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Playwright Mart Crowley: ‘Showbusiness is about luck – God knows, we’ve all had flops’

Mart Crowley

After Mart Crowley found success with his groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band, about the lives of gay men in New York, he struggled to come up with a follow-up hit. Now, as revivals on Broadway and in London are restoring his reputation, he tells Mark Shenton why he feels vindicated after years of being out of fashion

In The Boys in the Band – Mart Crowley’s lacerating, hilarious and poignant play about a group of gay friends who gather for a birthday party – one character says: “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

The play premiered Off-Broadway in 1968, a year before the Stonewall riots that ushered in the modern era of gay liberation. But that line is a stark reminder of the internalised homophobia and self-loathing in parts of the gay community at the time. The Boys in the Band was a trailblazing work that presented an unashamed, unapologetic portrait of gay life in all its complexity for the first time on the American stage.

Half a century later it is a smash hit on Broadway, where it is being staged for the first time. Its 50th-anniversary production is sold out and features an all-star, all-gay cast that includes Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory; Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek franchise; and Andrew Rannells, who was Broadway’s original Elder Price in The Book of Mormon. Its director, Joe Mantello, calls Crowley a “pioneer”.

The Boys in the Band starring Zachary Quinto – review at Booth Theatre, New York – ‘timeless resonance’

‘It was awfully depressing to see The Boys in the Band go off a cliff, after its initial acceptance, then rejected and decried’

Meeting the genial and gentle playwright, who is now 82, over lunch at Joe Allen on 46th Street, he talks about the pleasure he takes in the play’s journey – and that of the gay community. “It’s nice to have lived long enough to have seen that happen,” he says. “It was awfully depressing to see [the play] go off a cliff, after its initial acceptance, then rejected and decried.”

Reviewing an Off-Broadway revival of the play in 1996, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: “It is, apparently, okay to like The Boys in the Band again. For many years, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play, a tart-tongued study of homosexuality and its discontents, seemed to have been consigned to its own shameful closet. What had initially been heralded with breathless, approving adjectives (frank! brave! brutally honest!) appeared to become an anachronism more quickly than bell bottoms.”

Today, though, the play seems uniquely insightful about issues that the gay community still wrestles with. Mark Gatiss, who starred in a revival of the play at the Park Theatre in London two years ago, which subsequently toured and played the West End, said he had wanted to be in it since seeing the film when he was 12. “It’s an important play – it’s fascinating to see where we were, where we’ve got to, and between that, where we think things have changed or not at all. You know that a play is good when you stage it at different times and it means something different each time.”

Of its ongoing importance, Crowley says: “We didn’t know that 50 years ago, but I did know that I was right on time. It was a matter of my having the luck to be the one who got the play done. Surely within another six months, or a year, someone else would have written something like it – it was in the air.”

Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, a work that bookended the generation of gay liberation ushered in by The Boys in the Band, wrote in an introduction to a new edition of Crowley’s work: “Mart Crowley’s play courageously answered the call of a historical moment and drew into itself not only the truths specific to that single fleeting moment, but the ferocious, off-kilter, half-awake, half-dreaming, scary and hopeful truths of all such moments of Pre-Dawn. Possibly. So here we are, deeds later, still scrutinising, still thinking about it.”

Mart Crowley with Charlie Carver, who appears in the 50th-anniversary production of The Boys in the Band on Broadway

Q&A: Mart Crowley

What was your first job?
After I arrived in New York, I began by working as an assistant on movies – my first was a three-week quickie on a Mickey Rooney movie. Natalie Wood then hired me as her assistant, and I went to Hollywood with her, helping her on West Side Story and Gypsy. We become every close and she was a like a godmother to The Boys in the Band. And her daughter is my goddaughter.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I don’t think there is anything I could have been told to dissuade me from the life I wanted to live. My family frowned on my getting involved in the theatre, but I was absolutely determined and headstrong, no one could have talked me out of it.

Who is your biggest influence?
The playwrights that were famous when I was at an impressionable age and first came to New York. I saw the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I couldn’t get out of my seat at the end.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
I don’t have any, but I do find auditions so painful for everybody – those poor people who have to audition and the horror of having to sit through the bad ones.

If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
A set designer – I gravitated towards that at college.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No superstitions – and I’m too disorganised for rituals.

The play has stood the test of time, but Crowley hasn’t been so lucky with all his other works. We are speaking ahead of the European premiere of his subsequent, largely unknown, play For Reasons That Remain Unclear at the King’s Head in London. It originally premiered at the Olney Theatre in Maryland 25 years ago. It was, he says, staged “in the wrong place at the wrong time – but it’s now 25 years later, and we’ll see what happens”.

For Reasons That Remain Unclear suffered, he feels, by being ahead of its time. “The play is about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and although people knew about it happening, it certainly wasn’t in the headlines. No one had been rounded up or accused or punished. So it was perceived as being a sacrilegious attack on the clergy. The play got a bad rep for being scandalous: how dare I accuse priests of inappropriate behaviour? That overshadowed any merit it had at all.”

For Reasons That Remain Unclear runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London, from July 27 to August 25

He expects it may still arouse controversy, and compares it to John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt, a Broadway hit about a similar subject. “That play drove me crazy: it was successful and good and people embraced it,” he says. “But Doubt is about doubt and my play is about being without a doubt. There’s no discussion of maybe they did or didn’t do it. They did.”

Being ahead of your time, he says, can be tough: “You can’t be behind the times for sure, or you get accused of copying someone who has done it already, but if you are too far out there, too, you also get slammed.”

‘I was in tears and shock at the end of Long Day’s Journey Into Night – it was the story of my life’

Crowley admits that he has fallen into the trap of homage, when other writers have got to subjects first. “I saw the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I couldn’t get out of my seat at the end. I was in tears and in shock,” he says. “It was the story of my life. My mother was addicted to morphine and my father was a roaring alcoholic. I did eventually write my own version of that, A Breeze in the Gulf, which was about my life with two crazy people, but it falls in the shadow of O’Neill.”

Crowley was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1935 and worked in television when he met and became friends with the film star Natalie Wood, for whom he wrote a script that came to nothing. So, aged 31, he sat down to write a play. That was The Boys in the Band, which ran for 1,000 performances Off-Broadway and was adapted into a film by William Friedkin in 1970. But after the Stonewall riots it fell out of fashion and he struggled to come up with a follow-up hit.

The rediscovery of The Boys in the Band feels like vindication after years of being out of favour. “I’ve been really very lucky. Luck has an awful lot to do with showbusiness – and with life. God knows, we’ve all had flops.”

Finally getting to Broadway is, he says with a smile, “better than a kick in the head with a frozen boot”. He continues: “There’s something about getting older and not being the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed thing I was 50 years ago: certainly anyone would have wanted to have their plays done on Broadway, but none of my mine were. So, having lived long enough for it to happen and to see it happen, there is some fulfilment that I can breathe easily now.”

For Reasons That Remain Unclear runs at the King’s Head Theatre in London from July 27 to August 25.

CV: Mart Crowley

Born: 1935, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Training: Catholic University of America, Maryland

Landmark productions: The Boys in the Band, Theater Four, Off-Broadway (1968); The Men from the Boys, New Conservatory Theater Center, San Francisco (2002)

Agent: Buddy Thomas at Samuel French

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