May 25, 2018 at 01:49 PM EDT

For the record, only two of them have seen the movie. And by “‘them” we mean Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins, Brian Hutchison, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, and Michael Benjamin Washington. And by the movie, we mean The Boys in the Band, the polarizing but seminal William Friedkin-directed film, based on Mart Crowley’s 1968 play about identity, anger, love, longing, shame, and the power of belting out Martha & the Vandellas, as nine (or, eight, depending on how you look at it) gay men gather for a birthday party.

Jake Chessum for EW

Critics dismissed it as a stereotype-laden portrayal of gay self-loathing. Fans embraced it as a groundbreaking contribution to the history of queer pop culture. And on this cloudy spring afternoon, just a few hours before the curtain goes up, the nine Band members of this celebrated Broadway revival are downstairs at the Booth Theatre, also debating the words written half a century ago. “[Boys in the Band] was brand-new to me,” says Parsons, who plays the tightly-wound party-thrower, Michael, “which made it in parts confusing and really exciting. I didn’t have any way to understand certain segments of the story that are thornier and meaner.” Having seen the film didn’t always help. “The movie made me uncomfortable,” recalls de Jesús, who plays the flamboyant Emory. “I had seen bits of it and got homophobic as a kid. The scene I remember is the guys doing the ‘Heat Wave’ dance and I saw the gaggle of gays and I was like, change the channel.” Quinto, whose birthday boy, Harold, spews some of the play’s most barbed dialogue, almost didn’t sign on. “I had misgivings about doing it and asked a lot of questions, like, Do you feel connected to this? Do you feel inspired by this? Do you feel that this resonates?’”

Jake Chessum for EW

It took three days last July to convince some of the cast. Co-producer Ryan Murphy and director Joe Mantello gathered their guys for intense days of acting and honest talk. (Rehearsals were scheduled around Parsons’ Big Bang Theory schedule because Mantello was so confident this role would be his “Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People moment.”) “We all had some very deep conversations,” Mantello recalls. “There’s a shorthand in a group of gay men that allowed us to delve into complicated issues.” For some, that meant making peace with the play. “It’s easy to dismiss the piece as just a study in self-loathing,” says Bomer, who plays Michael’s friend and former toothbrush-sharer, Donald. “But once you go back pre-Stonewall and you see that it was a crime for these men to even have relations in the safety of their own homes, much less go out and dance in public, there was no outlet for this internalized homophobia other than out toward the people you love.”

Jake Chessum for EW

For others, the issue of relevance was quickly resolved. “There is some essential queerness that is captured in this play,” says Carver, the youngest cast member, who plays Cowboy, a hustler who is one of Harold’s birthday gifts. “Joe always said, ‘I dare you to find the difference between Oh, Mary, don’t ask and Yas, queen.’” For Washington, each performance raises new questions about a play that doesn’t shy away from homophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist slurs. “This journey, which is ongoing for me, is about how much has changed and how much has not.”

Jake Chessum for EW

The one recurring refrain among the group is that of profound gratitude for being a part of this limited run. (Boys disbands on August 11.) “The thought that I wouldn’t have done this play and I would have had to come and see it is a total nightmare, really,” says Quinto. “This part of myself I spent years trying to reckon with or outrun or deny, both in my personal life and my career, is now the triumph that we all get to celebrate on stage together.” Parsons adds: “It’s been a chance to explore aspects of myself and self-doubt like nothing I’ve ever worked on. My character is trying to spin plates in the air while keeping himself acceptable in society, but also living as authentically as himself as he can. To say that it comes crashing down is a bit of an understatement.” He exhales and smiles. “Oddly, it’s a great joy to go through that every night.”

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