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Spotlight: The Boys in the Band

April 19, 2018 by tony
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Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Matt Bomer (Photographed by Robert Trachtenberg)

Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” is having its Broadway debut this spring, fifty years after the landmark play first premiered off Broadway. When the show opened in 1968, the culture and legistation around gay rights in America was far removed from the progress we’ve made today. Directed by Tony winner Joe Mantello, the show centers around a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party that quickly turns from festive to dramatic, as the men examine their relationships and their heartaches.

We talked to the show’s all-star cast about the importance of presenting this play in today’s world and what it means to represent this play as openly-gay actors.

“The Boys in the Band” has been described as a “peephole aimed at gay men.” Talk about how that statement resonates in today’s world versus when the play premiered in 1968.

Jim Parsons: “Peephole aimed at gay men” sounds a little dirty to me, but maybe that’s just where my mind is after working for two weeks in rehearsal with eight other gay men. I would say there are aspects of this particular group of men featured in “The Boys in the Band” that will seem a little foreign and certainly a little heightened to a contemporary audience at first, but after a while, I think one begins to see so many similarities to today. While certain specific turns of phrase have certainly changed, can there be any doubt that when a group consisting entirely of gay men get together there is a particular pattern and patter to the conversation, at least at times?

Matt Bomer: I’m continually impressed by the courage of Mart Crowley and the original cast in bringing this piece to the public pre-Stonewall in 1968. 1968 was an incredibly turbulent year in American history — the assassination of Dr. King, anti-war protests, the list goes on. Today, we can truly view “The Boys in the Band” as a period piece, and look at how damaging it was to this group of people who were shunned by society, told they had a psychological condition by their analysts, and couldn’t even dance together in public. This underlying need to find a way to live was reaching a boiling point that resulted in Stonewall the year after the play premiered.

Zachary Quinto: So much about the play is a reflection of where things stood for the LGBTQ community fifty years ago. To consider how far we’ve come since — in terms of social and political integration — is inspiring. But at a time when we are besieged by an administration hell-bent on rolling back our progress, the play should also be considered a battle cry against ever returning to the kind of bigoted, intolerant, and hateful thinking that pervaded mainstream society back then, and in fact threatens our well-being even today.

Tuc Watkins: Actually, “The Boys in the Band” can be credited with punching that peephole in the wall through which audiences witnessed for the first time the lives of gay men authentically and unapologetically presented on stage. Since that time, more works like “Torch Song Trilogy,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Angels in America” have afforded that peephole to widen to more of a landscape portrait of who we individually and collectively are.

Michael Benjamin Washington, Robin de Jesús, and Charlie Carver (Photographed by Robert Trachtenberg)

You represent one of the first mainstream generations of openly-gay actors. How does that impact your work in the show, and how does that impact what you want audiences to take away from the piece? 

Bomer: I think it makes all of our investments in the piece more personal. But I’m an actor. My job is to try and help tell the story to the best of my abilities regardless of the subject matter — what the audience will take away from it is not in my control. Although, I’m really curious to see how they respond.

Andrew Rannells: These are incredibly well-developed characters, and it’s such a wonderful opportunity as an actor. Particularly for an out actor, it’s fantastic to have a complicated, layered, gay character to play. Often you get presented with the sassy friend role that rattles off one-liners. These are men with rich inner lives and fully fleshed-out personalities. It’s a real treat to get to dive into their world.

Charlie Carver: So many of the men, in front of and behind the scenes, are my creative heroes and role models. I’m able to live and work outwardly because of the strides they made for my generation. I think it’s important that audiences realize how unprecedented it is to have this many out, successful men sharing the stage. Only a few years ago, I don’t think this production would have been proposed for a Broadway run, especially because of a perceived liability of having a gay cast. That is clearly changing, just as so much has changed from the world of 1968 in The Boys in the Band. I think this production has an opportunity to look back and see how much has changed as 1968 and let historical vantage influence our work, but it’s a special production too in what it’s saying about the future – the future of representation and diversity in storytelling.

How will this classic gay play resonate to a much more progressive generation fifty years after it debuted?

Brian Hutchison: I think it’s so important not to take gay rights for granted. The ability to be open at work, at home, to be married — these things weren’t even a consideration for most gay men and women in 1968. And the play still resonates in so many of its themes: being single vs. being in a couple, what fidelity means, aging, denial, how do we say ‘I love you” — and what that costs us.

Robin de Jesus: I think this play actually has the potential to resonate more now than it did fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, this was basically the only gay story being told on a major platform, and it had baggage for lots of gay men because the characters in it weren’t “noble.” I think we, as a modern-day society, have a better understanding of what happens to cultures when they are ostracized. Today this play lends itself to even more empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

Michael Benjamin Washington: It is imperative that every community stop to pay homage to the elders that came before. “The Boys in the Band,” fifty years later, showcases the truth of how gay men existed, at least from the point of view of Mart Crowley, a brave playwright who sobered up and told the truth from his vantage point. I have a new and profound respect for this playwright and his bravery in including more than just the white gaze into his storytelling. I’m very lucky to be alive in 2018 and am honored to tell the stories of all my elders.

Brian Hutchison, Tuc Watkins, and Andrew Rannells (Photographed by Robert Trachtenberg)

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