This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most important works in American theater: The Boys in the Band. When it opened off-Broadway in April, 1968, Mart Crowley’s drama broke new ground by putting openly gay men at the center of the action. As Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, “this is not a play about a homosexual, but a play that takes the homosexual milieu, and the homosexual way of life, totally for granted and uses this as a valid basis of human experience.”

The play concerns seven guys at a birthday bash in a midtown Manhattan apartment. As the liquor flows, so do the bitchy witticisms and bilious expressions of self-hatred. Though the conceit was familiar–not least of all from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Boys in the Band pioneered a new openness about the gay subculture, with its campy humor and sexual explicitness, paving the way for such works as Angels in America, A Chorus Line, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the 1992 Chicago hit Party, which, like The Boys in the Band, depicted a group of gay guys playing a “Truth or Dare”-like game.

Today, of course, Crowley’s portrait of guilt-ridden, self-loathing queers looks dated, and even in 1968 it was slammed for trotting out stereotypes of gays as emotionally stunted basket cases. A year after the play’s premiere, the Stonewall riots launched a new, militant gay liberation movement that aimed to prove–to paraphrase the title of German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim’s 1971 documentary–that it’s not the homosexual who’s perverse, but the society in which he lives. None of the boys in Crowley’s band spoke out against the legal, political, and social discrimination gays endured before rioters at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn resisted police attempts to raid the joint. But–as I wrote when I reviewed About Face Theatre’s 1997 revival–The Boys in the Band depicts “the transformation of a subculture of shame into a community bound by self-understanding, self-respect, loyalty, and love.”

Directed by Robert Moore, the original production featured a nine-member ensemble of relative unknowns. Among them: Kenneth Nelson, who’d played the romantic lead in the premiere of another off-Broadway landmark, The Fantasticks; Laurence Luckinbill, who would come to be known for playing Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier; Cliff Gorman, who subsequently starred as Lenny Bruce in the Broadway hit Lenny; and Leonard Frey, who was later Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of the timid tailor Motel in Fiddler on the Roof. Nelson and Frey, along with several other Boys in the Band cast members, ultimately died of AIDS. (Boze Hadleigh offers a gossipy backstage look at “The Curse of The Boys in the Band” in his book Broadway Babylon.)

Crowley himself was an unknown when he wrote The Boys in the Band. After working as a production assistant on several movies–including The Fugitive Kind, Tennessee Williams’s adaptation of his own Orpheus Descending–he became Natalie Wood’s secretary at around the time she made Inside Daisy Clover (about a 1930s movie actress who marries a closeted gay actor). Wood’s support helped Crowley overcome resistance from industry professionals wary of The Boys in the Band‘s risky subject matter and sometimes raunchy language. (Later, Crowley produced and wrote for the TV series Hart to Hart, starring Wood’s husband, Robert Wagner.)

Crowley’s play was a hit, a spoken-word original-cast LP was released, and by the time the national touring company ran here at the old Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts Building, in 1970, it 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, told me that the Chicago premiere was unnerving. “The audience took the play away from the cast,” he recalled. Chicago 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.”

Earlier this year Alyson Books honored The Boys in the Band‘s 40th by publishing a new edition of the script, with an introduction by Tony Kushner. And last month CBS issued a DVD of the remarkably faithful, brilliantly acted 1970 film version, which was written and produced by Crowley and featured the entire original cast. The DVD also includes featurettes chronicling the creation of the play and the film, as well as commentary by the movie’s Chicago-bred director, William Friedkin–who went on to make The French Connection, The Exorcist, and the homophobic thriller Cruising.

The Boys in the Band broke barriers not only by putting the gay world centerstage but by urging gays to take responsibility for their own situation. “If we could just not hate ourselves so much,” says one character at the end of the play. “That’s it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” Casting off self-hate was a crucial first step in the movement for gay rights, gay pride, and gay power–a movement still being pursued today in the furious nationwide reaction against California’s antigay Proposition 8.