Director Joe Mantello has enormous respect and reverence for playwright Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. As someone who was living in New York City in the early 1980s, Mantello identified with the group of men who have an explosive evening of drunken truths. The original film, directed by William Friedkin, featured the original Off-Broadway cast was not tossed aside when Mantello and his group of actors tackled it for a new audience. This new version of The Boys in the Band harkens back to the original text and Mantello makes a seamless transition from stage to screen.
Queer self-loathing has never been so openly displayed. It’s like a scab has newly formed and the men in Band are eager to rip it off. Mantello establishes a safe space that quickly descends into hell. What begins as a fun birthday party melts as the drinks are poured and the insults fly. I love how he directs his actors to invite the audience to participate. You almost feel as if Jim Parsons is going to hand you a vodka soda.
Mantello didn’t want to make this an easy sit for his audience. He wants you to look inward and he isn’t looking for a clean solution. It’s easy to see why The Boys in the Band has become such an iconic piece, but Mantello breathes such vitality into it. By honoring the past and looking towards the future, Mantello has established a new classic.
Awards Daily: I didn’t realize that you also directed Love! Valour! Compassion!
Joe Mantello: Yes, I did.
AD: That was a movie that I saw as a young gay person growing up—I think it was one of the ones that I could rent from my local video store. It features some gay actors like Stephen Spinella but also straight actors like Jason Alexander. All of the actors in The Boys in the Band are gay and out, and I was wondering what that meant to you?
JM: I love that part of the conversation acknowledges that they are all out and gay. I also don’t want that to overshadow the fact that they were truly cast because they are all brilliant and we knew they’d be great in these roles. The wonderful additional gift was that they were all out was extra. In some way, when you talk about that, it somehow suggests that their sexuality was the leading factor in getting these roles.
AD: It’s a bonus.
AD: And I love that we get to see these particular actors in roles that we haven’t seen them in before. I’m a huge Andrew Rannells fan, and he’s great. I’ve been a fan of Robin de Jesús since Camp and he brings this unapologetically flamboyant, dignified performance.
JM: I love when that happens. When you take an actor and you think you know them for one thing and you put them in a role that is so diametrically opposed to something that they do well. That’s why I think Jim [Parsons] is so brilliant in it.
AD: Oh, yeah.
JM: I know that Jim has talked about it and so have I, but I describe it as his Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People moment.
AD: (Laughs) I love that.
JM: He asked me what I meant and I told him that I love the tension between an actor that and audience has great affection for put into a part that is tricky and spiky and cruel. You can feel the tension. That’s what I remember when I saw Ordinary People. I was blown away. It was really influential for when I started casting. Understanding that dichotomy.
AD: I remember when my mom told me to watch that movie because she knew what a fan I was of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
JM: She’s so extraordinary in it.
AD: I love how you open up the film. I feel like whenever we get a film adaptation of a play, that’s the first thing people are most critical of—how did the filmmakers make it feel like we weren’t seeing a play on a stage. The memories are really beautiful. In Bernard’s memory, we don’t see their faces.
AD: Emory’s memory feels very dreamlike. What was the biggest concern with opening up the text?
JM: I wouldn’t say there were any major concerns. We worked from Mart’s original screenplay, so many of these choices you mention live in that version. We wanted to keep one foot in the past and one foot in the present and we wanted to examine the aspects that might be more problematic now than they were in 1969. Our guiding principle, at all times, was what were the tools that we have that can shine light on these characters to make them more three-dimensional. That’s not to say that the original version didn’t do that. It certainly did exquisitely in its own way. But it was made in a time when things were relentlessly bleak and there appeared to be no hope in sight. I think that’s why the play has been a lightning rod for so many years. It captured that beautifully.
JM: We are looking at it with the perspective of history. We know what’s around the corner for these guys so that helps us contextualize the loathing and the same in that room. What’s around the corner is complicated and they are going to live through some even harder times in the next 10 years. As somebody who was in New York in the early ’80s, I saw how this community took care of each other. I saw the tenderness and I saw the heroics. I saw the connection. In some way, we wanted to acknowledge that part of the gay identity so it could coexist. Mart has written a very uncompromising, tough play, and I think that’s why it’s lasted so long and become a classic. He wasn’t interested in pleasing everyone. I hope people don’t think that we softened it, because we wanted to be true to what he wrote but also find nuance in that.
AD: I had forgotten how harsh it is. That cruelty surprised me even though I was so familiar with it. I enjoy how not easy it is.
JM: Yeah, it’s great! It’s a beautiful piece of art. Forgive this word, but a group of artists can approach the same text but you bring your true selves and bring your life experiences to it. The life experiences of these men are very different than that of the original cast. So both are a reflection of what they know. The play is sturdy enough to be unpacked in different ways. I like that conversation because that’s a testament to the strength of the play.
AD: I kept wondering what the original actors would have thought of this new version since we have seen so many things happen within the community. We’ve lost a lot of the actors from the original cast, but I want a roundtable discussion to happen somehow.
JM: We had Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White at our opening night.
AD: That’s great.
JM: It was incredibly moving to see them meet their counterparts. I know Brian Hutchison talks with Peter a few times a week. The tux he wore to opening night was the tux that he wore in the movie.
AD: That’s so cool. I love that. Once the men come in from the balcony when the rainstorm happens, it feels very claustrophobic. I felt like the actors were in my face a little bit to the point where I thought Jim was going to hand me the phone. I imagine that establishing that on stage is different than doing it with a camera, and I was wondering if you could tell me about that energy as the mood shifts?
JM: One thing that I think is so brilliant about Mart’s adaptation of his play is how he starts it. He starts it in an expansive way and shows us some of New York and we see the guys around in the city. There is some air around them and you place them in society. Gradually, it constricts a bit and we get into the party but he’s added that terrace which by its very nature is surrounded by the city and by sky. People are moving throughout the party and there’s something fluid about them being in this space. They are running all over–they’re in the kitchen and they are upstairs. They are released in this space. The brilliant stroke was creating that thunderstorm because it forces them inside. When those doors shut, you can feel the air go out of that room.
AD: Yeah, I could feel it.
JM: We shot it a bit differently. We wanted to get more people in the frame. There were oftentimes where the composition was messy with someone in the foreground and you’d see other characters behind them. You get this feeling of claustrophobia with how certain shots are framed.
AD: I feel like a very unwilling participant. There are moments that make me very uncomfortable.
JM: That’s good. I like hearing that.
AD: I am in love with the ending—that montage where all the guys are taking a breath. The shot of Brian at the bar by himself reminded me of Dennis Quaid from Far From Heaven. It’s a beautiful way to let us all take a breath and it’s so gently directed. I’m haunted by Jim running away from the camera.
JM: To go back to the original, the play and the movie, Michael’s last line is, “As my father said to me when he died in my arms: ‘I don’t understand any of it. I never did.'” It leaves you hanging and you’re suspended. What does it all mean? With the benefit of history, we know what’s going to happen. I wanted to acknowledge that in the final montage. How are each of these individual characters affected by each one? Are they going to be able to recover? What would tomorrow bring for them? In some way, the last shot is a variation on the question that Michael poses at the end of the original. It is meant to be provocative in the way it poses the question. I know when Ryan [Murphy] saw the film, he asked me, “Why do you have Michael running back to Donald?” and it never occurred to me what he was doing. I thought he was just running down the street. Whether he is running from his past or running towards his future…I’m very interested in that conversation.
AD: I actually thought he was trying to escape from all of us. He’s had eyes on him all night and he’s even trying to get away from the audience.
JM: Yeah. I think that’s an amazing interpretation. Someone told me he thought that he was running back to church. I think these are all so provocative and interesting questions because it’s such a compelling play.
AD: I was curious how an audience might respond to the language in the play because we live in a world where everything is analyzed and critiqued. Did you think an audience in 2020 might think some of the things we say to one another—sissy, Mary, faggot—would be too shocking?
JM: I took my cues from Mart. I am going to do something that is uncompromising. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. I listen to people talk today, and I don’t think it’s radically different. I don’t think, “Hey, Mary” is that much different than “Yasss, Queen.”
AD: (Laughs) That’s true.
JM: Is it? It is our language. It’s evolved since then, but I don’t think it’s a secret language, which it was at the time. I don’t think young people will have any trouble connecting with this story. None. Obviously, your question was if we considered it. Of course we did. There are cruel, painful things that they say to each other, and I am not a person who wants to inflict cruelty in an irresponsible way. My first duty is to the truth and the integrity to what Mart wrote. I have no issue with that. I don’t engage in social media and I’m sure people will talk about it. They should. It’s part of the contract that one makes with this play.
AD: What do you think Midnight Cowboy is going to take from this evening?
JM: People always say it’s a play about 8 or 9 characters full of self-loathing, and I think that boy knows exactly who he is. When he says, “I like to show a little affection. It makes me feel less like a whore”…that’s somebody who, in his slightly inarticulate or articulate way, wants to make a connection. It makes you feel better. I like how he is drawn into this group, but I don’t think it will have that much of an impact on him since I don’t think he’s playing on their level. I don’t think he’s corruptible. He’s an innocent.
AD: There’s a doe-eyed confidence that Charlie Carver brings to that role that I didn’t expect. It’s very matter-of-fact that comes across as very sweet. He does a lot with a character that some may write off.
JM: I think so, too. I told him not to fall into the trap of playing dumb. I wanted him to explore the kind of person who is very literal. They don’t understand irony or snark or satirical language. I wanted him to take everything as face value. There are no other meanings. Charlie didn’t fall into the trap of playing a dumb dumb.
AD: We don’t know when we are going to be able to enjoy theater again, but what’s your ultimate dream project? If you could choose anything to direct next as a sort of comeback to when the pandemic has dulled, what would you want to do?
JM: I never made choices like that. Well, that’s not true. (Laughs) Right before Broadway shut down, I was going Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and it was a play that I had wanted to direct for a long time with Laurie Metcalfe. We were nine previews in when we had to shut down, and I don’t know if we will ever go back. That felt like a process that was interrupted and of all the horrible things that are happening in the world, that was certainly low on the list. But it was a disappointment. I’d love to revisit that sometime because I think Laurie was extraordinary in it. I’d like to play it out to its conclusion.
The Boys in the Band is streaming now on Netflix.