A scene from the 1970 movie version of The Boys in the Band Credit: Sun-Times print collection

The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of many landmark cultural events (the original release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Broadway debut of Hair, the release of the Beatles’ White Album, etc.)—including the premiere of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking gay-themed drama The Boys in the Band, which opened on April 15, 1968, at the off-Broadway venue Theatre Four, produced by the visionary Richard Barr, whose other producing credits included Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and The American Dream and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days.

Fifty years after its debut, the ever-controversial landmark play is coming to Broadway, set to open May 31 (following a month of previews—this is Broadway, after all).

Boys was the first mainstream, commercially successful American play in which all the leading characters were gay men. They were not outsiders in a straight environment. The play has been roundly denounced over the years for allegedly perpetuating ugly stereotypes of gay men as self-hating and pathological. What’s often overlooked is that the script actually charts the characters’ first steps toward ridding themselves of the self-hate and self-destructive behavior that characterizes them at the beginning of the play. Every character has an arc toward self-liberation. Each character wrestles with a particular “issue” related to gayness, carefully (perhaps too clinically) charted by Crowley. For Michael it’s Catholic guilt. For Harold, it’s being “ugly” and Jewish. For Emory, effeminacy. For Bernard, racism/Uncle Tomism. For Hank, closetedness and clinging to heteronormative standards (eg. monogamy); for Hank’s lover Larry, promiscuity. The hustler Cowboy seeks to be appreciated as a person, not just a sex object. And Donald, the most well adjusted of the boys, is seeing a psychiatrist. By the end, all of them have taken steps toward escaping their self-oppression. It’s really a very positive play that—as I wrote when I reviewed About Face Theatre’s 1997 production—depicts “the transformation of a subculture of shame into a community bound by self-understanding, self-respect, loyalty, and love.” I hope the upcoming high-profile Broadway revival captures that aspect.

When he wrote the play, Crowley was an unknown former Hollywood production assistant and onetime secretary to movie star Natalie Wood, whose support was crucial in getting the play produced. The show was a hit; a spoken-word original-cast LP was released, and a 1970 movie version directed by William Friedkin featured the entire original cast reprising their stage roles. By the time the national touring company appeared here at the Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts Building, also in 1970, Boys had developed a cult audience that could—and sometimes did—speak the dialogue along with the actors. Bill Moor, a member of the touring cast, later told me that the Chicago premiere (a benefit for the “homophile” organization Mattachine Midwest) was unnerving. “The audience took the play away from the cast,” he recalled. Sun-Times critic Glenna Syse reported that the largely gay opening-night crowd “hooted, hollered, and applauded” the play’s bitchy, often blue witticisms, adding, “I plan to go back . . . on some quiet night—say when the performance is a benefit for Field and Stream or Family Circle.”

Here are some further thoughts of mine on Boys in the Band, published ten years ago on the Bleader.