Nordstrom Hosts 'The Boys in the Band'
The cast of the about-to-open revival gathered Sunday night for a panel discussion presented by Vogue.
For sheer buzz factor, you can’t get hotter than The Boys in the Band, the Matt Crowley play that was a game changer for both the New York theater and gay communities when it originally opened in 1968. The star-studded revival opening May 31 is produced by Ryan Murphy, directed by Joe Mantello and includes Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells and Jim Parsons. And with the Tony Awards exactly three weeks away, Nordstrom and Vogue teamed up Sunday night to whet the appetite of Broadway aficionados with a panel discussion featuring some of the players.
“[Joe Mantello] has gone straight from the brilliant Three Tall Women to nine gay men,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour joked — referencing Mantello's Tony-nominated staging of the Edward Albee play starring Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill — when introducing The Boys in the Band cast. (Parsons was absent, recuperating from a foot injury that occurred during a recent performance.) And while reminding the audience that “Vogue is perhaps the oldest friend in the room, having covered theater for more than a century,” she also wanted to honor “the wonderfully inclusive society that the theater has always been; it’s a place of tolerance and open-mindedness at a moment when we need more of both.”
The Boys in the Band tells the story of friends gathering for a weekend birthday celebration at a New York City apartment. “Savage” is a word often used to describe the story and dialogue, which can be as savagely funny as it is brutally honest and biting. Vogue international editor-at-large Hamish Bowles moderated the conversation, kicking off the event by asking the cast their thoughts on how the play’s language has aged: “The ingrained attitudes [among the characters] of that period are so startling to contemporary ears,” he noted.
“I was under the influence of a lot of the stigmas that had been attached to this piece over the last 50 years, that it is reductive or stereotypical, and when I read it, when Ryan called and asked me to do the reading, I just didn’t know how it would live, how it would resonate for a contemporary audience,” said Quinto, who plays Harold. “It’s through the many conversations with Joe and Ryan and my fellow cast members that I understood that this was a perfect moment to tell this story, and our experience has proven that. We’ve come so far in 50 years, legislatively, socially, politically, and at the same time I feel like this is a piece that shows how far we’ve yet to go in terms of true integration and real acceptance in our society. But I would have been kicking myself hard if I had said no and then watched these guys having the blast that they’re having onstage every night.”
Rannells, who plays Larry, agreed. “Matt couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen the rest of 1968 or 1969, all the events ingrained in our culture — Martin Luther King’s assassination is just one example,” he said. “The play for a very brief moment was a real eye-opening event, but the world did change quickly after that. So it’s nice to bring it back with fresh eyes and let it stand both as it did for that brief period of time, and let it stand as it is now.”
Several of the actors pointed to set and costume designer David Zinn for helping to inform and define their characters. Michael Benjamin Washington, who plays Bernard and is the only African-American in the cast, said he had struggled with his place in a cast of otherwise-white men. Conversations with both Crowley and Zinn helped to define those ideas, he said. “I was hitting a wall about not understanding why there was this one black character in this all-white tribe, so I wrote [Crowley] an email and asked him why he did it,” Washington says. “And the response he gave me, based on his own personal experience with an African-American gentleman from the ‘50s, it made me fall in love with the play and fall in love with the part in a way I hadn’t planned on doing.”
When Washington met with Zinn to discuss costumes, Crowley’s notes about that old friend helped. “This boy looked like a Ralph Lauren model, and people always made fun of him because they said he was praying to a white god and reading the white glossy magazines, and somehow he managed to hold onto his dignity,” Washington said. “So when David talked about, ‘What about this green shirt with this wool top — he’s a librarian, so let’s find the ways to bring the dignity of this character out through the costuming,' I was able to really build something on that.”
Bomer, meanwhile, found the bi-level set design both inspiring and evocative of its time period. “It’s this Halston-esque apartment, but the hallway leading to it is this disgusting, muted, glossy taupe with stains on the walls and ugly fluorescent lighting, and then you step into the apartment to see what this queen has done to transform this space,” he said. “It’s such a shock to the system, but we’re so grateful to have this jungle gym that David has given us to play on every night.”
With rehearsals starting in Los Angeles earlier this year (to accommodate Parsons’ need to shoot two episodes of The Big Bang Theory) and the subsequent move to Broadway, the boys in this particular band say they feel like just that: one cohesive unit, bonded by this shared experience. Says Tuc Watkins, who plays Hank, “Every time I go, it feels like Christmas morning. I can’t believe we get to do this every night.”
The Boys in the Band opens May 31 at New York’s Booth Theatre and runs through August 11. Visit boysintheband.com for tickets.