The Baton of “Boys in the Band” is Set Down: Mart Crowley, 1935-2020

Mart Crowley last June accepting the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play for "Boys in the Band."
Reuters/ Brendan McDermid

Dear Mart Crowley,

When I went to your amazing, ultra-chic aerie on Sutton Place, which was like the most exquisite stage set Ina Claire might have entered and somehow made you feel like being in Paris, we sat before the fire with cocktails and you gave me the longest interview on record. What was it — four solid hours, maybe more? Which flew by like nothing.

I started by asking you about your famous actress friend and surprised you when it wasn’t Natalie Wood, but Diana Lynn I wanted to know about, who always fascinated me much more, a trained classical pianist who somehow went Hollywood and gave two of the most enchanting performances on film for two great directors, Billy Wilder (“The Major and the Minor”) and Preston Sturges (“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”).

And then, yes, it was on to Natalie, with you recalling the day you heard that dreadful news, to Bette for whom you wrote that pilot with her as an interior decorator, and, of course, “The Boys in the Band.”

I told you how much seeing that as a kid in Hawaii meant to me, as it normalized — even with all the neurosis, a bugaboo to the politically correct with no clue as to the reality of the past, or present I might add — two things I wanted more than anything else in my life then: to be healthily gay and to live in New York. I bought the paperback of the script and just about memorized it. Like every little gay boy in the world, I lusted for Frederick Combs and thrilled to the “Heat Wave” line dance. (Could there have been a better song choice?) And the fact that the characters were so old-movie-obsessed like me?

Fuggedaboudit! (Now most young gays seem to only be into Gaga, “Drag Race,” Grindr and the gym.) And how I ached to see more of that tantalizing tome Leonard Frey, so brilliant as Harold, kept idly leafing through as he spat the best vitriol ever.

I knew, of course that I would learn a lot about your most famous play, but this surprised me: Mart, when I told you I was Korean you asked me to clear something up for you. You said that when “Boys” had a recent production in Tokyo, the African-American character of Bernard was made to be Korean, instead, and you wondered why. It was then that I gave you a quick history of the centuries-old enmity between the two countries and how the Japanese have traditionally regarded Koreans as the n-words of Asia.

I also told you how uncanny it was that, on my very first day I moved here, I went to Central Park to probe the enticement that was then The Rambles and, emerging out of the tall grass, who do I spot but a sweaty Keith Prentice, who played promiscuous Larry in the play and film, shirt open to the waist, flashing hairy chest and major bulge in white bellbottoms. Talk about life imitating…!

What an extraordinary experience meeting you was, and you sent me a letter I shall always cherish. We had a lovely reunion when I ran into you and your great friend, John “Lypsinka” Epperson, at that play “I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees” — another delightful time was had, with diva names endlessly dropped – and how happy I was for you about the sensational renaissance of “Boys” on Broadway.

You never wrote another play to match it — as I believe every word of it was based on the truth, what you knew from life. But that’s okay because “The Boys in the Band” is immortal and will continue to entrance and give hope to little gay boys for generations to come. All you needed to do was write this one, momentously immortal work, like Harper Lee and her undying “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

By the way, in the year it opened, 1968, these were the Tony nominees for Best Play:

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” — Tom Stoppard (winner)

“A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” – Peter Nichols

“Plaza Suite” — Neil Simon

“The Price” — Arthur Miller

When’s the last time any of those were revived on Broadway? … well, okay, “Plaza” is scheduled this season. But the Broadway “Boys” was its third major revival since 1996, and are they remaking “Plaza Suite” as a movie, as well?

Nope! And they never ever will.

So RIP, you darling, wonderfully inspiring, and essential groundbreaker of a guy.

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