Broadway’s “The Front Page” offers a rowdy lesson in news history
"The Front Page," Broadway’s star-studded revival of the classic 1928 newspaper comedy, needs two types of reviews: one for general audiences and one for journalists.
Since opening night last Thursday, most general reviews have been tepid at best. While critics praise Nathan Lane’s portrayal of profane, domineering Chicago Herald-Examiner editor Walter Burns, otherwise they tend to scald the show. As The Associated Press review’s headline put it, “Nathan Lane Somehow Saves ‘The Front Page’ from Fish Wrap.” Ouch.
But this is that other type of review: by a news person, for news people. For me, it wins a rave because — along with the raucous joy I felt from its first rapid-fire newsroom gag to its last — it delivered a history lesson. And yes, Lane is fantastic.
From the very start I focused more on the media lore associated with the production. Flying into New York from a journalism historians conference in Florida, I’d snapped up tickets to a preview of the play. Penned by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and first staged in 1928, "The Front Page" is a tale of wacky Chicago newsroom characters from the Roaring ‘Twenties. It's been converted into movies several times, including for the 1940 film "His Girl Friday" starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
A conference panel I’d just served on had focused on how show business can shape the public’s view of the press, a la “All the President’s Men.” (My main contribution: thoughts on this year’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposure of the Catholic Church cover-up of a sex scandal involving priests.)
From my seat in the Broadhurst Theatre, the conference seemed like a prologue as the show unfolded on stage: with blustery editor Burns lording over ace reporter Hildy Johnson, while Hildy plans to get married, and contemplates quitting the Herald Examiner for an advertising job in New York — so he can afford marriage.
“Spotlight” movie fans remember John Slattery (Hildy) for his role as Globe investigative editor Ben Bradlee Jr. To this theater audience, though, he’s best known as an ad executive on TV’s “Mad Men,” which leads to one of several laughs that were never anticipated by the playwrights. Another such laugh tinged by current events: Lane’s declaration that “I was in love once. To my third wife.”
Critics were especially hard on the first of the play’s three acts, calling it slow, with some noting the offensive language in the script. The zany story, taking place on a single courthouse press-room set, starts with reporters playing poker and phoning in routine stories, mostly about a convicted cop-killer awaiting hanging on a nearby gallows. As act one ends he escapes, sending the press room into a flurry.
Mark Kennedy, in that AP review, called the act “excruciating to sit through as all-white, all-men journalists talk about blondes with ‘bazooms,’ insult each other for being ‘sissy’ and manhandle a female janitor. This is Donald J. Trump’s ‘locker room’ onstage.”
Kennedy describes the language as “deeply racist, reflexibly sexist, violent and anti-gay.” (The Wrap’s Robert Hofler refers to the reporters as “a basketful of deplorables,” proving Broadway’s no escape from the election outside.) But the language, of course, reflected how reporters spoke in the ‘20s, not today.
The press-room denizens include some who are a delight to watch — including stage veteran Jefferson Mays as prissy Tribune reporter Roy V. Bensinger, whose roll-top desk serves as a repository for various garments cast off by his press-room rivals. (Other familiar faces in the cast belong to John Goodman, Robert Morse, and “Law & Order” star Dann Florek.)
Among the most common critical objections: that Lane isn’t seen until act two, although an off-stage Burns does shout orders to Hildy over the phone. I liked Burns’ two-step introduction, which creates some internal suspense, and lets Lane provide a huge mid-show jolt. Jeremy Gerard’s Deadline Hollywood review compares his arrival to the “springtime-for Hitler” moment in “The Producers,” when an audience realizes that the terrible play they’re seeing is being rescued by the hilarious character playing the Nazi leader.
In contrast to the scene-setting first act, the second is action-packed, with the escaped convict surrendering to Hildy, and being sequestered in the roll-top desk so that the Herald Examiner can get an exclusive about its role in his capture. In one of Lane’s best bits, he bellows into the phone to a desk man to clear the front page for the convict story, killing “the Chinese earthquake” and everything else. “No wait, keep the rooster story,” Lane then shouts. “That’s human interest!”
How the Times (Reviews) Have Changed
Among the relative boo-birds for this latest “Front Page” was The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, whose Oct. 21 review appeared under the headline “’The Front Page’ Is Diverting, but Don’t Stop the Presses.”
At one point his critique conjures the legendary Brooks Atkinson’s Times original from 1928, which called the play “Loud, rapid, coarse and unfailing entertainment.”
In the new version, wrote Brantley, “The problem is that in this production the dirt isn’t so much slung as spun, carefully and thoughtfully, so you can trace the arc of a joke before it lands.”
How different from what The New York Times’s then-theater critic, Frank Rich, wrote for a 1986 revival, when he called the Hecht-MacArthur work “one play that will never receive a negative review in a newspaper.”
According to Rich, now a political commentator and co-executive producer of HBO’s “Veep” series: “That’s because [the playwrights] wrote about newspaper people as newspaper people liked to think of themselves and still do, no matter that humming computer terminals have replaced rattling typewriters…or that cities like Chicago no longer have eight dailies engaged in cutthroat competition for the big scoop.”
Some theater experts rank “The Front Page” with “Our Town,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as 20th century classics, writes Terry Teachout in his Wall Street Journal pan of the show. “So it’s a grievous disappointment to report that this much-anticipated revival is slack and lackluster, a case study in how to get a good play wrong.”
I agree that it belongs in the company of America’s other great plays. Its theme, of course, is that a good news story — rather than love — conquers all, at least in the journalist’s mind.
And that may be something only we scribes can truly appreciate. “Slattery and Lane played the star writer and all-powerful editor duo as buddy cops,” as the AP’s Kennedy put it, “equally dependent on each other, the editor being unable to write and the writer being unable to stop. And in need of the editor's cash. And love.” In a scenario like that, wedded bliss doesn’t stand a chance.
In many reviews, critics ratcheted up their own versions of Hecht-MacArthur prose, for better or worse. Kennedy’s first paragraph reads: “You want the story? You want to really know what’s up with ‘The Front Page’ on Broadway? Well, pay attention, you lousy baboons. Here’s what you need to know; This sap of a play is older than yesterday’s news. But, I’ll level with you. This is the God’s honest truth: A fellow named Nathan Lane somehow saves it.”
Among the play’s few cheerleaders, the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones, under the head “No Need for Rewrite,” cited its “near-perfect third act… a sublimely funny tour de force that would have had everyone rolling in the aisles were it not shot through with enough emotional resonance for any ink-stained wretch to sweat bullet points over what once churned in Chicago, and now has been torn up, sheet by sheet.”
And Marilyn Stasio of Variety also raved, calling it an “impeccable revival that delights in the tasteless vulgarity of that fabled era.” Her review of the play — which has a limited run ending Jan. 29 because of other demands on the cast members—concluded: “Count yourself lucky if you scored a seat. You won’t forget it.”
That’s my journalist’s-eye view, as well.