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Smokey jazz music welcomes you to 1968 Manhattan so vividly that you reach for a phantom cigarette to follow a non-existent sip of a martini. To intensify your desire for a drink, there’s a fully stocked bar adjacent to the front door of a chic Upper East Side apartment that puts David Nightingale to shame. From the shadows comes our party host (Jim Parsons as Michael) to fuss over a platter of cracked crab and put the finishing touches to some birthday decorations adorning the living room. His overt flamboyancy and mannerisms as he minces around the apartment alleviate the seriousness of the opening jazz music, but before long, the playfulness will descend into something quite more moody and complex.
On April 30th, The Boys in the Band previewed at Booth Theatre on Broadway to a full house and, as you’ve probably guessed, yours truly was lucky enough to be there. With a seating capacity of just over 700 people, the venue gives the illusion that you are also chilling in a living room with the cast. Once you get over the initial star-studded-ness that comes with such close proximity to these hilarious men, you shed your role as an audience member and relive that particular gaff party from yesteryear when shit went down. It’s a deeply intimate, immersive experience that will give you flashbacks to that great night out you took too far, the night out you wished had ended a couple of hours (and drinks) earlier.
The doorbell rings, and as Matt Bomer enters, the squeals and applause of the audience lasts for so long that the show is almost stunted, but the relentless banter that bounces delightfully from Parsons to Bomer (playing Michael’s on-off boyfriend, Donald) sets a tone that promises to deliver sassy puns in the ilk of an early Will & Grace episode. As the pair busy themselves in the hustle and bustle of birthday party preparations, the other guests arrive in quick succession, including troubled couple Larry and Hank (played by Andrew Rannells & Tuck Watkins), outrageously effeminate and outspoken Emory (Robin De Jesus), cowboy hustler and living birthday gift Tex (Charlie Carver) and African-American bookstore clerk Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington).
As Michael’s circle of friends are established, an old friend from college arrives unexpectedly in town, distraught over a mystery event that leads to his unannounced arrival at the party. As Michael struggles to feign heterosexuality and censor his colourful friends, Alan (Brian Hutchison) catches on and an act of violence hints at his own sexual ambivalence. Just as the drama unfolds, in comes the birthday boy, Harold (played by the unstoppable Zachary Quinto) to give us some of the most dry and sardonic quips of the show. As old insecurities and rivalries resurface, a cruel and manipulative telephone game devised by an increasingly drunk Michael lets us see who these characters really are beneath the comic glamour, and we are left feeling quite hollow as the laughter echoes to silence.
With its all-male cast, one-set apartment backdrop and emphasis on mounting tension, the whole show echoes Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, although abandoning homosexual subtext in favour of blatant and radical homosexual themes (at least by 1960s standards). It’s easy to see how both stage plays were adapted for the screen, but also somewhat shocking that The Boys in the Band could survive, let alone succeed, in pre-Stonewall America. The Stonewall riots were sandwiched between Mart Crowley’s off-broadway premiere and the release of the adapted film, so it undoubtedly came at an auspicious time.
Perhaps the decision to bring back the production with actors who all identify as gay teaches us a lesson of how much the atmosphere in Hollywood has changed. Once the film was released in 1970, many of the ensemble cast had difficulty finding new roles or suffered from type-casting. The most tragic example is undoubtedly Robert La Tourneaux, who starred as the dim-witted yet breathtakingly handsome cowboy hustler. Although openly gay himself, his appeal to the gay community and frequent roles as a sex worker led to life imitating art. Unable to find roles outside of this niche, he ended up modelling for gay porn magazines and became a se worker in the late 70s. He eventually died of AIDS in 1986, cared for by his Boys co-star Cliff Gorman and his wife.
Given the dark history of the film version, it is unsurprising that the Broadway play garnered more success in later years as public outrage at LGBT themes mellowed. The very same themes backfired in some ways as the play was continuously labelled ‘stereotypical’, while the characters’ own self-anguish and narcissistic, shallow lifestyles were considered outdated and regressive. However, after viewing the play myself, I am once again reminded of one of my most sacred beliefs: ‘dated’ does not equal ‘bad’. We hear people rebuff older works all the time, be it in theatrical or film form. Public tastes have always been geared towards our obsession with ‘now’ and the constant countdown to what is new and fresh. What is so wrong with going back to a different time and appreciating something for what it is? Yes, the dialogue and actions of these characters may not quell what we expect from an LGBT play in 2018, but when we consider its age, The Boys in the Band is undeniably a milestone for the queer rights movement. We now have the luxury of going back in time fifty years to see these characters embody the self-deprecating, low self-esteem and perpetual unhappiness of gay men in the 60s, which speak volumes of what life was like at the time.
Just in time for its 50th anniversary, The Boys in the Band has arrived to give us a throwback to a bigoted world where the likes of Hollywood royalty Parsons, Bomer and Quinto would likely commit career suicide by starring in such a production, which made the attendance of their supporters, partners and husbands all the more sweet. Also in attendance was Ryan Murphy, the producer of the play and mastermind behind Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and pretty much any deliciously camp TV show that has graced our screen in recent years. Busy man.
The Boys in the Band will premiere at Booth Theatre on May 31st and run for fifteen weeks, so there is still plenty of time to get tickets and even schedule that trip to the Big Apple if you are, like myself, not a US resident. If you are familiar with the play and its film adaptation, rest assured that this revival does have something new to offer. Joe Mantello’s direction gives the story a much more ‘kitchen sink drama’ feel than the 1970 movie and the retro set design is a feast to behold. Within the cast, De Jesus and Quinto are the scene stealers despite the fact that most of the material is given to their impeccably talented co-stars. Quinto’s scarce dialogue in particular will have you stifling uncontrollable laughter as the latter half of the play descends into darker areas, but each and every cast member has their magic moment here in the first two-thirds. Don’t miss it, you’ll regret it.