Fifty-two years ago, a little play about a group of gay men in New York City who come together to celebrate a friend’s birthday premiered off-Broadway. Few people, if anyone, expected the story to resonate with mainstream audiences. Getting it on stage to begin with was difficult enough. Producers weren’t interested in backing the project, theatre owners didn’t want the play staged in their premises, and few actors were willing to portray a gay character on stage. But playwright Mart Crowley persevered and THE BOYS IN THE BAND made it to Theater Four on West 55th, becoming an immediate hit with audiences and running for an incredible 28 months and 1,001 performances. The play also garnered an Obie award in 1968 for Cliff Gorman, who played Emory.
Two years later, in 1970, filmmaker William Friedkin (who would later go on to direct THE EXORCIST) brought the play to the big screen using the original cast. At the time, the critics’ reviews were mildly favourable. The gay community was split though. Some praised it for being ground-breaking while others weren’t happy about having gays being portrayed as angry, self-hating characters. Although all the actors were thought at the time to be “straight”, at least five of the nine later succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses, including Leonard Frey, who one year later went on to play Motel Kamzoil, the tailor in Norman Jewison’s beloved film, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
In celebration of the play’s 50th anniversary, a new production was mounted in 2018, this time on Broadway. Starring Jim Parsons (HIDDEN FIGURES; TV’s THE BIG BANG THEORY), Zachary Quinto (the new STAR TREK franchise; HIGH FLYING BIRD; TV’s HEROES), Andrew Rannells (A SIMPLE FAVOR; WHY HIM?; TV’s GIRLS) and others, this new cast was notable for all being “out”. That production has now been brought to our TVs with a Netflix version directed by Obie and Tony award winner Joe Montelo, who also directed the play’s Broadway revival.
The time is 1968 and Michael (Parsons), is hosting a birthday party in his rooftop flat for his friend, Harold (Quinto). Perhaps it’s a bit generous to call them “friends”. They’re more like “frenemies”. Invited to the party is Michael’s part-time lover, Donald (Matt Bomer, the MAGIC MIKE films; TV’s WHITE COLLAR), Larry (Rannells) and his partner, Hank (Tuc Watkins, TV’s ONE LIFE TO LIVE and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES), Emory (Robin de Jesus) and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington, TV’s RATCHED). Also there is “Tex” (Charlie Carver, TV’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES), a midnight cowboy Emory has hired as a gift for Harold. Each of the men has his own inner demons to deal with, and they do using retail therapy, prayer, drugs, alcohol, psychoanalysis, sex, cruelty or a combination of those as their salve. The evening takes a dark turn when Michael’s straight old college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison), suddenly shows up, distraught over something that he’s reluctant to reveal. Michael decides the time is right for a party game where façades are stripped away, revealing hidden truths that each of the men has kept repressed for so long.
It’s interesting to see how much has changed yet how much hasn’t in the past 52 years. The timing of this production is all the more poignant with the recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the very real possibility that the US Supreme Court may decide to rule again on the Marriage Equality Act when (sadly, not if) Amy Coney Barrett is appointed to the bench. As far as this film is concerned though, while it is a very good production, it’s not quite as good as Friedkin’s version. Parsons’ Michael is too one-note (i.e., angry and self-hating) compared to his character’s 1970 counterpart. I can’t imagine why anyone would be friends with him. While Quinto’s Harold is delightfully trippy, there was a quality to Frey’s take on the character that was intriguingly unstable. And let’s be honest, gay or straight, who would throw Matt Bomer out of bed?
Montelo’s screenplay is, by and large, the same as Friedkin’s with just a few tweaks. Bernard, who was a bookstore sales clerk is now a librarian, and Montelo’s Emory is a lot more flamboyant than Friedkin’s. Donald, though, remains a very bland character whose backstory is barely explored. Instead, Montelo inserts a few flashback vignettes that, while they look nice, don’t add much to the story. He also shows us what Larry and Hank are up to in Michael’s bedroom as if we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves. Even so, THE BOYS IN THE BAND is still well worth watching if you’ve never seen the play or the original film.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND is available now on Netflix.
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