The Band Came Back
Last summer, a new production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band came to Broadway. It was the 50th anniversary of the play’s debut, but also a Broadway premiere. In 1968, the play was a smash hit, but probably too controversial to play on a Broadway stage. It was an off-Broadway show.
If you’re unfamiliar, the play doesn’t have a central character, so much as a central event: Michael is throwing a birthday party for Harold, and he’s invited their friends, a group of gay men living in pre-Stonewall New York. Not on the guest list, but making an appearance nonetheless, are Michael’s college friend Alan (who may or may not be gay himself) and a nameless hustler known only as “Cowboy,” who is one of Harold’s many gifts.
In 1968, the play was a revelation. Never had the lives of gay men been explored in this way, and many of the actors’ agents warned their clients not to do the show, saying it might kill their careers. By 2018, the play was a period piece, examining the way gay men lived decades ago. The apartment, the costumes, even the performances evoked a nostalgia for the late 60s, when most of the actors on stage hadn’t been born yet.
A film version of The Boys in the Band was released in 1970, featuring the play’s entire original cast. And this year, it was announced that the entire cast of the revival (notable in that they’re all openly gay actors) is reuniting to make another filmed version, this time for Netflix.
The Boys in the Band has always been a little controversial. Many critics objected to the depiction of a group of homosexuals whose self-loathing was so deep that it spilled over into their relationships with each other. Indeed, the dialogue is almost purely insult comedy in the first act, when the characters are sober.
As the play continues and the sobriety fades away, many of the exchanges are shockingly cruel. For 50 years, there have been (and continue to be) many people who believe that The Boys in the Band is bad for the gay community, designed to make gay men hate themselves and everyone else look on us with (at best) pity or (at worst) scorn.
I see the value in these viewpoints. I think stories are important, and I believe they teach us how to see each other—and how to see ourselves—perhaps more than we’d like to admit. And, there is truth to the charge that the characters in The Boys in the Band are full of internalized homophobia. One of them arrives at the party upset that his “shrink” wasn’t available to see him that day, to help cure him of his sexual desire for other men.
At the play’s end, both Harold and Michael explicitly address the hatred he feels for himself—and after a thoroughly dramatic crying jag, Michael exits the stage, announcing that he’s off to midnight mass. It can be difficult to have empathy for these characters, many of whom bully others while feeling thoroughly victimized. It’s not a pleasant psychological profile.
But I will admit: I like the play. When I first saw the 1970 film, I was a young gay man eager to learn my history. It felt a little dated and very “stagey”—it’s painfully obvious that this was a theatrical adaptation. But it was also very funny—and while it didn’t mirror my story completely, it felt true.
The conversation sounded like many conversations that I have with my friends today. We’re perhaps not so reliably clever, spouting off laugh lines at perfect 90-second intervals, but we are a funny crew, and often do express our affection for each other through ribbing and poking each other. And sometimes, we’ll hit a sore spot.
It’s often said that comedy comes from pain; I think that’s true for a lot of my friends, and for the characters in The Boys in the Band. Many of us carry scars that haven’t fully healed from growing up in dark, lonely closets—and even in a post-Ellen, post-Will & Grace world, being part of a still-oppressed minority group can still be painful—not every day, not all the time, but it’s there. We can celebrate a new poll that indicates that 70 percent of Americans would welcome a gay president, while knowing that it’s a question we still must ask.
So, I’ll watch the new The Boys in the Band when it’s available later this year. I’ll laugh at the jokes, I’ll dig the groovy threads, and I’ll know that it’s not a completely true account of my gay experience, decades later. But true enough. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity & inclusion educator and pop culture enthusiast living in Washington DC. He is the co-host of a weekly podcast about old movies; visit his website.