Revisiting THE BOYS IN THE BAND
You have watched, haven’t you, the 1970 film of THE BOYS IN THE BAND with its original off-Broadway cast? Perhaps you’ve even listened to the far more complete version of Mart Crowley’s landmark drama on your stereo, for soon after the play opened in 1968, it received a two-record-set original cast album – a true rarity for an off-Broadway show.
Well, while you may have encountered either or both, nine actors who recently appeared in a Boston staging of the play apparently didn’t. Director David J. Miller may well have forbidden his actors to listen or watch, for seldom if ever did any actor deliver any line in the manner to which so many of us have become accustomed.
And that’s all to the good – nay, better, best. Miller’s approach to THE BOYS IN THE BAND was the freshest that I’ve seen in the six productions I’ve caught since 1969 – when Crowley’s play was still the talk of the town.
Theatre Four, the (now-razed) theater on West 55th, had only 222 seats, so the demand was so white-hot that management raised all tickets to $10. Mind you, other off-Broadway plays were asking about half that and Broadway plays weren’t daring to go any higher than $7.50.
But gay men had to see THE BOYS IN THE BAND at any price, because finally their lives were being realistically portrayed. Here was the unrequited love from straights, revulsion if not hatred from the world and unsatisfying one-night stands. (All right, some of them were very satisfying.) Theatergoers were often seen weeping openly, especially at the situation that was the crux of the drama: being in the closet and not daring to tell the truth to your best friend, who was (of course) straight.
Crowley established that Michael has known Alan for more than a decade, but he’s never leveled with him. So when Alan phones out of the blue, says he’s in town from Washington and desperately needs to see his ol’ pal -- to the point where he can be heard shedding tears -- Michael has a big crisis on his hands.
That night, seven gay men will be at his apartment celebrating Harold’s birthday. Alan would soon infer the truth from a party that has no women but only men ranging from effeminate to buff. And little does Michael know after he impulsively says “Come on over!” that one of his guests has arranged for Harold’s “present” to be “arriving later”: a male hustler.
At 1,000 performances, THE BOYS IN THE BAND wound up as the longest-running American play in off-Broadway history. But not many years passed before a new generation of gays made it go from revered to reviled. In one way, this was to the good, in that gays no longer had to feel or believe the play’s most famous lines: “You show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know.”
So maybe the reason no one in Miller’s production sounded like The Original Nine is that these Generations X and Y post-Stonewall guys wouldn’t even deign to watch or listen to THE BOYS IN THE BAND. Yeah, they agreed to act in it, because a job’s a job and it might lead to other opportunities. But independent of that, they might never want to encounter what they’ve heard is a self-loathing play.
Miller’s sure hand made the play come across much differently. Even his choice of song added texture. Instead of “Heat Wave” that was heard in the original, he used Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” – whose next line made an accurate prediction for Crowley’s second act: “And I’ll cry if I want to.”
But the world has changed, and a fine example of how much it has can be gleaned from Jonathan Tolins’ THE LAST SUNDAY IN JUNE. The 2003 drama, which has gays gathering to watch the Pride Parade (which, keep in mind, didn’t exist when THE BOYS opened), has one character criticizing the hedonistic lifestyle that many gays embrace, which inspires character to melodramatically say “If we could just not LIKE ourselves so much. That’s it, you know.”
However, Crowley may deserve credit for sowing the seeds for the gay rebellion that indeed took place 14 months after THE BOYS’ debut. Take the scene in which Alan begins criticizing Emory, the most effeminate of the group – which spurs Michael to stand up and be loyal to his fellow gay; if he loses the friendship of “the old college chum,” as Harold snidely calls Alan, so be it. First things first; stay loyal to the people who know who you really are.
Similarly, before Harold exits, he tells Michael “Call you tomorrow” which Ryan Landry said with even more care than Leonard Frey, the original Harold, did. Again, 1968 was a time of “you and me against the world” and these guys knew that no matter what, they had to stick together – nay, BAND together.
Perhaps Crowley’s most powerful scene comes when Hank – the butchest of the bunch -- courageously comes out to someone straight. True, he first does it to a person he’s never seen face-to-face: the person manning his answering service switchboard. He instructs her to leave a message that says he loves Larry.
She’s so shocked that she asks him to repeat what he’s just said, just in case she’s misunderstood. Hank could retreat here, but instead he firmly reiterates his love for another man even to someone who’s astonished to hear it and may now change her opinion of him.
Once Hank has done it to an unseen face, he’ll face Alan and tell him, too: “I do love him, and I don’t care who knows it.” This was a giant step forward for a gay man – especially one who’d long been hiding behind marriage and fatherhood. Let’s applaud Crowley for introducing the issue. Who knows? He may have influenced many closeted or circumspect gay men to finally start telling people the truth about themselves even before Stonewall made it easier for them.
As Hank, Bob Mussett was more ferocious here than Laurence Luckinbill ever was. The actor’s effectiveness explained why Miller chose him despite his being technically miscast. Alan says “I would have taken you for an athlete,” but, really, no one would. Still, when you have an auditionee who potently delivers Hank’s story of how he came to terms with his sexual orientation, you cast him.
Because Miller and his cast didn’t really know how gay life was then, they handled certain scenes in a different way that still made sense. When original Bernard Reuben Greene joked about Emory’s being arrested in a bath house, Cliff Gorman, the original Emory, was embarrassed or even scandalized to have the story told; here when the solid Damon Singletary related it, the endearing Mikey DiLoreto enjoyed having it revealed. That’s equally valid, for Emory knows he’s not going to be judged harshly for seeking sex in a bathhouse when everyone else there has done it, too. (Well, maybe not Hank, but -- yeah, on second thought, maybe Hank as well.)
Although Robert La Tourneaux had originally played Cowboy as a dumb bunny who knew his limitations and was ashamed of them, Richard Wingert created a Cowboy who didn’t care what anyone thought of his brain because he had, as Harold would quip, “truly unnatural natural beauty” – and a body to match. Wingert was cocky as hell and wasn’t flummoxed to find that most everyone else knew SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER and he didn’t.
There was an extra layer of tenderness in Miller’s production not found in Robert Moore’s original. When Michael had a particularly difficult moment, Donald (the fine Diego Buscaglia) touched his leg, not in a sexual way, but in a manner that showed genuine support. Although Crowley had indicated that Emory and Bernard were friends, Miller made the relationship stronger. When Bernard’s phone call to an old crush didn’t go the way he’d hoped, Emory was there on the floor, sitting at his knee, looking up and offering kindhearted consolation.
And yet, Miller’s sharpest observation occurred when Alan entered and immediately made the gay men far less comfortable than he. Yes, back then, many a gay felt threatened by the mere presence of a straight – because straight, after all, was what everyone unquestionably was (or at least supposed to be).
Miller wisely had the shame evaporate as the party continued. Keith Prentice’s original Larry made an offhand observation that “There are damn few that aren’t curious” about a homosexual experience; here the superb Gene Dante made it a taunt by looking directly at Alan while saying it. So later, when Michael flatly accused Alan of long being a closeted gay, Brooks Reeves showed that he was deathly afraid that everyone would believe the charge.
And Victor Shopov was up to the challenge of challenging him, making for the finest Michael I’ve seen since George Pentecost in the 1969 national tour. Here’s a part that demands an actor go from ease to panic, nastiness and something close to sadism. Shopov did all that and more, for near play’s end when Michael must go from defeat to breakdown, Shopov gave the perfect trajectory, too.
Of course, any play that’s nearly a half-century old is going to have dated details. Even in 1968, the opinion that “movies are such garbage” was already being questioned, for the previous year was one of Hollywood’s greatest watersheds with such “important” films as BONNIE AND CLYDE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, THE GRADUATE and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? In 1968, that vulgarism for vagina had many theatergoers loudly shrieking “Ooooooh!” that they sounded like a Wednesday matinee theater party. Now the word got no particular reaction, just as it hasn’t with more than 2,000 sold-out audiences that have heard it dozens of times a night in a hit Broadway musical.
Such 20th century icons as TWA, a slide rule and a typewriter aren’t coming back, but THE BOYS IN THE BAND, which once seemed as extinct, has shown it can survive with a revelatory production that underlines the roads that it paved.
If anyone should be offended by THE BOYS IN THE BAND, it would be those in the African-American community. The N-word is used along with other vile disparagements. Never once does Bernard, the only black, truly stand up for himself.
Luckily, that part of THE BOYS IN THE BAND has dated – but not dated enough, just as persecution against gays isn’t totally part of our distant past, either. But would Michael, Donald, Emory, Bernard, Hank, Larry, Harold or Cowboy have ever believed that such wonderful progress would have been made in the 47 years since this party? Mart Crowley’s masterwork is one of the reasons why.
— Peter Filichia