It’s been a wretched year for Broadway, but it’s not all bad for veteran stage director Joe Mantello. While his buzzy New York production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” became yet another pandemic casualty when it closed before it even began in April, Mantello’s terrific new film version of the late Mart Crowley’s 1968, acid-tongued gay cult classic play “The Boys in the Band” should lessen the blow.
Though Mantello was just five years old when “Boys” first premiered Off-Broadway, it’s William Friedkin’s controversial 1970 film version that later introduced him to Crowley’s eye-opening vision of gay life. “I went to North Carolina School of the Arts, and I saw it for the first time there, probably early on when I was a sophomore, and I found it terrifying, but I also loved it,” Mantello, a New Yorker, said in a phone interview from his quarantine hideaway in Palm Springs. “As someone just coming out of the closet, it felt both like a cautionary tale and something that felt a little foreign to me.”
The Netflix movie isn’t the first crack at the text for Mantello, a decorated actor and theater helmer who has brought Broadway successes like “Wicked,” “Blackbird,” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” to the stage. In 2018, he gathered an all-out cast of gay male actors on Broadway for a Tony-winning revival of “Boys.” Joining forces with producer Ryan Murphy, Mantello enlisted that very same group for this year’s movie version: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Tuc Watkins, Robin de Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Brian Hutchinson all return to resurrect this groundbreaking dark comedy about a group of gay besties (and, in some corners, frenemies) who assemble for a fraught birthday party.
However, like many gay audiences new to Crowley’s world of bitchy, self-loathing queens and their firecracker quips, Mantello didn’t necessarily see himself in the story. “That’s the way I felt about it for a very long time,” he said. “Subsequently I’ve seen other productions and have always felt slightly distanced from it, and that was my concern going into this. I didn’t know how I was going to locate myself in it.”
Scott Everett White / NETFLIX
“Gay Men Are Not a Monolith”
While pressure was high on Crowley’s original text to speak to all the hidden issues surrounding gay male life in the late 1960s, just before Stonewall and well ahead of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, “The Boys in the Band,” Mantello said, doesn’t have to do that anymore. And that’s liberating.
“It was a misconception that [Crowley] was trying to write about all gay men, because he was the first, and this was the only gay play, and not just another gay play. It had an incredible responsibility,” Mantello said. “It was under a lot of scrutiny. I would say unfair scrutiny over the years, [because] I don’t think it would be possible for him to write something encompassing every aspect of gay men’s lives. Gay men are not a monolith. We want different things. We see the world differently, and this was one particular story. But there are certain truths he gets to because he’s writing such specific characters.”
Many of the characters, like Jim Parsons’ boozy writer Michael, are at times aggressively unlikable, which is the point. They’re still marginalized by society, and have to, to a certain extent, perform to move painlessly through the outside world. But behind closed doors, they’re free to be their caustic, deliciously witty selves — even to the point of alienating the audience.
“I find it disconcerting to think we can’t have flawed or imperfect characters who happen to be gay,” Mantello said. “This play is a lightning rod for a lot of very strong feelings, both positive and negative.” Still, reimagining the play in today’s climate doesn’t mean erasing the traumas of gay past. “This idea or argument for amnesia about our history feels lazy and oversimplified.”
Scott Everett White/NETFLIX ©2020
The Singular Alchemy of an All-Out Gay Male Cast
Putting together an all-gay cast for the play was a happy accident, Mantello said, and cultivated a special alchemy between the performers, who have developed a unique rapport after collaborating on “Boys in the Band” for more than three years.
Mantello and producer Ryan Murphy auditioned “gay actors, straight actors, and everything in between” for the play, Mantello said, but “it worked out that all nine of the actors are gay. I think it informed the work, that the nine of them had a shorthand with each other and with the material. I think that translates. Their comfort level with themselves and with each other is a vital part of this film.”
That wasn’t the case for Friedkin’s film, which featured a mix of straight and mostly closeted gay actors. The rapport on display in Mantello’s film, he said, might not have “been possible in 1970. Even the gay members of the cast, despite the fact that they were in the gay play of the time, in the press a lot of them had to remain closeted. Obviously that’s just not the case here.”
“The Boys in the Band” arrives at an ongoing moment of scrutiny over straight actors taking on gay roles, from “Call Me by Your Name,” to this year’s “Ammonite,” and on TV in this year’s “Love, Victor.” Comedian and out-gay actor Billy Eichner made headlines earlier this year for announcing he’d play queer camp icon Paul Lynde, in a bid to revolutionize who tells LGBTQ stories. So who gets to play gay? It’s a question on a lot of Hollywood minds, but Mantello doesn’t see things in such binary terms. “I’m just a person who wants the best possible actor in the role,” he said.
The director pointed to the casting of out-gay actor Russell Tovey as the “fiercely heterosexual” Nick (played by George Segal in Mike Nichols’ 1968 film version) in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “If I ruled him out because of his sexuality, that would’ve been a real loss, because he was brilliant in it. His sexuality to me was beside the point,” Mantello said. “We have to be very careful, because if you’re going to apply a rule, you have to apply the rule across the board. Yet for many, many years, gay actors watched straight actors play gay roles and be lauded for it, and watch them be called ‘brave.’ There’s something ‘courageous’ about their playing these roles.”
Scott Everett White/NETFLIX ©2020
Whither “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Broadway’s Future?
Mantello’s version of Edward Albee’s scathing dark night of the soul “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was set to star the powerhouse quartet of Laurie Metcalf, Rupert Everett (also gay but playing straight), and Patsy Ferran, along with Tovey. Broadway will remain shuttered into 2021, and so Mantello is unsure if he’ll ever be able to recreate this particular vision even when theater starts to get on its feet again.
“It would really involve the schedules of those four actors and whether we could all find a time together again to do it,” he said. “I’ve heard different things about when the Broadway things might reopen. Right now, there are a lot of plans on the runway, productions that were either about to open, or in process, or in development. All of those will go to the head of the line.”
Mantello said that Albee’s template necessitates a certain fidelity to the text, meaning that “when you see a production of ‘Virginia Woolf’ onstage, they tend to look the same, within reason. Albee had very particular ideas on how his plays should be done, and that involved design choices.”
But Mantello and his team tried shake things up from a visual standpoint. “What we tried to do… was deconstruct the set with each successive act so that, in the final act, there were certain elements of the living room that remained, but they were in more of a void. Whether that’s a good idea or not, whether it worked or not, will remain unknown.”
As for the future of Broadway, he declined to speculate on a dire, unprecedented situation. “There are people who are in rooms right now having very serious conversations about how and when we’re going to bring this industry back, but I don’t know. There are so many variables,” he said. “There’s a scenario where theaters reopen and there’s social distancing, and you’re not playing to full houses, but that means rethinking the entire financial model of the weekly costs of running a show.”
“The Boys in the Band” streams on Netflix beginning September 30.