Crayton Robey was a teen-ager in Houston when he first came into contact with Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band.
"I was questioning my sexual identity, hanging out with my best friend -- who was going to be my boyfriend, but I didn't know it at the time," Robey says, sitting in the lobby of the Tribeca Grand hotel. "And I was telling him that, when I kissed my girlfriend, there were no fireworks. So he grabbed me and kissed me -- and I felt fireworks."
As it happened, one of his teachers saw them and called both teens to his office: "He pulled out a copy of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, which I'd never heard of, and told us to read it and that we would discuss it the next week. I read it and I loved it - and Victor, my boyfriend, hated it."
A little more than a decade later, Robey was on Fire Island, making When Ocean Meets Sky, a 2003 documentary about the gay community that gathers there every summer, when he met Crowley himself. Robey began asking him questions about the play that had changed Robey's life: "He gave me a 10-minute recap about the creation of the play and his life," Robey says. "When he was finished, I was captivated to do a documentary about it."
The resulting film, Making 'The Boys', opens Friday (3/11/11) in New York. It blends several storylines: the history of Crowley's ground-breaking 1969 play (the first popular Broadway work to deal openly with gay life in New York), Crowley's career before and after his hit (formerly Natalie Wood's personal assistant, he went on to write and produce Robert Wagner's Hart to Hart TV show) -- and the rise of the gay-rights movement in the wake of Crowley's play.
"It sounded great to me," Crowley, 75, says about his reaction when Robey approached him. "Not just from the standpoint that I was totally flattered - but it sounded like a very interesting project. I'd seen his other film and thought it was really good."
Initially hoping to focus on the play itself, Robey found himself immersed in a world he knew little about -- the life of the gay community in the closeted days of the 1950s and 1960s. For his film, he interviewed a wide variety of gay commentators and writers, including Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, Paul Rudnick, Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner.
"I feel like I've been given a master class in the life and history of the gay movement," Robey, 38, says.