The Boys in the Band, AIDS: Looking to the Past, Moving Toward the Future
My husband Dave and I recently saw the current Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band at the Booth Theatre. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the play’s 1968 original off-Broadway run, it’s considered a ground-breaking piece of theater. First opening approximately a year before the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which itself was a direct precursor to the worldwide Gay Liberation movement that soon followed, it has been described by the Associated Press as “[o]ne of the few plays that can honestly claim to have helped spark a social revolution.”
To say that the play is beloved by many people gay and non-gay alike is an understatement. The night Dave and I were there, punch lines were anticipated by much audience laughter and clapping even before they were delivered, and the curtain bows by the cast were greeted by loud applause and a standing ovation. It was also a performance to love as Jim Parsons (playing Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matt Bomer (Donald), Robin de Jesus (Emory), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Charlie Carver (Cowboy), Brian Hutchinson (Alan), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), and Tuc Watkins (Hank) gave it their all. If the original cast in 1968 ran some risk of ruining their acting careers by playing openly gay characters, I think it can safely be said that the members of this cast have only enhanced their own careers by these performances. As at least one small segment of pre-Stonewall gay life comes spectacularly alive for 110 minutes on stage in all its witty humor, not-so-hidden pain, overt heartbreak, and clear solidarity in the face of all the homophobia these friends confronted in the world around them (and even in themselves), one can only applaud the strength it took to live a gay life in those difficult times.
Director Joe Mantello should also be applauded. He never appears on stage, but his sure hand as a director clearly comes in part from his years as an actor, and is evident in every part of the production.
All that being said, it was surprising to me to find that the first thoughts I had when deciding I wanted to write about the play had to do with AIDS.
Did I say AIDS? The Boys in the Band, 1968 version, appeared over a decade before the outbreak of the epidemic, and has no AIDS content. How could it? Yet for me the play carried a certain, albeit somewhat elusive, relationship to AIDS in its wake. At first I thought it had to do with the fact that of the nine original cast members, five of them are known to have been gay—Kenneth Nelson (played Michael), Leonard Frey (Harold), Frederick Combs (Donald), Robert La Tourneau (Cowboy), and Keith Prentice (Larry)—and all five died of AIDS-related causes. But that made no sense. Just because five gay men played unhappy, in some cases even self-destructive, gay men in a play did not mean the characters they played had anything to do with their real-world selves. Indeed, all but La Tourneau went on to distinguished careers in the performing arts as actors, and/or directors, and/or playwrights. Happily, life for most of them did not imitate art.
No, the connection between the play and AIDS was not a direct line, even if some of the actors in the original production later died of the disease. Instead, I’ve come to realize, the affinity I sensed had to do with the social impact of both the play and the disease. The Boys in the Band “helped spark a social revolution” because for once very public venues—in this case theater and film—took on the pain and anguish of a despised minority—gay men—and treated the subject with compassion and insight. The characters in the 1968 play were taken out of the shadows of most people’s conception at the time of what gay men are like and given real-life dimensions. It can also be argued that the play helped gay men to reshape their own feelings and attitudes about themselves by providing them with a mirror that allowed them access to an underlying anger about their social and legal oppression: hence providing one of the sparks that set off a revolution.
The critical reception of the play and movie both were for the most part positive. The reaction of the gay male population was, and to some extent continues to be, ambivalent. But seeing the play now, so many years after Stonewall, it’s clear to me the distance we’ve all traveled in our feelings of self-worth—if we’re gay men—and of respect for the experience of being gay—if we’re not. Gay rights laws, marriage equality, gay adoptions, GLBT characters on television and in the movies, GLBT figures in sports. . . . Homophobes still exist and preach their poisonous doctrines, but in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and other parts of the world their grip over social attitudes has weakened considerably in the decades since The Boys in the Band first premiered, due in large part to the social revolution the play helped to spark.
Likewise AIDS has played its part in that revolution. Ghastly as the epidemic has been—and the death and suffering it has caused has few parallels in the history of health crises—it has promoted two outcomes beneficial for the LGBT community: (1) greater visibility to the world at large of the GLBT population as tens of thousands of gay men living with the disease were forced to come out to family, friends, and work colleagues; and (2) the legacy of AIDS activism, by which I mean not just the activist pressure that led to major advances in treating the disease, but the media visibility activists offered to the public at large of the LGBT populace caring for it own, challenging the governmental, social, and medical establishments to take notice of its needs and respond meaningfully to them, and its success in getting those needs met. As former U.S. House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-MA) has commented: “That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.”
Nothing I’ve written here may be that new to many of those reading it. But in the political climate we’ve recently entered, with a regime in Washington hostile to LGBT rights and at best indifferent to the health needs of the general population, let alone those of special-needs populations like people living with AIDS, reminding ourselves about where we came from and what we’ve accomplished may well help us navigate our way through an uncertain and perhaps perilous future.
Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is playing at the Booth Theatre in New York City through August 11, 2018. Highly recommended. Crayton Robey’s 2010 documentary Making the Boys, available through various online sources, is also highly recommended for insights into the history of the play and movie.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.