“I don’t think I’ve ever had a professional experience where the creative team and the actors are all—for the most part—gay men,” said actor Charlie Carver during a panel about the 50th anniversary production of The Boys in the Band, led by Vogue editor-at-large Hamish Bowles May 21.
Carver and his eight castmates, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Jim Parsons (the only member missing from the panel due to an injury) form a landmark ensemble in the first Broadway bow of Mart Crowley’s milestone work, helmed by Joe Mantello. “I think the reason this play is an essential part of the gay anthology of American plays is because it is that pre-Stonewall period,” said Bomer, dressed to the nines for the event held at Manhattan’s just-opened Nordstrom Men’s department store. “It’s easy to throw it under the bus about people who are self-loathing, but in society at the time everyone was telling these people that they were criminal and sick and the only place they had to congregate and take these feelings out on each other was this apartment. It’s not a play about every single gay person.”
Watkins, one of the three Broadway debuts in the show, agreed. “It’s a good reminder: I think members of majorities think that members of minorities all get along simply because they’re part of that minority,” he said. “This is a good reminder of it’s a more thorough experience of that.
And there is a fair share of vitriol in the play. The Boys in the Band tells the story of nine gay men in the 1960s who gather in their friend’s apartment to celebrate a birthday when things go off the rails. As Watkins said: “Nine gay guys, there is this undercurrent of I got your back, but it’s also I will take you down and you piss me off.”
Pre-Stonewall, it was illegal for these men to have gathered together in public and homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by the American Psychiatric Association, and designer David Zinn took this context into account.
“There’s this beautiful Halston-esque-inspired bi-level apartment [for the set], but the hallway that leads to the apartment is this disgusting muted glossy taupe with stains in the walls and a horrible radiator, fluorescent lighting so you realize what this queen has done,” said Bomer, “but it’s also a reminder at the beginning of the play the world they’re coming from. It is the muted horrific place and to enter into this world they have constructed where even if they are unkind to each other it is a place they built together.”
“David said he wanted to create this red velvet jewelry tray to present these men on and it’s this lyric like all the walls are transparent and we’re always constantly reflecting ourselves,” continued Washington. “So, gay men who were trying desperately to hide are forced to see each other at every angle.”
And this cast is digging in to these roles and taking time to reflect on the drama’s place in the canon today. Quinto noted “how much of the dialogue resonates today. Somebody was like ‘Gay men don’t talk like that anymore,’ and I was like, ‘Not only do gay men talk like that, but so does everybody else now.’
“Our director always said what’s the difference between ‘Oh, Mary!’ and ‘Yas, Queen!’” he continued. “There has been an appropriation of gay vernacular in recent years which I think is a celebration of the origins of the community and so many of the origins are in this play.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.