The Streaming Experience: Netflix’s The Boys in the Band
There is nothing like live theatre. I’ll start with that. And there is nothing like the energy of sitting in a theatre watching a live performance to pack a strong emotional punch when the production finds just the right ingredients and delivers on the dynamics. But we are in a time, sadly, when that kind of engagement is impossible; an interval or an intermission that will soon be over. That being said, Netflix did not decide to deliver this stage-to-small screen production because of the pandemic. That decision was made before this went down (I believe). They have decided to usher this gem forward for a large consumer grab at time when we need to, for the sake of our future, emotionally connect to the hurt and pain of the historically accurate closeted gay world. Our current selves need to remember, learn, or even re-learn about the damage shame can bring onto our souls when society says that if we are different (i.e. not the hetero-norm), we must hide and we must feel completely ashamed for loving the person that we love.
“It’s for you, Hank!”
Just to be clear; The Boys and the Band was truly groundbreaking, portraying a gay life that was yet to be seen so authentically and unapologetically on stage. There were no equivalent characters on stage. There were hidden portrayals, brought forward by gay and lesbian playwrights, like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tennessee Williams’ Something Unspoken, but they were disguised and altered just enough so the parallels would fly over the heads of the unenlightened. The world at the time of this play’s writing did not accept these gentleman and their lifestyle, proclaiming such untruths and masked acceptance like what Alan McCarthy, the unexpected party guest in The Boys and the Band says to his host and former college roommate. He states, with clear and misplaced sincerity, that he doesn’t care as long as ‘it’ is kept private and not shoved in his face. Today, sadly, that slogan is still often said, especially in our tense political Republican world that is made up of lies and con jobs. Some accept this notion as being open. But we clearly know what that pseudo-acceptance really means, and it ain’t good. That statement has nothing to do with love or care. Or openness. Or accepting. It’s homophobia pure and simple, wrapped up in a false public relations spin, and is really and truly a threat and a lie, telling us all to step back into the closet, or else.
It’s strongly held homophobic concepts like that one that thankfully brought together these bright and proud stars to attend this particular Broadway party back in the spring of 2018 for this all Boys revival at the Booth Theatre. It says a great deal about the changing perspectives on gay representation on stage and on film, and, more importantly, the changing attitudes by society at large of the LGBTQ2 community. Arranging themselves most deftly on that perfectly designed stage around a candle topped cake, they were all proud and ready to play a mean-spirited parlor game of sorts for the cause. And lo and behold, it was a breathtaking production, filled to the rim with a cast of the Out Who’s Who signing up and standing up for this band of gay men. The excitement level was high at the box office, and tickets were hard to come by (thank you blog for getting me those press tickets! What would I do without you). And it’s no wonder. The timing couldn’t have been better, and the cause so clear.
The Boys in the Band is a classic icon of a play, written by Mart Crowley (A Breeze from the Gulf) that premiered Off-Broadway in April 14th, 1968 at Theater Four. The play, basically born out of a challenge by Stanley Kauffman of the NYTimes for gay playwrights to write about their own worlds, received rave reviews, and ran for a total of 1,001 performances. The revolutional result of this challenge revolves around a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party held in Michael’s New York City apartment. It takes its title from a line in “A Star is Born” when James Mason tells a distraught Judy Garland, “You’re singing for yourself and the boys in the band.” That line signifies much of the heart and soul in this play, as sodomy was still illegal in 48 states, while in many places, including New York City, it was still deemed illegal for two men to dance with each other. Crowley corralled that contempt, basically seeding his play in that fear-based gay political earth, deliberately diving head first into the self-hatred that lives and breathes in the repressed. The lesson is that this is what it looks like when shame eats away inside the hidden hearts of the shamed ones, and we watch and know that we will never be forced back into that dark horrible closet. It’s just too damn terrible and dark.
It was a brave act of courage writing this play back in the late 1950’s. At the time, Crowley was working on a number of television projects in Hollywood before meeting the woman who would help make this play a possibility, Natalie Wood, who after meeting Crowley on the set of her film “Splendor in the Grass”, hired him as her assistant. She held strong convictions and sympathies to the Hollywood gay scene, and helped create a way to financially support the young writer while giving him plenty of spare time to work on this gay-themed play. According to Crowley in an interview with Sherry Lucas for Mississippi Today, (March 24, 2018), his motivation in writing the play was not particularly born out of activism, but more igniting from a place of anger that “had partially to do with myself and my career, but it also had to do with the social attitude of people around me, and the laws of the day.”
That anger registers powerfully and solidly in Netflix‘s adaptation now streaming on their service, and it’s with no great surprise that Ryan Murphy (2014’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart“) grabbed hold of the rights to film and produce this play, hoping to give it a wider audience than Broadway could ever find. Definitively directed by the talented Joe Montello (Broadway’s Three Tall Women) just as he did on Broadway in 2018, the painfilled fire that burns these men from the inside out flies at us, punching us as hard as it can, taking no prisoners in this game of late-night telephone calls. It’s as stifling and uncomfortable as it was in that 50th anniversary production, making us cringe at the cruelty that they throw at one another and then personally endure. It’s devastatingly accurate and sadly historically true, that level of stinging camaraderie that existed back then, but here within this film, there is an honest connection to the root cause, rather than just cruel bitterness portrayed without meaning. One had to have skin as thick as these intricate characters in order to survive, even in the infamous New York City, a haven for the hated, but also one that had danger enveloped in possible exposure and incarceration. Montello and this marvelously devoted cast makes us sit up and take notice of these boys, and understand them through their side slanted digging humor; “There’s one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don’t have to look your best” and their tense backhanded slaps of self-hate; “Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse”. It’s the band that they have formed out of survival instincts, one for which they all play harmoniously and determinedly well for, even when the notes hit hard and sharp, sometimes drawing blood, or a tear or two.
In the 1995 documentary, “The Celluloid Closet“, Crowley explained, “The self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself.” Much like Andrew Garfield’s turn as Prior in the 2018 Broadway revival of Angels in America, the front is protective, used as a deflective tool against the world and its hatred. Michael, as portrayed strongly by the surprising Jim Parsons (Broadway’s An Act of God, The Normal Heart), breaths fire in and out with this highly volatile brand of self-deprecating wit. Just like on the Broadway stage, his second bullet-proof layer of armor is used most efficiently to keep the world out, just as much as his fancy sweaters make him feel safe and secure in his particularly well designed apartment. Netflix opens the play up to another character, the streets of New York City. We see our future guest companions, all beautifully reassembled by Mantello from the Broadway stage, mingle and move around those 1968 streets, giving us sharply recreated glimpses into the old lore of the gay village. The bar, Julius finds its way into the rear view mirror, as we drive towards Michael’s apartment, in those vintage square box yellow cabs, giving us a nostalgic tweak, just for the sake of it all. Does it enlighten what will happen later that night when the guests arrive, one by the one, for his best friend’s birthday party? Somewhat, in terms of giving us a broader view and a deeper context to these characters, and the visuals are fun and very appealing. It takes us back to that time, although a bit too neatly and without the dirty somewhat frightening and dangerous edge of closeted New York City.
The first to arrive to the door of Michael’s two level apartment, one that fully reminds me of an old boyfriend’s stunningly decked out place near Washington Square Park, is the gorgeously toned and moderately depressed Donald, played solidly by the stunning Matt Bomer (“White Collar’; “Magic Mike“). The two set the mood exquisitely with their casual barb-laden banter, filling the air with wisecracks and Garland quotes well known to any older gay man. Everything about this, including the ripe and engaging performances, remind us of the 1968 time period without beating us over the head with it. It’s a compelling mixed cocktail of 60’s and modernist, stirring forth the utmost relevance and flavor with determination and a strongly orchestrated statement to all. It makes the filmed version of the play more relevant, and not dated, as it could have so easily had it been given a stronger dose of camp, souring the taste if poured incorrectly like many say of the original film.
Then the phone rings, and instead of it being one of the guests who are still on their way, it is the very upset Alan, Michael’s straight and married college friend, played solidly by Brian Hutchison (Broadway’s Looped). He is overwhelmed and uncharacteristically crying on the other end of the line, basically pleading with Michael to let him come over for a quick visit that very night. It sounds like he has a confessional to deliver, but to what order is the question that floats across the room. Against his better judgement, Michael gives in, telling him he is welcome to drop by, even though the anxiety of what might be seen and revealed to his old friend is enough to make a sober man drink.
Each time the doorbell rings, Michael thinks it is his straight-laced college buddy, but it is always just another party guest arriving in full gale force, minus the eagerly awaited birthday boy. He rings later, fashionably late as predicted. But first, flamboyantly arriving at the party is Emory, played with a wild abandonment by the dynamically strong Robin de Jesus (Broadway’s In the Heights, Rent), alongside the handsome but tense couple, Hank and Larry, played with a straight edge by the well suited Tuc Watkins (Cherry Lane’s Fortune’s Fools) and the sexually engaged Andrew Rannells (LCT’s Falsettos, The Book of Mormon). They sail in filling the room with fire and spark, followed closely by the one black man at the party, Bernard, played powerfully by Michael Benjamin Washington (Broadway’s Mamma Mia!, La Cage aux Folles). The gifts are piled in the corner, just as fast as the jabs and jokes start to fly at one another. The energy and engagement is as authentic and charged as it was on stage with the filming, thanks to cinematographer Bill Pope (“The Matrix“), bringing it all tighter into focus with a tense intimacy and clarity that only enhances.
The crew of characters have all come together in lancing love to celebrate the birthday of Harold, played with a hard crisp veneer by the extra dry Zachary Quinto (Off-Broadway’s Angels in America, Broadway’s The Glass Menagerie), but before he or the old college buddy arrives, one more gift comes hand-delivered in the form of the beautiful and deliciously divine Charlie Carver (HBO’s “The Leftovers“), giving us most simply the best gay cowboy ride seen on screen in years. The band of boys camaraderie is deliciously sharp-edged and specific, filled with a desperate neediness for love and acceptance, maybe not emanating from within, but definitely wanted from each other. The laugh and love, dancing and celebrating in a way that can only be done in the privacy of their home. They bicker and poke at one another, picking at their own scars, while inflicting more on each other with abandonment and some sort of twisted affection. It’s spectacular to watch these pros work their way around the room, all the while being personally relieved to be together, while sitting this particular jab out. They watch from the sidelines, tensely knowing that their time will come, most assuredly, but enjoying the moment of peace while it lasts.
Once that one particular vodka is poured quickly when no one is watching, the game of shredding begins with full brutal force. It’s clear why the shift has occurred, as we feel internally the hidden wound revealed. The main focus of Michael’s vicious anger focuses in on a hard and long held idea he has about Alan, and one he is desperate to drag out from his overwhelmed and drunk college roommate now that Alan has unknowingly lit that fuse. His guests, caught in the crossfire, each step up and expose themselves in ways that even when the structure feels forced, it still resonates. It’s hard at points for this modern gay man to take the mean-spirited attacks on one another and find truth in the actions these desperate gay men partake in. It’s a stereotype that maybe modern gay culture would like to erase from their memories, but it’s still there, maybe not as blatant as it was back in 1968, but that self-deprecating stinging wit still lurks in the corner of every party that I’ve ever been to. The strong authentic truth in the play is folded into the hard look-back, focusing our eyes into the dark abyss of where we came from and where we are trying to advance to now.
Quinto’s laconic and droll delivery sings far better on Netflix‘s small screen than it did on stage where, I must admit, it wore me down a bit. His truth and power here never dissipates, building to a complex battle between two men who love and need each other in ways that are too difficult to convey or fully understand until their final exchange at the door before he leaves with his cowboy. His performance, along with Parson’s, makes the details of the tortured soul simmer in a way that is both brutally funny and wickedly devastating. I have never seen the 1970 film, directed by William Friedkin, but I’m thankful to have had the chance to see this newly filmed rendering instead. I didn’t know what to expect from this Netflix version. I went in a bit nervously, to be honest, hoping for a slight bit of redemption, but what I got was far more detailed and intense. The screenwriters, Crawley and Ned Martel, found a way to give us, in the end, a sense of care and community. The closing shots, once the candles of the party have been extinguished, find a way to focus on the way each of these characters connect and embrace one another. The smile in a diner to one another that says, “we survived”, or a head resting most sweetly and innocently on a shoulder in a cab. They deliver a sense of survival that exists through community, giving us a clear visual of how members of the LGBTQ2 community create their own type of family for internalized support. At one time this play was about loneliness, shame, and self hatred, but in the decisive hands of Mantello, the ending edge isn’t so sharp and pointedly painful, but one of intimate tenderness and understanding, especially when seen from within the isolated confines of COVID19. The idea of community and a roomful of friends celebrating the birthday of another fills my heart with longing and love, and I can’t wait to return to New York City and find my way back into the arms of my loving family there.
Back in the day, The Boys in the Band was called “A true theatrical game-changer” showcasing the result of being gay in a world that was not willing to accept them. Now on Netflix, it’s a testament to that time and a teachable warning to us all. We must stand up and pay attention, as we watch the powers that be right now attempt to push us back into that shame-filled closet demanding that we hide and mask ourselves so that others, like Pence, can feel righteous when they are just truly being hateful and hate-filled. I definitely don’t want that regression, or a reversal of all the progress we have fought hard for. I will resist. And I will demand that we all #Vote like our lives depend on it, cause it does. Just look back and take note of what self-loathing and internalized shame can do, if we don’t fight for what is right.