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Mart Crowley, ‘Boys in the Band’ Playwright, Dies at 84


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Mart Crowley, the writer of The Boys in the Band, the pioneering 1968 play about a group of openly gay and bisexual friends in New York City, has died. He was 84. 

The playwright died Saturday night in Manhattan of complications from heart surgery, friend David Cuthbert told The New York Times.

In Hollywood, Crowley worked in television production for years starting in 1957 before becoming an assistant and lifelong friend to actress Natalie Wood.

Crowley is best known for The Boys in the Band, which premiered off-Broadway in April 1968 and became a major word-of-mouth success, running for more than two years. Set in an Upper East Side apartment as events unfolded during a birthday party, the play was revolutionary in providing cultural representation to openly gay characters in an unvarnished portrayal of gay life. Up until that time, most gay characters in American theater had either been heavily veiled or demonized.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter’s Seth Abramovitch last year, Crowley described the feedback he received when he was writing The Boys in the Band. “I remember being in a bar — not a gay bar but just a cocktail bar — with a gay executive from one of the TV networks. I said, ‘I’m thinking about this play.’ ‘Oh, that’s great. So what’s it about?’ So I told him and he said, ‘You’re never going to get that made. Are you kidding? God almighty, don’t start doing that!’”

Yet the play quickly became a sensation. It was about half-full on the first performance. On the second, you couldn’t get in the door to the workshop space because there were so many people,” he said. “On top of that, the phone was ringing off the hook from every celebrity in town, from Leonard Bernstein to that whole West Side Story group. Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, they all came that week.”

In 1970, The Boys in the Band was adapted into a film by William Friedkin, with Crowley producing and writing the screenplay and the ensemble cast made up of actors featured in the off-Broadway run. The movie also became a pioneering LGBTQ work, one of the first mainstream American movies to feature openly gay lead characters.

However, the play — and the movie even more so — became quite divisive in the years that followed the Stonewall Riots and the evolution of gay rights; it was both loved and hated within the gay community, with many rejecting its perceived perpetuation of negative gay stereotypes of bitchiness, self-loathing and shallowness.

The work’s complicated cultural legacy was examined in director Crayton Robey’s 2011 feature documentary, Making the Boys. That film also reflects on the heavy toll of the AIDS crisis on the original company, claiming the lives of five original castmembers as well as director Robert Moore and producer Richard Barr. 

In 2002, Crowley’s sequel, The Men From the Boys, premiered in San Francisco. It caught up with the lives of the characters 35 years after the events of the original.

The Boys in the Band has been revived several times — twice off-Broadway, in 1996 and again in 2010, the latter in an immersive, site-specific production staged in a Chelsea penthouse; in a West End production in 2016; and a 50th anniversary Broadway revival in 2018 that featured an all-star cast of out gay actors including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells. It was co-produced by Ryan Murphy and David Stone and directed by Joe Mantello.

In his review, THR chief theater critic David Rooney wrote that Mantello had reinvigorated the play with “an acute understanding” of the wounds intolerance inflicts: “In the 1980s, the gay community’s anguished response to the AIDS crisis made the insular hedonism of Crowley’s characters seem trivial. But in the post-equality era, the play stands as a compelling portrayal of internecine savagery bred by the stigma of isolation and oppression, by turns bitingly funny and moving.”

The play was nominated for two Tony Awards and won for best revival; due to an overhaul in awards policy that year, living playwrights of revival winners were included for the first time among Tony honorees, not just producers. The award helped cement the cultural reassessment of Crowley’s play as a breakthrough work that opened doors to gradually widening LGBTQ representation across the entertainment industry.

Murphy, Stone and Ned Martel are producing a movie adaptation for Netflix featuring the stars of the 2018 Broadway production, with Mantello returning to direct. The film is expected this year. 

Outside of the theater, the Mississippi native worked in television for much of the 1980s and ’90s, serving as a producer on ABC’s Hart to Hart (and writing two television movie spinoffs of the show) and scripting a number of telefilms. Crowley also had writing credits on the ABC primetime soaps Dynasty and The Colbys

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