Home Culture Culture News

Mart Crowley, Groundbreaking ‘The Boys in the Band’ Playwright, Dead at 84

Watershed play was one of the first to portray gay life when it opened Off-Broadway in April 1968

Mart Crowley of the 'The Boys in the Band' fame has died at age 84.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Mart Crowley — best known for penning The Boys in the Band, a play about a group of gay and bisexual friends in New York City — has died at age 84. The playwright died Saturday night in Manhattan of complications from heart surgery, according to friend David Cuthbert, via the New York Times.

The Boys in the Band was one of the first plays to portray gay life when it opened Off-Broadway in April 1968. “I went to see Boys in the Band several times,” playwright Edward Albee says in the 2011 documentary Making the Boys. “And more and more I saw an audience there of straights who were so happy to be able to see people they didn’t have to respect.” It later became a film in 1970 directed by William Friedkin.

Although still groundbreaking in how it depicted gay men as complex protagonists rather than deviants or villains, it hit cinemas after the 1969 Stonewall Riots and was criticized by many for its portrayal of the men as self-loathing and stereotypical.

“The first time, we would take anyone who would do it; we were beating the bushes [for actors],” Crowley told Broadway.com in 2019. “It was very different back then. You could get arrested for doing the things they do in this play. It was quite awful and ridiculous and demeaning. Naturally, everybody’s agent told them not to do this play. We offered the roles and many turned it down. Agents said it was a career killer.”

Crowley wrote several other plays, including a sequel, The Men From the Boys (2002), and worked on the television series Hart to Hart. He was also a close friend of Natalie Wood (he was her assistant while she was filming 1957’s West Side Story) and other Hollywood stars of the era, a time when it was still criminal to be known as a homosexual.

“I got very friendly with all the dancers who were gay [in West Side Story],” he explained in an interview last year. “We all got into comic drag one night — nothing serious. Suddenly, there were whistles and police invaded a private home in West Hollywood and they arrested us. That’s just the way it was. We spent the night in jail. We were offered one phone call, and I called Natalie. Her lawyer got us all out in time for the guys to show up at the studio to film a dance number. I don’t know how they had the stamina to do it. I stumbled home and slept through the day.”

The pioneering The Boys in the Band retained its power for generations, receiving multiple Off-Broadway and critically lauded regional productions. In 2018, 50 years after its premiere, it finally earned a Broadway staging, directed by Joe Mantello and starring Andrew Rannells, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and others. The production won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play and Netflix announced that it’s making a new movie adaption with members of the Broadway cast.

Playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick shared a tribute via Twitter, stating: “RIP Mart Crowley … He was justly acclaimed, ignorantly attacked and finally given his due. He dissected and celebrated gay lives, and as a person, he was funny, generous and brave. He got there first, and the theater is in his debt.”

Actor Andrew Rannells also wrote on Twitter: “Mart Crowley. Kind. Smart. Hilarious. Generous. I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent so much time with him. He will be greatly missed and always loved.”

Despite the play being a watershed moment in LGBTQ cultural history, Crowley never believed that it would be considered that revolutionary. “Everybody that knew me, my friends, they all thought I was going around the bend a bit when I’d tell them what I was working on,” he said. “I just kept going. I had faith in something, I don’t know what it was — myself, I hope. I finally typed ‘The End’ and put it on my arm and came to New York with it.”