Mart Crowley had only one hit play in his entire career, but, oh, what a hit it was.
In 1968, he wrote The Boys in the Band, the first commercially successful stage work about gay men, who get together one evening for a birthday party and lash out at each other with acid-dripped quips. It ran off-Broadway for more than 1,000 performances, had a national tour and was adapted by Crowley for the big screen with the entire original stage cast.
The play was both embraced and reviled by the gay community. Embraced for bringing gay life into the mainstream, but reviled because each of the gay characters are ultimately shown to be self-loathing. Still it would not be an exaggeration to say that Crowley and Boys in the Band paved the way for Torch Song Trilogy, Angels in America and so many other gay-themed works.
Crowley, 84, died March 7 of complications following heart surgery. Although he wrote several other plays and worked a great deal in television, including a five-year stint as producer and co-writer of the Robert Wagner-Stefanie Powers series, Hart to Hart, his enduring legacy will be The Boys in the Band.
In 2018, a revival of the play with an all-out-gay cast that included Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer and Zach Quinto came to Broadway, winning Crowley a Tony Award for best revival. It was a crowning vindication of Crowley from an industry that had largely turned its back on him. Alas, he died before seeing the production filed for Netflix, expected to be released later this year.
In Washington, D.C., where I grew up, there was a repertory movie house called the Circle Theatre, which showed The Boys in the Band each year (curiously paired with Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns). And each year, the woman who would become my wife, a gay friend of ours and I would make a pilgrimage to the Circle to see The Boys in the Band. Over time, we had the zinger-laden script virtually memorized.
“Give me Librium or give me meth.”
“There’s one thing to be said for masturbation. You certainly don’t have to look your best.”
“Let’s do this again real soon.” “Yeah, how about a year from Shavuos.”
“Kiss me quick, I’m Carmen.”
These lines became part of our everyday repartee.
Of the hundreds of interviews I have done over the years, one of my favorites was Crowley. In 1993, he was bringing his latest play, a two-hander confrontation between a Catholic priest and the now-grown former student he had sexually abused, to be premiered at the Olney Theatre in the Maryland suburbs of D.C.
(The play was titled For Reasons That Remain Unclear. To promote the play prior to its arrival, the theater’s public relations staffer would tout the fact that they were going to produce Crowley’s new play for reasons that remain unclear. That dubious-sounding endorsement left the audience scratching its collective heads.)
Although I absolutely revered Crowley, I found him remarkably down to earth, self-effacing and candid about the disappointment-strewn road he had traveled since The Boys in the Band. “Working in Hollywood and my life sort of nosediving, I just became a total alcoholic, y’know,” he told me. “Oddly enough, even psychoanalysis didn’t stop me from drinking. I mean, I just took an emotional, intellectual dive and stayed drunk for about three years” after the failure of his Southern memory play, A Breeze From the Gulf.
Still, he was buoyant about the potential for his new play to put him back on top. After our interview, stuck out in the Maryland suburbs without anyone to lap up his stories, he asked if I wanted to go to dinner. Over dinner, with my tape recorder away, he regaled me with dishy anecdotes of Hollywood A-listers, including Natalie Wood, for whom he was personal assistant for many years.
In contrast to the fairly somber interview, Crowley was lively and glib over dinner. Although he was now a balding, bespectacled, 58-year-old, one could squint and see the young Mart, one of the boys in the band.
For Reasons That Remain Unclear opened to wanly positive reviews – including mine, I must concede – and its history afterwards was negligible. It, like everything else Crowley wrote was, unfairly, measured against his hit from 25 years earlier and found wanting.
But oh, what a play The Boys in the Band was. Is.