The Boys in the Band (2020)

It’s a tricky thing, adapting a play to the screen — even the small screen, as is the mandate these days.

Pack the project with cinema stars and you can throw it off balance. Just witness the difference between reactions to August: Osage County onstage (blockbuster) and onscreen (dud). Viewers justifiably asked what all the fuss was about.

Give it a director with little appreciation for the genre and you end up with the likes of film flops Annie and A Chorus Line. But if the filmmakers are too reverent to the material, you can end up with the stiffness of the movie version of The Producers (the 2005 version, not the original). 

There isn’t one answer to the problem. Two of the better transfers, Cabaret and Chicago, sliced and diced, added and subtracted to adapt the material to celluloid. But Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? brought a cinematic intimacy without much altering of the material. 

In short, there are no easy answers.

Which brings us to The Boys in the Band, Joe Mantello’s masterful adaptation of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play. It’s the latest in what producer Ryan Murphy called his efforts to bring “Broadway shows and Broadway talent to the world.” 

Unlike Murphy’s upcoming direct-to-Netflix flick The Prom — which ditches the Broadway cast in favor of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, et al. — Band features the cast of its 2018 Broadway production, which Mantello also directed.

That proves to have been the right move for this material.

Set in the 1960s, Band is built around a birthday party Michael (Jim Parsons) throws for Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his Manhattan apartment. Dancing and laughter and lip-synching to “Heat Wave” give the surface impression of connectivity and friendship among the guests, all of whom are gay. The uninitiated viewer might think they are in for a film that touches on uncomfortable themes without ever making the viewer uncomfortable. 

That notion is soon dispelled. 

While the gibes are plentiful, those early scenes subtly indicate the hostility and sadness they pack. These characters are adept at defining each other, but their snark belies deeper issues. The arrival of an unexpected outsider, Alan (Brian Hutchison), is the spark that leads to combustion.

It’s easy to see why the play was such a shocker in 1968, with its self-loathing and truth-telling standing in sharp contrast to the largely invisible or disguised gay characters elsewhere on stage and screen. And it’s easy to see why, in the more empowering decades that followed, the play was back-burnered since none of these characters fits the gay best friend / positive-image portrayals that began to emerge on the road to greater representation.  

Seen in 2020, in this form, though, The Boys in the Band stands up. Tall. And while I have not seen it onstage (or in William Friedkin’s 1970 film adaptation), I’m willing to venture that it works better today. 

Looking back on these characters, it’s easier to see how the barely-acknowledged-in-the-text oppression of the straight world boxes these men in, leading them to feelings of guilt and self-hatred and causing them to take out on each other what they feel they can’t change about the outside world. 

Onstage, the play probably provoked more laughter; sometimes the barbs arrive with Neil Simon-level rapidity. But Mantello has modulated it wisely for film. The play leaves the apartment confines briefly — in an opening that helps establish the characters and in brief wordless, confessional flashbacks — but doesn’t awkwardly try to open up the material too much. And Mantello expertly guides the well-honed performances from the theater to the camera without sacrificing what makes them unique. It would have been easy, for instance, to sand the edges off Quinto’s Elliott Gould-like Harold or Robin de Jesus’ in-your-face Emory to make them more palatable to a wide audience. But the beauty of a Netflix release is that it isn’t dependent on box office. 

And that, I hope, may be one of the factors that may give worthwhile work like Band life beyond the stage in such an uncompromised form. 

I only wish someone had thought of this — and followed through with it — with the original August: Osage County cast and other theatrical treasures too numerous to list.


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About

Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block, The High-Impact Infidelity Diet: a novel, the recently released Little Book of Misquotations, and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and Popular Monsters, and his podcast, Lou Harry Gets Real, can be heard via Apple podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. He is Chair of the New Play committee for the American Theatre Critics Association and serves as editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @louharry and / or visit www.louharry.com


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