Much has changed in the two years since director Joe Mantello was readying his revival of The Boys in the Band, Mart Crawley’s 1968 landmark of gay theater, for a 2018 Broadway audience. The all-star cast – Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington, Robin de Jesús, Charlie Carver and Brian Hutchison – would go a long way in generating interest, as would the involvement of producer Ryan Murphy, but questions of relevance had dogged Crowley’s pre-Stonewall Boys for years.
To put if bluntly, was Boys in the Band anything more than a wittily crafted souvenir from an era when closets were crowded with terrified, self-loathing gay men? Had decades of the LGBTQ community’s struggles, setbacks and hard-fought victories for acceptance, rights and pride dulled the play’s reputation? It’s humor? Its reason for being?
In short, no. Sold-out audiences, critical acclaim, a Tony Award for Best Revival and a big Netflix deal for a film adaptation went far in resurrecting both the profile and the reputation of Crowley’s classic.
More than two years later, Mantello, his producer and their Broadway cast are about to make their case again for Boys‘ relevance, significance and dramatic irresistibility: The Boys in the Band launches on Netflix this Wednesday, Sept. 30. (The film is dedicated to Crowley, who died March 7 following heart surgery.)
I last interviewed Mantello when Boys was just about to open on Broadway. Mantello had just been Tony-nominated for his direction of the Scott Rudin-produced revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. The Mantello-directed Wicked, of course, was still going strong after 17 years as a Broadway staple, and the fascinating Hillary and Clinton was a year away. In the more distant offing was a planned Rudin revival on Broadway of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a project that would reunite Mantello with his frequent collaborator, the actress Laurie Metcalf. The much anticipated production was in previews when the pandemic shutdown hit last March, and Mantello says its future is uncertain: “I know we probably won’t come back right away, but other than that I just don’t know. Actors’ schedules get very, very complicated. I don’t want to say that you’ll never see it, but I just have no idea. It is my wish that people see it. I think it’s the best thing Laurie has ever done.”
What the shutdown hasn’t done, though, is sidelined Mantello. The director, who earned his first Tony Award nomination as an actor in 1993 for his breakthrough role in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became TV-famous this year with his sympathetic performance as a closeted film executive in Murphy’s Netflix limited drama series Hollywood. And now come The Boys.
I asked Mantello if he’s become a pledged member of Murphy’s ensemble of cross-series players. “If he asks for me, I will be there,” Mantello laughed. “Absolutely. I love Ryan.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DEADLINE: We last spoke when Boys In The Band was opening on Broadway. What have you learned or discovered about the play since doing the movie?
JOE MANTELLO: I think like a lot of people my first reaction when I heard “Boys in the Band” was that it was problematic for a number of reasons, and having now worked on it for the last few years my admiration and respect for Mart’s crafting of the play has just grown exponentially. I find it less problematic, I have to be honest. I certainly understand that there are moments that happen in the play that are difficult and painful and make people uncomfortable, but I also feel, I hope, that in our production and in this film we’ve been able to unearth moments of grace and tenderness, moments where you see the heroic side of these characters. For me it’s become a much more complicated piece than I originally thought.
DEADLINE: What did Ryan Murphy and screenwriter Ned Martel bring to the project that might not have been there otherwise?
MANTELLO: Obviously the idea originated with Ryan, who always had the vision that we would do the Broadway revival and then it would culminate at some point in a film. He was playing the long game at a time where I thought “Let’s just mount the play and see how it goes.” He’s got this kind of uncanny knack for understanding the Zeitgeist unlike anyone I’ve ever met. When he first approached me with the idea to do Boys In The Band my first reaction was, Aren’t we past all of that? And I think he helped me see another way into the play, just unlocked a door for me by saying, “Read it like it’s an Edward Albee play. Set aside all of your preconceived ideas of what this event could be and just read it like it’s an Albee play, like it’s a classic text.” That was a great entry point for me because I didn’t get caught up in the distancing period details of it, if that make any sense.
DEADLINE: Yeah, it does.
MANTELLO: When we did it on Broadway, obviously it was set in 1968 but we also tried to give it a form, both in design and point of view, that has a kind of a classic timelessness. When I’d seen it before they really leaned pretty heavily into the period details and so in some way I felt distant from it as an audience member. It felt like it was in a time capsule. We wanted it to be both of its time and modern, and that point of view fed into everything.
Ned [Martel] has a journalism background and so he was invaluable when it came to research and as a creative partner on the film, taking Mart’s original screenplay and adapting it. He was just invaluable.
DEADLINE: I’m assuming Ned is responsible for the characters’ flashbacks, which we’ve never seen before.
MANTELLO: We conceived them together, and the question we kept asking ourselves is how do we keep one foot in the past and one foot in the present? What can we do today without ripping it out of its time and setting it in a contemporary setting, which I think would be nearly impossible to do – it wouldn’t be Boys in the Band, it would be something else. But just in terms of filmmaking in 2020, what are the things that we could do now? We can show a kind of sensuality and a sexuality between two men and it wouldn’t be a big deal.
We also didn’t want to apologize for the fact that it was a play, a play that took place in one setting essentially over the course of an evening, but we had to ask ourselves, where are the places where we can both let it become claustrophobic while also finding those places where we can open it up just enough to give the audience a more well-rounded experience of who these characters are.
DEADLINE: For the opening credits montage, you were able to go back and shoot at Julius’ Bar in the West Village, just as William Friedkin did in the 1970 film adaptation. Pretty incredible that the bar is still open and operating.
MANTELLO: Yeah, that’s in Mart’s screenplay and I didn’t want to reinvent it just to reinvent it. Julius’ looks the same way now as it did then. Our set decorator did a beautiful job but essentially it’s a time capsule.
DEADLINE: In terms of differences between the two film versions, I noticed in the first scene with the Michael and Donald characters, there’s a look that Jim Parsons, as Michael, makes when Matt Bomer’s Donald isn’t watching. There seems to be a longing for Donald that I’ve never seen in the Michael character before.
MANTELLO: It was something that we tried to do on stage and it worked, but it’s much more impactful with a film closeup. One of the things we found interesting was the specifics of that relationship – why can’t they be together? One of the other characters says everybody already thinks they are anyway, and so they have everything but a physical relationship. Michael even says “We got to know each other too quickly.” The idea of that divide between intimacy and sex for those two characters we found to be really, really interesting. Even at the end, there’s this moment that breaks my heart, and it’s so subtle and I don’t know if people will pick up on it, but when Donald says to Michael, Will I see you next Saturday?, Jim just looks at him like yes, yes, and there’s this great yearning and it almost can’t be articulated. It gave the actors something very, very interesting to play. There’s always this third entity that’s in the room with both of them – desire. A desire that is unable to be fulfilled. Donald certainly uses it, you know? It’s in his arsenal. One of the things we had to answer for ourselves is what’s the beef between Harold [played by Quinto] and Donald? Why don’t they get along? And we constructed for ourselves that Harold watches Donald sort of manipulate and use Michael as a crutch, and Harold doesn’t like it and thinks it’s holding Michael back in some way.
DEADLINE: I always felt that Harold sees Donald as a threat to Harold’s place in Michael’s life.
MANTELLO: I think whenever there’s a triangulated relationship the pairings are very complicated. It’s hard for three people to play together.
DEADLINE: The “will I see you next Saturday” line mirrors Harold’s famous parting line to Michael, which whom he’s just had a vicious fight, “I’ll call you tomorrow,” which always struck me as the play’s little glimmer of hope. In your version, we see, briefly, the characters after they leave the party, and without giving anything away, there’s a sense that rather than just being a depiction of a miserable time in American gay life there’s also a sort of hint of better things coming. I didn’t get that sense from Friedkin.
MANTELLO: The project had a different kind of significance at that time, you know? It was for a lot of people their first exposure to gay men on screen. Now we don’t have that sense of taboo and yet we couldn’t separate ourselves from the issues of the play. It would be presumptuous to think that we could perfectly inhabit the experience that the original group of actors had because it’s a different time, and their choice to take on these roles could have been career killers and I guess you could make the case that for some of them it was.
DEADLINE: I think Leonard Frey, who played Harold, said that it ruined his career. Peter White, though, who played Alan, the ostensibly straight friend, went on to a very long career in soaps.
MANTELLO: And Larry Luckinbill has had a wonderful career. So the straight guys or characters actually went on to have careers.
But I guess in answer to your question, one of the other things that was important to us in terms of this little coda was to introduce this idea of tenderness and grace after subjecting an audience to some pretty brutal stuff. It was important that the spirit of that group of friends and chosen family is going to go on and that all was not lost, and that what you are experiencing is the simmering rage that was about to explode a year later at Stonewall. It was like a powder keg.
But underneath all of that, or running parallel to it, was a real tenderness and forgiveness that we all want in our families or our chosen families. They were taking care of each other, and that was the thing that was really interesting to me. One of the things that I find most moving in the film is the relationship between Hank [Watkins] and Larry [Rannells] – they’re in a good relationship, a complicated relationship and they’re definitely struggling and it’s not going to be easy for a number of different reasons, but when they look at each other, when Hank says “I’ll try” and Larry says “I’ll try, too,” it was really, really important to me that we see those characters in the final movement of the film trying to work it out, trying to figure it out. The last time we see them, they’re intimate with one another, they’re physical with one another, they’re starting to make love. I didn’t want to leave them holding an armful of shit.
DEADLINE: Without spoiling the film’s final shot too much, I think there can be two interpretations of it: one that refers back to Michael’s past, and one that more hopefully points to his future.
MANTELLO: I really think you could make a case for it either way. Before we started shooting, I was working on the script, just writing ideas down as I do every once in a while, and after the last scene, which was just Michael walking down the street, I wrote, “Michael runs.” I didn’t know what it meant. When it came time to shoot the scene, which we did downtown on a Saturday night when NYU was just back in session and it was chaos and, like, are we going to be able to get this shot, we did it and Jim did his thing. I said, “Great, I think we’ve got it. Is there anything else you want to try?” And just making a joke, Jim said, “Well, I guess I could run.” I said, “You’re not going to believe this but I actually wrote that down and completely forgot about it. He said, “Well, we’re here, let’s give it a shot.” And that’s the shot.
DEADLINE: The question we’re left with is, Is he running from something, or to something.
MANTELLO: I think that’s what it is. Harold called him on it earlier, essentially saying “You’re going to always be in motion, but one day I want you to think about where you’re going and to accept that that is.” I think that’s the most subversive thing in the movie, because 1968 was a time when people were trying to cure themselves with analysis and shrinks and therapists, and they were trying not to be what they were because everything that they encountered at every moment of the day was telling them that they were sick, that they were perverted, that they were degenerates. So Michael thinks if I just have enough sweaters I’m going to feel okay. It’s not that different from today with social media and getting likes on Twitter. That man is always going to be running, I think.
When Ryan first saw the cut of the film, he said to me, “Why do you have him running back to Donald?” And I said, “That’s so interesting that you think that’s what he’s doing. I don’t think that at all. I don’t know where I think he’s going and I don’t think it’s important that I answer that, but for me the gesture of him running really locates something about that man.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the cast. How did the cast shape the characters, perhaps in ways not seen in Friedkin’s version?
MANTELLO: Well, the brilliant Robin De Jesús playing Emory, he both fulfills what is called for the script but he also has this wonderful toughness to him, whereas I think Cliff Gorman in the Friedkin movie gave a performance that is still kind of marvelous in some way, but [the heterosexual Gorman] was a man who was putting on something, and I think the thing he found most interesting was Emory’s effeminacy, whereas Robin is just kind of beautiful, fluid. He can camp with the best of them but when Emory says to Alan, “What’s the matter, your wife’s got lockjaw?,” you know that he is the only one in that room who’s, like, “No, no, no, no, we’re not doing this.” Mart’s sequel [2002’s The Men From The Boys] even talks about Emory being at Stonewall the following year. You totally see that in Robin’s performance.
DEADLINE: I think the Bernard character, the sole Black character, in Friedkin’s movie is sort of a throwaway character, or at least a passive character, certainly not in this version. Michael Benjamin Washington’s Bernard is angry and we see it. And I loved when he’s talking on the phone and he code-shifts, starts using his old Southern voice when talking to a figure from his past.
MANTELLO: Michael did that in his audition and I’m telling you, I got chills. I never in a million years would have thought of that, and it was just like yes, this is the person.
DEADLINE: The performances have so many standout moments, like Bernard’s telephone scene, and Jim, as Michael, dressing down Alan. What other acknowledgements would you like to make about the cast’s performances?
MANTELLO: All of them individually but more so as an ensemble, I think that they have a great affection for one another, and that really translates so that there are little tiny moments…We could have cut this picture so many different ways because there was so much going on between all nine of them. Charlie [as the hustler Cowboy], it’s a really beautiful, simple performance, just so wonderful what he does – Cowboy clearly doesn’t know any of the other characters when he walks in. He’s got a task that he needs to do and hopefully do it quickly and get out of there, but the way he gets drawn into that group is so beautifully executed, and I just love the moment at the end when he and Harold are in the cab and Cowboy just gently puts his head on Harold’s shoulder. I hope that the film is made up of lots of beautifully detailed, tiny moments that could only exist between a group of actors who have a real chemistry and genuine affection for one another.
There’s a wonderful moment, and no one might notice, but when Jim, as Michael, lashes out at Michael Benjamin as Bernard and sends him to the kitchen, and Michael Benjamin walks by Andrew Rannells and you see Andrew look up at him and they have this little gentle touch, just a passing moment of tenderness. It’s beautiful. There were hundreds of moments like that in the footage that we had, things that run parallel to the harshness of the play, that show the tenderness that can exist between men.