“The Boys in the Band” rocked Broadway when it debuted in 1968. The controversial play depicts a catty birthday bash full of drunk, self-loathing homosexual men, and was questioned both for whether it was tasteful enough for the stage and its representation of the gay lifestyle.
Fast-forward 50 years to 2018, and what’s remembered is the trailblazing legacy of the show that paved the way for other explorations of gay culture on Broadway, most famously Jonathan Larson’s 1994 musical Rent.
Back on Broadway at the Booth Theater with an all-star, all-gay cast for a limited run through Aug. 11, a new generation has a chance to experience The Boys in the Band in their own way. Robin De Jesus, who plays the flamboyant Emory, tell us it’s never been more clear how brave and real the characters actually are — though it may have been hard to see at the time.
“In 1968, this was the only piece of mainstream art that represented gay people,” he explains. “Everyone wanted that image of being a ‘normal’ part of society, and what they got was men getting really drunk and releasing their rage. And they couldn’t see that these men were so loving toward each other, but they were taking so much crap from the outside world that they were projecting it onto one another. And I think the only reason we can see the show that way today is because of the progress we’ve made.”
His own character takes the brunt of the mockery, including a physical assault. “[Emory] is very effeminate, and he won’t compromise that for society’s norms. He’s definitely had his ass kicked a few times for it. Emory’s the bravest person in the room, in the show. He’s the only one who’s not willing to pretend, to pass.”
De Jesus’ own coming out process really “rattled his sense of masculinity,” but he was more equipped to confront the status quo than the characters in the ‘60s would have been: “When you’re just worried about surviving, I don’t know if you have time to sit there and [challenge norms]. I can only do that now because of my privilege.”
It’s not the first time that De Jesus has used his own history to inform his roles. His first big part was in the film “Camp,” as a boy who is beat up for wearing a dress to prom, and he made his Broadway debut in 2005 in “Rent,” which he agrees was made possible by shows like “Boys in the Band” — a map of progress that he calls “accumulative and beautiful.”
“You know what’s funny? I have not been to parties that have gotten that dark before, but some of my cast members said they have,” he says. “I would be interested in a modern retelling. While it would look different, this play could still happen today, in real life.”
At the same time, he thinks it’s important to note that the play’s messages transcend any one class of people. “So many people think the play is only a gay story, but that couldn’t be further from the truth — it represents what being ostracized does to you and how it affects your mind,” he says.
“I had a female friend come who kept crying because it made her realize how she wasn’t valuing herself. No matter how confident you are, there have to be moments in the back of the head when the things that others say actually affect [you].”
Aside from it being a milestone anniversary year for the show, the revival also returns with significant timing just ahead of New York Pride Month. “There’s so much to be proud of in watching nine out, gay men doing a historical, landmark play together, with a fabulous gay director [Joe Mantello],” De Jesus says. “That feels eventful, and joyful. It’s what we’ve been fighting for, for so long — and I hope it keeps happening for all marginalized groups.”