New take on ‘Boys in the Band’ brings the tale to a new generation

Netflix’s new version of The Boys in the Band shares the classic story that played a major role in the journey to gay liberation, making it accessible for a new generation.

More than half a century after the play was first performed off-Broadway, the story has moved from being a ground breaking representation of the lives of gay men in a pre-Stonewall era, to a historic look back at a time when sexuality was taboo and discrimination par for the course.

The story follows a group of friends who meet at the apartment of Michael to celebrate the birthday of another friend Harold. Each brings drinks, food and gifts, except for the outrageously camp Emory who brings a much younger man as a gift for the birthday boy. A spanner is thrown in the works when Michael’s college room mate Alan unexpectedly turns up, forcing the queer friends to curtail their gay celebrations.

Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play was previously turned into film in 1970. Crowley famously demanded that the entire cast of the play were to keep their roles if a Hollywood version was to be made. William Friedkin’s film was critically acclaimed, but was also criticised for including stereotypes of what gay men were really like. It’s a criticism author Mart Crowley dismissed, saying the characters in the film were based on his own friends.

In 2018 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the play a new production was staged, and it was a great success on Broadway. Now that staging from director Joe Mantega treads the same path as the previous production, with the entire cast making the journey to a film version.

Unlike the original production where some of the actors were gay, but none of them were publicly sharing their sexuality, this version features all out and proud actors playing the diverse range of characters.

Jim Parson’s is the neurotic host Michael, Zachary Quinto is the laconic birthday guest Harold. Matt Bomer plays Donald, Carlie Carver is the young ‘Cowboy’, Robin de Jesus is Emory, Brian Hutchison is Alan and Michael Benjamin Washington is Bernard. Real life couple Tuc Watkins and Andrew Rannells play opposite each other couple Larry and Hank.

There’s no denying the work is based on a play, all the action largely takes place within an apartment, the setting providing the claustrophobic cell where tensions rise. The dialogue heavy script also reveals its theatrical roots. Director Joe Mantega has done his best to break out of the confines of a single room by moving the action around the apartment, and making the most of short scenes of each character heading to the party.

The film is slightly longer that the 1970 Friedkin version, as an additional series of short scenes have been added to the end of the story. It’s a effective addition to the tale, giving it a moment to ‘breathe out’ at the end of all the action.

This version is not radically different from the previous film, it’s more sophisticated in it’s telling – taking advantage of changes in production values but it’s essentially the same story. If you’ve got the time watch this new version and the original and then pick which versions of each of the characters you prefer. Personally I found Kenneth Nelson’s original portrayal of Michael far more rewarding and likeable than Jim Parson’s delivery.

The big difference from now to 50 years ago is the world we watch the film in. Back in 1968 it was a reflection on current times, today this tale is hopefully more a historical document on who we were. It’s essential viewing, part of the great works of queer literature, but if you’ve watched the original recently you may not find much new in this version.

Graeme Watson

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