When Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band hit the stage of the Booth Theatre in the summer of 2018, you could not get a ticket. At another time, the revival of a play about nine cripplingly closeted gay men in 1960s New York might have been avoided given its then-taboo subject, but when the nine men are Matt Bomer, Charlie Carver, Robin De Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins; and two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello directs; and it’s the 50th anniversary production of Mart Crowley’s most controversial work, well… be prepared to trade your first born.
Fortunately for everyone who missed that production, which later won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, producer extraordinaire Ryan Murphy reignites the controversy for the screen as part of his Netflix deal, reuniting the full cast with Mantello again at the helm for a new film. For the lucky few who did snag a seat to Broadway, these Boys bring back the fire and ice that made the stage version so enthralling, but with new strokes of artistry that make the return necessary.
Crowley (before his passing), co-writer Ned Martel, and Mantello crafted a piece that is at once theatre and film—without repeating the stage show or the 1970 film. “He didn't let any of us rest on the choices we made on stage,” says Quinto of his director. “And he really pushed us in the direction of continuing to excavate who these people are and, in many ways, we got to dig even deeper when we went to film the movie because we had that shared experience of doing the play.”
“It was absolutely imperative to me to try to do whatever I remembered doing last performance at the Booth Theatre and then letting Joe adjust it,” says Washington.
The Netflix rendering plays with the precision and depth as if the entire cast had 119 dress rehearsals. And yet, in the time between closing and shooting, a lot could have changed. To recreate that alchemy on set, Mantello did something most films don’t: He filmed chronologically.
“It has this kind of wonderful effect of building on the dynamic that's actually happening in real time in the play” as each friend arrives at Michael’s for Harold’s birthday, Mantello says. “So we started with Jim on the first day and we pulled in Matt and we had a couple of days with them. And then all of a sudden here comes Robin and Tuc and Andrew. There was a sense of excitement that was building as each one of our friends would join something that was already in progress. It was incredible. It lifted the energy and it was so buoyant because of that.”
You can feel the anticipation through the screen, beginning with an opening montage you don’t get onstage. Through cinematography and gesture, Mantello conjures an overture. He shows each of these men as their outward-facing New York selves (in an America where being gay and in the same room is still illegal), before retreating to the sanctuary of Michael’s apartment.
Washington’s Bernard checks out a strapping man on board the subway. An older Black woman catches him and Bernard calculatedly uncrosses his legs, straightens, looks down. Without a word, the humiliation cuts deep. “Those kinds of moments that really tell you who the characters are,” says Washington, “and really told me what Bernard was contending with outside of the safety of his chosen family.”
The montage itself wasn’t a new concept for this film. William Friedkin did the same in his 1970 version. But Mantello didn’t just capture details, he captured shame. That is what made Crowley’s original work so groundbreaking, it was an unedited chronicle of gay men, self-loathing, and identity.
Even with familiar materials from the stage version, Mantello pushed his cast further.
“He understands implicitly how to drop little pebbles into our awareness that have these ripples,” says Quinto. “He knows how to anticipate where we're going or where the choices we're making at any given moment are going to lead us. He knows what to say and to whom to say it in order to make sure that the whole group dynamic is where he wants it to be.”
That nuance is key in a movie that isn’t about action—the entire play takes place in a modest Manhattan duplex—it’s about people and their pain. So, Mantello needed to find glimmers. “Coming from the theatre, we are used to taking a scene and … you create a rhythm, you create a pace, and you look at the totality of the scene—not so in film,” he says. “You're looking for a moment here, a moment there, a look. You're just gathering all of these resources that then get assembled many weeks later in another room.”
He coaxed subtleties from his ensemble and they delivered. (And Mantello knew to get as much coverage as possible to get every actor’s reactions on tape.)
In turn, Mantello (and editor Adriaan van Zyl) had a menu to choose from when assembling the final film and they often chose the unexpected. “My experience with this play told me that sometimes the most important event of the scene is not necessarily the person speaking,” he adds. Which is why Boys feels so real—because it is.
Another gift of Mantello’s? His instinct for when to add and when to leave bare.
As Harold’s birthday party spins out of control, Michael entices the men to play a little game: call the boy you always loved, the one who brushed off your romance as a “drunken night,” the one who breaks your heart to this day. Washington’s call as Bernard to Peter Dahlbeck flashes back to their adolescent night-swim. Though theatre audiences had to imagine this (and Washington gave us a lot to work with), this scene in the movie is the reason to make the movie: It combines theatre’s rawness and film’s palette.
“It was probably my favorite day of shooting,” says Washington of watching the starlit tryst. (He was on set even though he doesn’t appear in the scene to reference it when shooting his monologue later.) “When I went and watched him shoot it and saw what he's imagining of that poetic, beautiful innocence of that moment really affected how I made the phone call. I was so glad that we had done that homework together ’cause I could just trust what Joe's vision was.”
Mantello methodically constructed this Band with his players. Only the second film of his career, Mantello proves just why he is so invaluable to theatre and yet Hollywood would be foolish not to try and woo him.
“He's such a talented, insightful, generous director,” says Quinto with awe. “I can't wait to see what he does from here.”
The combination of these ten men—the mix of their skills, perspectives, chemistry—yield a story that needs retelling to the widest audience possible. This is what happens when we do not accept one another. This is what happens when we judge. We mold men who cannot accept or love themselves, who punish as reflexively as they breathe.
From the timeless jewel-box set at the Booth Theatre to the apartment inescapable of its ’60s-era onscreen, these boys harnessed what it means to be gay in America. A memorial those who lived it, a reminder of what’s at stake today, and a beacon to those of the future, that will band us all together.
The Boys in the Band is available on Netflix.