Depending on who you ask, the 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” is either a theatrical touchstone capturing the sentiments of gay men before the Stonewall uprising, or a stereotypical portrait that ultimately betrays the queer community.
With that controversial legacy in mind, director Joe Mantello hopes viewers will approach his film adaptation of “The Boys in the Band” as a “specific story about specific people on a specific night,” while taking into account the social advances that seemed out of reach for LGBTQ people when the play was written.
A two-time Tony Award winner, Mantello first directed “The Boys in the Band” on Broadway in 2018. Two years later, he and producer Ryan Murphy have reassembled that production’s all-gay cast ― including Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto ― for the movie, which arrived on Netflix last week. Thanks to that powerhouse ensemble, the new “Boys” could be its most accessible incarnation yet.
“[Playwright Mart Crowley] got at certain truths about the gay identity that, even though this story is specific to a certain time in our history, tapped into something that feels very much alive today,” Mantello told HuffPost. “When you look at it from a historical perspective ― that it was the first play about gay men’s lives that had a wide, mainstream reach, and that it still resonates more than 50 years later ― that’s an incredible achievement.”
Set in 1968, “Boys” follows Michael (played by Parsons), who is hosting a birthday party for his pal Harold (Quinto) at a swanky New York loft. The guests include Michael’s on-again, off-again lover Donald (Bomer), sassy decorator Emory (Robin de Jesús), and Larry (Andrew Rannells), an artist in a relationship with Hank (Tuc Watkins), who is soon to be divorced from his wife.
Things take a dramatic turn with the arrival of Michael’s former roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison), who is married to a woman but whose sexuality is questionable. Alcohol flows, fists are thrown and insults are exchanged as the night wears on. By sunrise, each of the men will have been forced to explicitly confront their sexuality and identity.
Murphy tapped Mantello ― who is gay, and whose professional credits include the seminal queer plays “Angels in America,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “The Normal Heart” ― to direct “The Boys in the Band” on Broadway for its 50th anniversary two years ago. In spite of the play’s success off-Broadway and in regional theaters across the country, it had never been produced on the Great White Way.
Together, the pair auditioned a host of actors, both gay and straight. The fact that every actor who was ultimately cast is gay, Mantello said, wasn’t an intentional decision, but rather a “happy accident.”
“We didn’t limit it to only auditioning openly gay actors,” he said. “But when it worked out that all nine of them were gay actors, obviously that informed the work. There was a kind of shorthand that they all had with one another and the subject matter.”
The Broadway production of “The Boys in the Band” earned critical praise and won a 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. True to form, Murphy was eager to repeat this success on film.
The Netflix incarnation uses Crowley’s screenplay for the 1970 film adaptation, with updates by Ned Martel, and stays remarkably true to its stage predecessor. Sadly, Crowley died in March at age 84, but not before he shot a cameo at the legendary New York gay bar Julius for the movie’s opening sequence. Mantello’s film is dedicated to the playwright’s memory.
Crowley “was really clear with us at the beginning that he wanted us to make our own unique version of this play. He wasn’t precious with the material,” Mantello said. “That didn’t mean he didn’t have insight or ideas to offer, but there was a generosity of spirit and trust in the process.”
To audiences accustomed to modern LGBTQ-inclusive offerings like “Love, Simon” and “Moonlight,” the film may seem dated in its specifics. But a dry history lesson it is not: Quinto and Parsons are both superbly witty and caustic, and Michael Benjamin Washington’s performance as Bernard, the night’s sole Black guest, is a revelation. Even the film’s cramped apartment party setting offers an unintentional touch of nostalgia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though Mantello is best known for his theater work, Netflix has proven to be a worthy outlet for his talents as live performances remain off-limits due to the COVID-19 crisis. In June, he stepped back in front of the cameras to play Dick Samuels, a closeted studio executive in the Murphy-produced series “Hollywood,” a revisionist take on Tinseltown’s golden age that received four Emmy nominations.
Still, he’s eager to get back to his first love ― live theater ― as soon as it’s safely possible. This spring, he’d been slated to direct Laurie Metcalf and Russell Tovey in a Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That production, however, closed ahead of its April opening night after just nine preview performances, making it one of Broadway’s first pandemic casualties.
“I don’t miss going to the movies, because it’s never felt like a communal experience to me, but I really miss theater,” Mantello said. But he believes his industry will persevere and even benefit from its extended closure. “I think there’ll be a re-evaluation, a newfound appreciation for the ability to watch an excellent play with extraordinary actors,” he said.
Whether Mantello’s forthcoming work materializes on stage or on screen is anybody’s guess, but either way, he vows each of his projects will come “from a place of truth.”
“I just make the things that are interesting to me,” he said. “The world will say what the world says.”