I couldn’t care less what people do, as long as they don’t do it in public or try and force their ways on the whole dam world.
Alan, The Boys in the Band.
The comment above was taken from the 1968 play, The Boys in the Band. To put the era in perspective, the play was conceived a year before the Stonewall Riots in New York and a year after the passing of the The Sexual Offences Act 1967 in the UK which decriminalised homosexuality.
While interviewing a group of older gay men for an upcoming project by QueenSpark Books and this year’s Brighton; ‘City Reads’ My Policeman by Bethan Roberts, I was reminded of just how difficult it was for gay men to be open about their sexuality outside of the their homes or the gay bars that were hidden from public view, during the 1950’s/60’s. The play and film Boys in the Band was ground breaking as it gave gay men an unapologetic view about the lives they led, the men they loved to a wider audience outside the gay ghetto.
Although the play garnered favourable reviews, when the film was released two years later the Gay Liberation Movement that had formed after the Stonewall Riots, were extremely critical of the characters in The Boys in the Band. Rather surprisingly the GLM thought the characters where little more than stereotypes that did nothing to help the ‘gay cause ’. These comments went some way in helping bury the film, until it was revived again in 1996. One New York reviewer wrote, “ It’s okay to like Boys in the Band Once more”.
So what about the play and film? What were its origins? How did it all begin?
Mart Crowley found himself on hard times, to the point that he had to rent out his own apartment to survive. At the same time Crowley got a call from his actress friend, Diana Lynn who said she needed someone to house-sit her Mansion in Beverley Hills. Crowley snapped up her offer and found himself surrounded by luxury, but without a penny to his name. It was here that he put pen to paper and began to write the ground breaking play, The Boys in the Band.
Back in 1968 Homosexuality was still a taboo subject and many of Crowley’s friends said he was crazy for even thinking he could get a play about nine men, eight of whom were out as gay, ever produced, let alone find an audience at the time who would even care about these characters.
Unperturbed, Crowley finished the draft and asked around about getting help to get the project off the ground and asked his friend Natalie Wood who was married at the time to British producer Richard Gregson. Gregson in turn set up a meeting with an associate from his company, London International, in New York, who promptly said that they couldn’t possibly send that type ofplay out with their letterhead on it. Crowley response was to ask if they had heard of Richard Barr who had recently produced the Broadway production of, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. When the response was, ‘Of course’, Crowely said that perhaps Barr wouldn’t be afraid of his script that also tackled some heavy subjects. The agent duly sent the script and a meeting was organised the next day for Crowley to meet with Barr.
From this meeting nine actors where gathered, (with most of them losing their agents who believed that the actors would be tainted by acting in a play predominantly about gay men’s relationships). A workshop was put together, off, off Broadway and ran for five nights. Every night was a sell-out with the one hundred seat theatre being packed out by an all male gay audience. Encouraged by the positive response Crowley and the producers took a gamble and raised the funds needed to take the play to a bigger theatre and audience. The play ran, off Broadway for a very successful one thousand and one performances. Despite the cries from all the doubters, the play quickly became the hot ticket in town with major celebrities of the time, including Jackie Kennedy, Groucho Marks, Marlene Dietrich and Carol Channing all coming to see the show.
To everyone’s amazment the play moved from New York to London and was then translated and played to packed audiences around the world. The cast included: Emory (Cliff Gorman), the effeminate interior designer, Michael (Kenneth Nelson) the lapsed Roman Catholic, alcoholic, Larry (Keith Prentice), and Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) a couple who disagree over the importance of monogamy, the morose, and at the same time acid tongued queen Harold (Leonard Frey), who’s birthday everybody is celebrating, as well as Donald (Frederick Combs), Bernard(Reuben Greene) and the young, dumb, prostitute cowboy, Tex,(Robert La Tourneaux) who becomes the butt of everybody’s jokes, and finally, Alan (Peter White) who may or may not be gay. With the passing of time each of these characters are still recognisable not because they are stereotypes, but because they represent a part of human nature that exists in many of us today, regardless of sexuality or gender.
The Boys in the Band went on to be made into a film, using the same Broadway cast which Crowley (who produced and wrote the film) insisted was part of the deal, even though it meant he lost out on more lucrative deals from film companies who wanted to hire more well known actors for the parts.
Crowley was also keen for Robert Moore, who had directed the play to be part of teh production, but was told that a more experienced directed was required.
William Friedkin (who went on to direct the French Connection) was brought on board and helped create a brilliant film that begins with so much light and laughter and then gradually descends into a much darker piece as truth, pain and heartache is brought to the fore.
Forty-four years have passed since the play was first shown, yet the message of love, friendship, secrets and lies are as strong today as they were back then, but perhaps more importantly the films historical and political place and the fact it opened the doors to Queer Theater should not be underestimated. http://youtu.be/zOakue0MiZs
A new production of The Boys in the Band is presently playing at Brighton’s Theater Royal, staring amoung others, Dave Lynn, Stephen Richards and Jason Sutton. a review of the show can be read at blog.zhooshbrighton.co.uk