy repartee, marinate in the pathos of Emory’s telephone call to his high school crush, and appreciate how what we see usually says a lot more about the viewer than the thing being viewed.##
Eric Peterson is a writer and teacher. He co-hosts a podcast about old movies—visit rewindpod.com to learn more.