When it premiered off-Broadway in April 1968, Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band was the first of its kind: a show featuring openly gay men gabbing about poppers, bathhouses and slutting-around at a time when gay sex was both a cultural taboo and a criminal offence.
Opening just over a year before the Stonewall riots, which marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement, the show had homos lining up around the block to see themselves depicted vocally and unapologetically onstage for the first time.
Though the original production played for an impressive 1,001 performances, the play has been produced only a handful of times since, which is why it’s so exciting to see a company of young Toronto actors give it a whirl.
“I’ve had this play on my back burner forever,” says director Randie Parliament. “I feel so privileged to have found a company of such incredible actors who can really honour this script and do it justice.”
Parliament’s team features some of the city’s most exciting young talent, including Matthew Romantini, Cole J Alvis and Jonathan Morton-Schuster. We meet at Parliament’s east-end home, over post-rehearsal cocktails, to talk about the production and why the company has decided to remount the play, 43 years after it originally hit the stage.
Parliament’s first exposure to the story came at the age of 12, when he saw the 1970 film version on television.
“I remember being completely mind-boggled,” he says. “Growing up in small-town Alberta I had no idea this world existed. Seeing men talking about sex and having relationships with each other was a life-changing experience for me. It wasn’t until a few years after that I found out it was based on a play.”
Unfolding over a single evening, The Boys in the Band centres on Michael (Romantini), a recovering alcoholic planning a birthday party at his Upper West Side loft for his age-obsessed friend Harold (Alvis). Helping out are the fabulously faggy Emory (Morton-Schuster), the deeply neurotic Donald (Andy Ingram) and the self-loathing Bernard (Tawiah M’Carthy). Also in attendance are Hank (John Bryans) and Larry (Indrit Kasapi), a couple with some intense disagreements about monogamy, and Cowboy (Antonio Olivito), a none-too-bright street hustler hired for the evening to show Harold a good time.
The mix of high-strung personalities and equally high alcohol consumption hints that the evening will go awry. But things really start to heat up when Alan (Jordan Mechano), Michael’s married and presumably straight college roommate, pops by unannounced with something to get off his chest. As the evening progresses and Michael gets drunker, he forces his guests into an uncomfortable party game with painful results.
Though the play was pivotal for Parliament, not all the cast members were lucky enough to come across the story while growing up.
“I wish I had had access to something like this as a kid,” says Alvis, another rural Alberta native. “Obviously, there were queers who came from the small town that I did before me. But when they escaped to bigger cities, they didn’t pave a path for me. When I eventually learned there was a gay community out there, it gave me the strength to come out.”
Not all of the company members were so taken by the script on first read. Romantini admits that he found it dated and wondered if it was even worth doing.
“My first question to Randie when he asked me to come in and read for the part was how exactly he thought the play was relevant today,” Romantini says. “His answer impressed me so much. He said that despite all the conflict between the characters, at the end they remain friends, which is a testament to the sense of support that existed within the gay community back then. That’s something that’s declining these days, and this play calls on us to be a supportive community again.”
Admittedly, there are moments in the text that feel dated.
Despite being all too familiar to gay people of that time, the jokes about police raids will be as foreign to younger audiences as the numerous references to the divas of the day.
What’s surprising, perhaps, is how current certain aspects feel, in particular the way that Emory, by far the most effeminate of the group, is looked down on by his friends. “As an actor I mostly get cast as very outrageous stereotypical gay characters, but they’re usually very one-sided,” says Morton-Schuster. “While Emory is very flamboyant, he’s also written with a lot of depth. Gay men still largely hold to the idea that masculine men are the most sexually desirable, while effeminate men get treated as outcasts within their own community.”
In the years since the original production, much has been made of the overt self-hatred espoused by some of the characters. In particular, Michael’s famous line, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” might be difficult for contemporary audiences to digest. In a time when sodomy laws have been overturned and marriage equality has been won (for gay Canadians at least), the archetype of the self-hating homosexual can seem passé. But Romantini stresses that contemporary audiences shouldn’t dismiss this element so quickly.
“The explicit self-hatred in the script is a sticking point for a lot of people,” he says. “As a community we want to say we are beyond that and that we aren’t dealing with these issues any more. But the reality is they are still out there in full force. There are still plenty of day-to-day problems that plague our community. All those gay teenagers who are killing themselves should be a wake-up call to us that things are not all right.”
Morton-Schuster, who also works on the hit MTV show 1 Girl 5 Gays, agrees.
“I’m continually shocked by the letters I get every week from kids in small towns all over the country who watch the show,” he says. “They write to say thank you to me for being willing to appear on television as myself. Before I started the show I thought we were beyond that — that the internet had solved the problem of giving queer kids access to community. But I’ve realized we’re not. Having representations of openly gay and unapologetically effeminate men in mainstream media is still a big deal for kids out there who are being bullied for who they are and struggling to come out. I hope this play challenges men of all ages to confront their internalized homophobia towards feminine guys and helps us move towards being a more open and accepting community.”