NEW YORK — Battered by screenwriting jobs that fell through and the depressing feeling that his career was over before it had started, Mart Crowley found himself housesitting in Beverly Hills in summer 1967 and mulling over an idea he desperately hoped might get him somewhere.
It was for a play that would focus on the emotional lives of gay men — a subject that had been treated in other plays, but not in one that made it to the mainstream. Drawing on memories and relationships, the 32-year-old Catholic University graduate was still groping for the right conceptual canvas for the play, when one was dropped in his path.
“I was invited to this birthday party by a friend of mine, on whom Harold would be based,” Crowley, now 82, recalled, referring to a character who arrives halfway through the play, stoned and cold-eyed. “Not his party, but a friend of his,” Crowley added, “who was a flamboyant guy and would be partially the basis of Emory [the play’s most ostentatiously effeminate character]. So I went to this cocktail party of this guy I didn’t know in West Hollywood.”
And, bam. “The Boys in the Band” found its focus.
In due course, Crowley’s comedy-drama centered around a fateful birthday party would be a fixture of popular culture — a commercial off-Broadway hit whose often laceratingly self-loathing characters would divide the gay community, even as the play itself drew straight audiences as never before to a story revealing the passions and neuroses of a gallery of gay men. (In 1970, it was made into a film by director William Friedkin.) Of the work, an admiring Tony Kushner would write in a much later printing that “the play’s characters and their agonies are movingly, engrossingly, entertainingly representative of human foibles and virtues, which, while not necessarily eternal, have remained constant in the human psyche for a long, long time.”
Now, marking the 50th anniversary of its off-Broadway debut, “The Boys in the Band” is being given its Broadway premiere, in a year boasting perhaps the most notable convergence of tentpole plays of gay theater Broadway has ever seen. Already the year has produced an impeccable revival, directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, of Kushner’s poignant, blisteringly funny “gay fantasia” of AIDS and Reaganite neglect, “Angels in America.” Courtesy of Hollywood and Broadway producer Ryan Murphy, Crowley’s “Boys” joins “Angels” on Broadway on April 30, under the direction of Joe Mantello — a member of “Angels’ ” original 1993 Broadway cast — and with an ensemble including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells.
Setting up as a third pillar on Broadway is the revival of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song,” which first made its way onto Broadway in 1982 (as “Torch Song Trilogy”) and starred Fierstein as Arnold Beckoff, a lovelorn drag queen with middle-class dreams and a thing for a closeted married man. (As with each of the two parts of the original “Angels,” directed by George C. Wolfe, “Torch Song Trilogy” won the Tony Award for best play.) The new “Torch Song,” a transfer from off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, will open in the fall at Second Stage’s recently acquired Broadway space, the Helen Hayes Theatre, with Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl playing his tough-as-lacquered-nails Jewish mother.
This retrospective meetup in the commercial O.K. Corral of American theater suggests that for at least some parts of the gay community, the canonization of milestone works is taking deeper root in the culture. Not that this signals any end to the struggles of gay, lesbian and transgender people, not by a long shot, or that the works of female and trans writers, particularly those of color, are as yet receiving the same level of prominent treatment as those of these white men. But, as Kushner noted in a telephone interview, the tide of history might be playing a part in this intersection of gay plays.
“There’s a moment,” he said, “after you feel like you’ve sort of arrived at a place, when you can look back with a certain sense of belonging and security, and see these as the chronicles of our experience. Maybe that’s one reason why it felt like a good moment for them.”
For playwrights, tourist-driven Broadway is no longer the crossroads of American theater: That distinction is now shared by dozens of play-commissioning regional theaters, along with the playhouses and nonprofit companies of off-Broadway. Still, that these three works are able to attract this caliber of talent and producing might all at once speaks to some evolution in the taste of audiences, or the ones that can afford Broadway prices, anyway.
And maybe something of what the plays mean to younger gay artists was conveyed when, as Crowley reported, Bomer — one of several openly gay actors in the cast — flew into Crowley’s arms upon meeting him at a Manhattan photo shoot and exclaimed, “I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to be in your play!”
For the playwrights themselves, though, the coincidence of having one another’s best-known plays brought back practically simultaneously and with such fanfare might have less to do with the related permutations of identity and sexuality that run through all three than with the broader, universal themes they tackle.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with being gay,” Crowley, a screenwriter and dramatist, said of his most famous play. In 2002, he wrote a sequel, “The Men From the Boys,” about the original characters gathering at a memorial service. “It’s the humanity in the play; I think humanity is the crossover.” About the troubled characters he created — some of them based on men he knew as far back as his Mississippi childhood, growing up with deeply religious Catholic parents — Crowley observed, “There is something about each and every one of ourselves that we don’t like.”
To Fierstein, too, the possibility of a major new revival of his own seminal play was an opportunity to view it in its most powerful context — and that did not include the AIDS epidemic, about which some people seem to think Fierstein was framing his story. In fact, “Torch Song” predates the AIDS crisis; to make that fact even clearer in this new, carefully trimmed version Fierstein pushed back the events of the play by a year.
“I had decided long ago that I wanted to wait until our community was not defined by AIDS,” said Fierstein, whose subsequent writing career has included the books for musical hits such as “La Cage aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots.” “It’s not what ‘Torch Song’ is about. So I put it off for a while, because there was no understanding of the differences between human beings and viruses.”
Then, in 2012, Fierstein let a friend direct a revival of the play at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory. A year later, Michael Kahn staged it at Studio Theatre in Washington, with Brandon Uranowitz as Arnold. The reception was so warm that the playwright felt that the clouds had parted for a more coherent reckoning of what “Torch Song” was about: For me, it is that family values amount first, last and always, to the emotional shelter of compassion and tolerance. “I really felt that now we were at a time where we could see the characters in the play as human beings,” he added. “I thought it was going to be a period piece, which it turned out not to be.”
Does Broadway’s bear hug have a deeper meaning? That this confluence of events is only occurring in 2018 probably says more about the peculiar mercantile folkways of Broadway than it does about any collective cultural impact of these plays. As critic and Columbia professor Alisa Solomon noted recently, in a response to a lengthy piece about the history of gay theater by New York Times theater critic Jesse Green, there is a rich, varied pantheon of gay theater writers, performers and plays that both precede and follow works such as “The Boys in the Band.” Reza Abdoh, Charles Ludlam, Maria Irene Fornes, Lisa Kron, Peggy Shaw, Carmelita Tropicana and Megan Terry are just some of the artists she mentions. “A very partial list,” Solomon writes, “and yet — surprise! Not all white guys!”
Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“How I Learned to Drive”) who finally made her Broadway debut last season with the Tony-nominated “Indecent,” avers that in 2018, the definitions may have shifted over whether white gay men in the performing arts can be considered to be on the outside looking in. “To be a gay man in New York theater, that’s not quite an oppression,” said Vogel, who is a lesbian and whose play about the Yiddish theater documented the first lesbian kiss on the New York stage.
She makes an exception, though, for “Angels in America,” and the “intersectional” manner in which it has inspired the creative impulses of “women and people of color and Mormons and the entire range of gender.”
“So if Tony wants to write about race and class and gender, go for it, man!” Vogel said.
As for Kushner, he acknowledges a debt to Crowley, in particular. From whatever source of writerly invention “Boys in the Band” emanated, Kushner cites Crowley as an influence. Years ago, Kushner appeared at a Barnes & Noble in New York with David Greenspan, an actor in an earlier off-Broadway revival of “Boys.” Crowley was there. Kushner said the moderator “asked what ‘Boys in the Band’ meant to us?, and then he turned to Mart, and said, ‘Mart, what do you think about these gay artists of a later generation, so enamored of your work?’ ”
Crowley’s eyes, Kushner recalled, filled with tears.