Fifty years ago, The Boys In The Band opened Off-Broadway, shocking NYC audiences with its frank, funny depiction of gay life. Now the landmark play is back, making its Broadway debut with a starry cast of out actors—something that would’ve been inconceivable in 1968. Tuc Watkins (Desperate Housewives, Parks and Recreation) is taking his own first Broadway bows in the city where he got his big break as David Vickers on the ABC soap One Life To Live. Between rehearsals for Boys—opening this week at the Booth Theatre—we sat down with Watkins in Bryant Park to talk about New York City, learning how to do the stage door line and what it’s like to be back in town with kids.
What’s the biggest change for you, being back in the City again?
Tuc Watkins: I have kids now, so I’m seeing New York differently through their eyes. We’re at the American Museum of Natural History and Central Park a lot of the time, because we live on the Upper East Side. And I’m trying to figure out how to get tickets to The Lion King as opposed to the next groundbreaking play on Broadway.
What is your favorite thing about the City?
TW: I love the day in, day out of New York. One of the things I’ve always been fascinated by is, how in the world does the City work? But it does—the toilets flush, the trains run, people are actually kinder and more considerate to each other on the streets than on most other streets in America. Because there’s this sense that we’re all in this together; so step up your game, be courteous, mind your own business and let’s stand on the right and walk on the left.
And what about those folks who don’t?
TW: As soon as you step out of line, you get a friendly reminder that you need to step in line. And I’m OK with that, even if I’m on the receiving end.
Have you had any friendly reminders lately?
TW: I was crossing Fifth Avenue earlier today, and I jogged to a woman’s right as she was coming toward me. I should have jogged to her left. And she said, “It’s just like driving!” [Laughs.] And she’s right. In New York, everybody says what’s on their mind.
Did you go to the theater a lot when you first lived here?
TW: Oh yeah. I would work [on One Life to Live] maybe three days a week, and then I’d have several days off. I would go to a lot of matinees.
Did you go to the TKTS booth a lot back then?
TW: Yeah—I got it down so I knew what time to show up. And I kind of didn’t care what I saw; just whatever was available. I saw a lot of stuff that way for cheap.
Any memorable shows from back then?
TW: I was never a big musical guy. And the musicals I liked, I was always told I wasn’t supposed to like them—like Les Miz and Cats. I saw more straight plays. I remember seeing Martin McDonagh’s plays, and Bus Stop with Mary Louise Parker and Billy Crudup. I saw a ton of stuff Off-Broadway too, like Love! Valour! Compasssion! I would sneak away and see gay-themed plays, because it seemed like I was getting away with something when I was still in the closet.
What’s been the most exciting thing about being part of this show?
TW: It’s a cast of gay characters played by out gay men. So I think the most exciting thing is us coming together and doing this, like we’re more of a team than a cast. I feel like we’ve each arrived with our individual superpower and we’re our own gay Justice League.
Do you think the play is a period piece?
TW: A lot of people are saying this play isn’t relevant anymore, that it’s full of self-loathing characters and we’re beyond that. What I think is that movies like Mississippi Burning taught us about racism in the ’60s, Platoon taught us about war in the ’60s, and The Boys in the Band teaches us about what it was like to be gay in the ’60s. They’re all entertaining, which is why we watch them. But we remember them and revisit them because they’re important.
Does the self-loathing in the show feel awkward?
TW: Yeah—but I have self-loathing that still goes on in me. There’s this line that Jim Parsons says [as his character, Michael]: “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so much.” I think that’s really important for someone who is 20 years old to hear today. The thing that keeps us in the closet is our fear and our self-hatred.
As a first-timer on Broadway, have you gotten any tips from the show’s Broadway pros?
TW: The only tips I’ve gotten have been from the fans outside the stage door who’ve told me I’m doing the autograph line all wrong. They’re like, You don’t start there, you start over there. There should be a pamphlet for actors doing their first Broadway show.
It must be a busy stage door with your cast.
TW: Oh yeah. I’ll go out there and I’ll start to sign everything. And then some people will go, “Don’t sign that—that’s for Matt [Bomer]” or “That’s for Jim!”
The Boys in the Band, which began previews in late April, opens May 31 at the Booth Theater and runs through August 12. Purchase tickets here.