How Joe Mantello Renewed 'Boys in the Band', a Once-Reviled Gay Classic, for a New Generation

Director Joe Mantello’s Boys in the Band begins with a spark, specifically the sound of a lighter, as we see Harold (played by Zachary Quinto in full afro-wigged glory) light up and put a record on his hi-fi. The sound of Erma Franklin’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Comin’” sets the tone for 1968 New York City. In the montage that follows, we see Michael (Jim Parsons) buying provisions at the counter of Barney Greengrass; Donald (Matt Bomer) zooms over the bridge to Manhattan in a convertible; Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) checks out a sexy guy on the subway, the Cowboy (Charlie Carver) sucks on a red, white, and blue rocket pop in front of a porn theater. 

But we linger the longest on the guys gathered at Julius’. The bar, located in New York City’s Greenwich Village, has been serving gay men since the 1950s and is little changed from when the Mattachine Society had their infamous “sip-ins” in the Sixties as a form of civil disobedience to gain the legal right to drink in bars openly. Julius’ was featured in director William Friedkin’s 1970 movie adaptation as well, and it continues to be a popular hangout — a connecting thread between generations of queer people — even though it’s not as globally famous as the nearby Stonewall Inn. Here, Mantello captures this kinship by having Larry (played by Andrew Rannells) chat up a young man he’s recently cruised in the neighborhood. When the camera pans around, we see an older gentleman, distinguished in a suit and bowtie, having a conversation with another man at the end of the bar (who is, in fact, Mantello’s real-life partner, Paul Marlow). It’s also a brief Easter egg shot for savvy viewers, since the dapper gent is played by Boys playwright and screenwriter Mart Crowley, who died on March 9th at the age of 84.

“There’s a time capsule aspect of Julius’ — that it looks exactly like it did in 1968. It’s just one of those places that’s frozen in time,” Mantello says. “We knew we wanted Mart to be in it, and he took it really, really seriously. He had a character, and he had ideas for his clothes. I think he decided he was an NYU professor.”

The movie’s debut this week on Netflix is also a bittersweet moment for Mantello since, in a year in which we’ve lost so many people, two other men who shaped his life also died in quick succession: trailblazing gay playwrights Terrence McNally on March 24th and Larry Kramer on May 27th. 

“I’ve just chosen to not make it about me and really just to sort of celebrate and cherish everything that I learned from walking down the road with all three of those men,” Mantello says, speaking via Zoom from his Palm Springs home. “It’s not only an enormous loss for me, but for the American theater.”

The last time Mantello acted on stage was for his Tony-nominated performance as Ned Weeks in the 2011 Broadway production of The Normal Heart (he later played Mickey in Ryan Murphy’s 2014 HBO adaptation). And the prolific Broadway director hasn’t helmed a feature film since the 1997 adaptation of McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! Having also originated the role of Louis in Larry Kramer’s Angels in America — along with directing so many other groundbreaking plays, including Take Me Out and that juggernaut of a musical, Wicked — he’s undeniably advanced LGBTQ stories, making him the perfect person to reinvigorate one of the most maligned, and misunderstood, scripts in the queer canon.

THE BOYS IN THE BAND: (from left) Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, and Tuc Watkins.

Scott Everett White/NETFLIX

When Crowley first offered his play in the late Sixties, gay men were not only rarely seen in American culture, they were forbidden to display their lives in public, and were regularly arrested, beaten, shunned, and fired from their jobs if they dared to do so. As the story goes, Crowley wrote Boys in the Band as a kind of dare after New York Times critic Stanley Kauffmann castigated gay playwrights (such as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and William Inge) in 1966 in a piece titled “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” for crafting the conflicts of gay men through heterosexual characters in their works and therefore making “admirably ‘normal’ people” look bad. So in that way, Boys is Crowley’s openly gay version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: a dinner party that quickly explodes, with witty shrapnel blasting all in its path. Despite taking up the task of putting gay characters on stage for public inspection, for decades after it was initially produced, many were embarrassed of the negative “self-loathing” stereotypes and the f-bombs (that would be the word faggot) hurled repeatedly. 

“I found it interesting, and slightly problematic, that ‘the boys’ get blamed,” Mantello says. “As we started working on it, I thought to myself, ‘People condemn these characters as if they’re somehow weak and are failures as human beings, without taking into account the society that they’ve lived in.’ What were they being told? What were the signifiers that were out in the world that were telling them who they were, how to identify?”

Mantello, who has directed several Albee plays to acclaim and is known for his precision and meticulous eye, was hesitant when Ryan Murphy first approached him to refashion Boys for a 50th anniversary revival on Broadway. And one could worry there might be a sort of guilt-by-association, with Murphy’s TV shows becoming synonymous with a certain type of overripe, camp, messiness that’s more about surface rather than substance. Mantello seems to be the antithesis of the Murphy aesthetic, although they’re friends. “I’m interested in the way that the way that human beings interact in a way that behavior reveals psychology,” Mantello says. “And if it doesn’t feel true and it doesn’t feel authentic to me, no matter how dazzling or impressive it might be.”

His first “fix”  for the was to cast openly gay actors in all the roles, something that was celebrated simply for the fact that it could be done at this point in time. Then they began their excavation of the complicated play and characters — searching for moments that would help mitigate the self-hate and difficult aspects — for the 2018 Broadway production that would go on to win the Tony for Best Revival that season. 

“For modern audiences, for me, it was sort of not so much about exposing secrets, but just about looking backwards,” says Zachary Quinto, who was cast as Harold, the “32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy” whose birthday is being celebrated in the play and has some of the juiciest and most-quotable lines. He admits he still has never seen the Friedkin version, nor the version of his character so memorably portrayed by Leonard Frey. “There’s the reductive, stereotypical kind of, ‘Oh, that old play?’ I think it really awakened me to a kind of broader-minded thinking that I have tried to embrace since. My opinion of it was informed by the stigma that’s been around it for many years, so I learned — in a not-a-great way — about my ability to have an opinion about something that I had no experience of. I had a complete about-face: I now have a deep admiration, respect and appreciation, not only for the play obviously, but also for Mart Crowley and the lives that he wasn’t afraid to capture on stage.” 

One of the most problematic, and rejected, portrayals has been the “token” African American character of Bernard and how the other characters interact with (or ignore) the only black man in the group. One smart solution Mantello found was to cast Latinx actor Robin de Jesús in the role of Emory, who deploys many of the bigoted barbs, to counterbalance the ethnic and racial tensions that had never been completely resolved. 

“If I saw a white actor as Emory, Joe and I would have had a really long talk first,” says Michael Benjamin Washington, who has also spent the last five years producing a play about gay civil rights icon Bayard Rustin. “The play is a masterclass in subtlety and being mean, but it has a very different sting and ring coming from Robin. There’s only so much I’m able to justify about why Bernard doesn’t leave. Plus, Joe kept reminding us it’s a play about addictions … and nobody is exempt from being the predator.”

For de Jesús, what proved interesting to him was to have a “light-skinned Afro Latino” making racial transgressions against another person of color. “I think that is a nuance that society is ready to have a conversation about,” he says. He understands why a marginalized group of people want to come across “friendly, likable, noble. What gets robbed for us in that is that we’re not full-fledged characters; we’re not human,” he explains. “It’s not that they’re self-loathing; it’s that they’re coping and surviving.” 

THE BOYS IN THE BAND (2020) Back Row: Robin De Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Carver, Tuc Watkins, Andrew Rannells, Brian Hutchison; Front: Joe Mantello, Mart Crowley.

Brian Bowen Smith/NETFLIX

But how does it work as a movie? One of the most common criticisms of adaptations of this sort is that it feels like a play that’s been filmed. To capture the claustrophobic nature of the powder keg in the apartment, Mantello chose esteemed cinematographer Bill Pope as his director of photography, who wanted to find ways to suggest it was filmed in the Sixties by using anamorphic lenses and overlaying a “grain simulation,” like period films of the time. 

While the Broadway production was flashy, with a set composed of mirrors and a louche red palette that encased the characters in glamour, the apartment crafted by production designer Judy Becker for the movie has a feeling of decaying grandeur, filled with a mish-mash of antiques, movie posters, rugs, and velvety furniture. You get a sense of nicotine stains and neglect in the penthouse as the drama unfolds from the balcony to the bedroom. “My first thought was, ‘Is anybody gonna clean this place?” de Jesús quips.

Quinto’s Harold doesn’t make his grand entrance until over 40 minutes into the movie, and when he does it’s delicious as he takes his place on the terrace. “There’s this peacock chair, this throne that’s waiting for this queen to come in,” Mantello says with a laugh. “When he sits, he’s surrounded by this kind of halo. You feel his presence has a kind of a weight. And [Harold] makes it very clear when Michael introduces the idea of ‘the game’ that he’s he’s been there before. He’s done this and he knows what’s coming. And, you know, he’ll be quite happy sitting off in the corner and and doing running commentary.”

The movie — made by and with openly gay people involved at so many levels — also allows for a much more sensual gaze. Not only do we see a fully nude Bomer showering in the movie, one of the final scenes is between Rannells and Tuc Watkins (who are now real-life partners as well), who are seen naked and embracing in Michael’s bedroom. “The intimacy that is in the film feels like an important component to the story — that they’re not neutered. What that type of eroticism means to men is a part of this narrative,” Mantello explains. “Especially for the characters of Hank and Larry. When we did the play, the one thing that I was dead set on was the last image that we were going to leave the audience with was two men being intimate with one another. There is a strange kind of hope in that I think.”

On top of the semi-sumptuous setting, most importantly Mantello didn’t “want to apologize for the fact that it was originally a play” and lean into dialog that has more in common with All About Eve than an episode of Real Housewives. Ultimately, he’s successfully created a gorgeously wild ride that also functions as a crucial movie for the ages. 

“The film that we’ve made will live beyond all of us. And it will be a time capsule of this group of people who came together to make this film, and this play,” he explains. “And it will exist in conversation with the original cast and Mr. Friedkin’s version and hopefully many, many, many more. It’s a classic text. And I do believe Boys in the Band will be done long after you and I are no longer here. It will be an unpacked in a different way, generations down the line.”

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