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'The Boys in the Band' returns to Broadway to mark its 50th anniversary

In a twist from the original, this version of the play about gay life in Manhattan features nine actors who are out.

Robin de Jesus, left, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin

Robin de Jesus, left, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington and Brian Hutchison of "The Boys in the Band." Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

“I remember seeing it and kind of being scared by it,” says Brian Hutchison.

“I thought, ‘We’ve come so far — why do we want to go do that thing again?’ ” Tuc Watkins recalls.

“I was very reluctant,” says Michael Benjamin Washington.

But that was before these three actors began rehearsals for the first Broadway production of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play about gay life in New York. “Boys” debuted at a tiny Off-Broadway theater in 1968 to critical acclaim, spawning a film version — and controversy. Now, 50 years later, two-time Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello is encouraging theatergoers — as his actors did — to reconsider this tale.

The limited-run production, now in previews and opening at the Booth Theatre on May 31, features an impressive ensemble cast. The nine men — including Jim Parsons (“Big Bang Theory”), Zachary Quinto (“Star Trek”), Matt Bomer (“White Collar”) and Andrew Rannells (“Girls,” “Book of Mormon”) — are notable not just for their name recognition. They’re also all gay. And out. And that, it seems, changes everything about this show.

Back in 1968, Crowley’s “Boys” caused a sensation, daring to present a cross-section of gay men gathered at a New York apartment to celebrate a friend’s birthday. There’s Michael, a sharp-tongued neurotic (Parsons) hosting a cynic (Quinto), all-American underachiever (Bomer), Lothario (Rannells), jock math teacher (Watkins), quiet clerk (Washington), hustler (Charlie Carver) and flamboyant decorator (Robin de Jesús). Enter a surprise guest — a WASP-y attorney (Hutchison) who’s straight . . . maybe.

“The party starts out fun,” says Watkins. “Until it’s not.”

Very not. The script — while covering issues that still plague gay men — unleashes a torrent of booze- and drug-fueled barbs, snipes and shade.

“You show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” says Michael.

It’s lines like that — and other slurs — that earned the show a bad rap. Yes, it was great to finally see gay men as fully realized characters, not — as was then standard — freak-show villains or cheap comic relief. But did they all need to be so unhappy?

Gathered in a lower lobby at the Booth, cast members Watkins, Hutchison and Washington are pondering what makes this “Boys” version feel and sound so different. There haven’t been significant rewrites — just minor edits to condense the original two-act play into one act.

Parsons, they agree, is a game-changing host.

“Jim has such an approachability, a light touch and humor at the beginning that allows the audience in,” says Hutchison.

But it’s not all about Parsons. He tripped and fractured his foot May 12, requiring his understudy, Matt McGrath, to temporarily replace him for two performances.

It’s their shared orientation that seems to carry the most weight.

“There’s a support and empathy [within the cast] that’s just sort of understood, even if you don’t know everybody’s specific story,” says Hutchison.

That dynamic can lead in unexpected directions.

“I asked one of our understudies a question about his wife, and he said, ‘Hhhhhhow did you know I had a wife?’—as if I’d outed him as a straight person,” says Watkins. “I thought, ‘Yeah, take that,’ ” he jokes, and the others laugh. “I didn’t mean anything by it — it’s just that so much of my career was spent hiding my sexuality,” says the actor, whose resume includes stints on “One Life to Live” and “Desperate Housewives.” He found it refreshing when the tables were inadvertently turned.

Not that straight actors can’t play these roles. Hetero actor Cliff Gorman played flamboyant Emory in the original production and film. By today’s standards, his comic mincing seems off. Over-the-top. But ultimately, gay, straight — does it matter who plays what?

“I think it does — now,” says Robin de Jesüs, who plays Emory in the current run. “When you’re out and gay, no one wants to see you play straight. They say they can ‘see the gay,’ quote unquote,” he says. (That’s got to be frustrating, given that no one seemed to mind “seeing the straight” in Gorman’s performance. He won an Obie.) So that leaves gay actors like de Jesús with gay roles, unless straight guys get those, too.

The presentation of realistic gay stories doesn’t stop at casting. Increasingly, marginalized groups — women, people of color, members of the trans community — have been advocating for more of a presence in director’s chairs, TV writer’s rooms and the like, to help authentically create their stories from the ground up.

That’s the next battle, one that the boys in this particular “band” probably couldn’t have imagined back in 1968.

“Joe Mantello, our director, always said, ‘No matter what happens in this play . . . remember that these guys all love one another,’” de Jesús recalls. “I think that shows. We’re all gay and proud, and have a sense of community because of one another. Maybe that is what will make our version special.”

THE ORIGINAL 'BOYS' — WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Early in “The Boys in the Band,” one boy refers to an acquaintance suddenly canceling an appointment. Why? “Oh, a virus or something — he was just too sick.”

In 1968, when the play debuted, and 1970, when director William Friedkin’s film version premiered with the same cast, a virus meant nothing more than a cold or flu. Just over a decade later, a more insidious infection would take its toll on the cast.

KENNETH NELSON (Michael, the host) — The original Matt in “The Fantasticks,” Nelson moved to London, appearing in musicals. He died of AIDS at age 63 in 1993.

LEONARD FREY (Harold, the birthday boy) — He played Motel, the tailor, in the film “Fiddler on the Roof,” earning an Oscar nomination. He died of AIDS at age 49 in 1988.

FREDERICK COMBS (Donald, the underachiever)— He became a playwright, director and teacher. Another AIDS victim, he died at age 56 in 1992.

KEITH PRENTICE (Larry, the lothario) — After appearing in TV’s “Dark Shadows,” and Friedkin’s “Cruising,” he ran a theater in his native Ohio before dying of AIDS at age 52 in 1992.

LAURENCE LUCKINBILL (Hank, the teacher) — A heterosexual playing gay? Career suicide! He ignored this advice, played the role, then embarked on a longtime film and TV career. Now 83, he’s married to Lucie Arnaz.

CLIFF GORMAN (Emory, the decorator) — The straight actor was typecast as gay till he won a Tony in 1971 playing Lenny Bruce in “Lenny.” A successful film and TV career followed. He died of leukemia in 2002 at age 65.

ROBERT LA TOURNEAUX (Cowboy, the hustler) — Unable to get work post-“Boys,” he wound up a real-life hustler. Gorman and his wife took in and cared for him after he contracted HIV. He died, at age 44, in 1986.

REUBEN GREENE (Bernard, the clerk) — The actor appeared in TV commercials and the soap “Where the Heart Is.” His current whereabouts are unknown.

PETER WHITE (Alan, the attorney) — Now 80 and living in Los Angeles, he enjoyed a steady TV career, with roles on “Dallas,” “The Colbys,” “Sisters” and “All My Children.” — JOSEPH V. AMODIO

                  

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