Mart Crowley’s landmark play The Boys in the Band premiered Off-Broadway April 14, 1968, to audiences shocked or grateful to see gay life frankly depicted onstage for the first time. A quick move to a larger theater, 1,001 performances, an acclaimed London run and a 1970 feature film followed.
In coming weeks, a star cast — including The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons and Star Trek reboot’s Zachary Quinto — and two-time Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello bring a 50th anniversary Broadway revival of the play to the Booth Theatre in New York. The production, with a limited engagement April 30-Aug. 11, has been heralded in headlines from People magazine to The New York Times Style Magazine.
Have enough years really passed to mark a 50th anniversary? It hardly seems so to playwright Crowley, a Mississippi native who left the state to pursue show business ambitions in his youth.
“Time’s funny,” says Crowley. “Everybody says, when you were a kid, it was like things would never happen. And then, when you do get older, it’s like breakfast comes every 10 minutes.” Same goes, he says, for his “old people medicine — one for this, one for that — and, my God, I haven’t swallowed the last one before it’s time to do them over the next day.”
Crowley, now 82 years old, may joke that the drug store’s keeping him alive, but the wit that zings through The Boys in the Band, humor and heart-stings in its wake, retains robust health.
In The Boys in the Band, a group of gay men gather for a friend’s birthday party in a New York City apartment. There, over the course of the evening and multiple rounds of drinks, barbs become more cutting, fault lines in friendships crack open and emotional truths spill out.
A wickedly tart cocktail of comedy and drama, with a searing human touch, The Boys in the Band became the first full-length gay play to reach a crossover audience.
For this, Crowley’s first Broadway opening, he predicts “my usual state of just a puddle of anxiety.” Six of his plays have been produced, including several abroad, and opening nights, he says, “are just about the worst things that anybody in the theater can go through. It’s such a demanding event in every way.”
That said, he remembers a few details from that 1968 opening night for The Boys in the Band — his first ever. “I was really like something let out of a burning stable. I was sooo excited and sooo anxious!”
The after-party at Joe Allen Restaurant (the red-checkered tablecloth-and-burger antidote to Sardi’s back then), stands out. Allen put up several five television sets in the restaurant dining room, which was filled with Crowley’s friends.
“We couldn’t raise the money for the show. Joe put in $800, but we passed the hat, and waiters would put in as little as $10. And every one of them got a sizable return on their money. But that night, of course, we were all excited — including the staff, who had their $10 in the show.”
Reviews started rolling in, one good one after another, “and the place would go up and go mad and scream and applaud.” Finally, the friend who had dashed out for The New York Times returned, stood up on the bar and read the review aloud.
“It was, well, what we call in the business, ‘a money review,'” Crowley says. “It was a hit and a rave from The New York Times and we knew we were home free. And, then, the joint really did go mad.”
The rest of the evening is a blur.
“I’m sure I was drunk as a skunk by the time we poured out of there, at something like 4 or 5 in the morning,” he says, laughing.
Crowley was born and grew up in Vicksburg. He hasn’t been back to his home state since the death of his aunt, Marian Crowley Alvarado, in 1999.
“I had a difficult family life with my own mother and father,” he says, His surrogate family included the Alvarados and first cousin, Bobby Alvarado, and the enormous Sicilian-American Canizaro family, “like a very wonderful, reassuring blanket,” he says, and by extension the Signa family behind Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville.
“I ate at the Canizaros’ house more than I did at my own. Of course, it was great Italian food, which … my God, I’m mad for to this day,” he says. “They were very warm and dear,” with only the youngest daughter, Angela, still living in Vicksburg.
With only 19 months age difference, Crowley and cousin Bobby Alvarado, still in Vicksburg, were close.
“(Bart) always had ambitions to be theatrical,” Alvarado says, recalling a youthful episode. “My father had a movie camera, and I was his first victim. He wanted to make a movie of Roman times” and their grandmother, “a super seamstress,” made the gladiator costume Crowley designed.
The memory merits a chuckle and more details from Crowley. “I don’t know if I ever wrote the script. It was certainly going to be a one-person film! … I had visions of using rather Neoclassic monuments out in the (Vicksburg) National Military Park,” such as the Illinois Memorial. “I don’t think we got that far.”
Crowley was a speech and drama major at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., when he met director Elia Kazan during the 1955 shooting of Baby Doll in Benoit.
“I wanted to quit college and go to work for him — he was just my idol,” says Crowley, who had seen the Kazan-directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway that year. “He wisely said, ‘Finish your college education, and if you come to New York, look me up.'”
Crowley did. Actually, he bumped into Kazan on the street in New York City late one night, on his way home.
“I went up to him … and I said, ‘Mr. Kazan?’ He turned around and looked at me, and he hadn’t seen me since Benoit, Mississippi, and Doe’s Eat Place, and right off the bat, he said, ‘What took you so long?'”
Kazan was preparing to film Splendor in the Grass. The film introduced Crowley to Natalie Wood, who became a great friend, “and thus began the first act of my career.”
It was a career that also included the sequel, The Men from the Boys, the drama Remote Asylum, the autobiographical A Breeze from the Gulf and producing the television series Hart to Hart.
Writing ‘The Boys’
A cascade of triggers led to The Boys in the Band. Wood’s career was taking off, with West Side Story following Splendor in the Grass. Crowley accompanied her to Los Angeles to work as her assistant — with her promise to get him an agent.
He got an agent and wrote a screenplay for Wood that was bought by 20th Century Fox, but ultimately canceled by studio head Darryl Zanuck.
“That was just one defeat. Then, that was followed by a couple of other defeats … to the point that William Morris dropped me because I was getting a lot of nibbles, but nothing was panning out,” he says.
Depressed and down at the heel, he even had to sublet his own apartment for quick income.
“All this anger was penned up in me. It 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,” he says.
“That all combined to blow up, and I started writing The Boys in the Band.”
The play was groundbreaking in its portrayal of gay lifestyle, but activism wasn’t Crowley’s aim. “That wasn’t my intention, to change any laws or increase tolerance. I was just angry and wanted the injustice of it all — to all those characters — known.
“They were just a microcosm of what was going on in the world. So, if I had any agenda, it wasn’t hidden, and it wasn’t really terribly conscious.
“I just think the anger and the frustration superseded everything and boiled over in its own way.”
The Boys in the Band completely changed his life, he says, taking him from obscure and starving artist to a playwright with a work done all over the world.
Eighteen months later, anger and frustration in the gay community boiled over into the Stonewall riots in New York, a seminal moment in the gay liberation movement.
“It was all in the zeitgeist of the time,” Crowley says, noting his play fell out of favor as the movement aimed for assimilation and respect. “That was shattered by the onset of AIDS. … What was a personal movement became not only a national movement, it became a civil rights issue.”
What resonates most in The Boys in the Band half a century later?
“Humanity,” Crowley says. “No matter whether we’re gay or straight, I think everybody’s got something about themselves that they don’t like. There’s some sort of, I don’t know, shame or self-shame — feeling guilty about things and feeling isolated and dejected and abandoned.
“There is all of that in the play and I think that’s common to humanity.” He lets that sit for a moment, then nudges, “Isn’t it?”