So how come journalism isn’t funny anymore?
In the classic stage comedy “The Front Page” — the best play about newspapering ever written — Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur found in the gaggle of rascally newshounds in 1928 Chicago a rich vein for farce, with flourishes of melodrama and satire.
The reporters are invested by the playwrights, former ink-stained wretches themselves, with fallible, sometimes appalling natures: They’re lazy, too fond of drink, unfaithful to their mates and prone to mindless prejudice.
Yet for all of their crassness and hypocrisy, they come across as appealing and amusing, not quite endearing, certainly, but still, a la Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, exquisitely comical.
Where do such entertaining characters exist in dramatic portrayals of the media of our day? News gathering, it seems, has lost its swashbuckling calling card, its scruffy charm for audiences as a common-man pursuit. Occasionally, a film such as the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigation of pedophilia by Catholic priests, reminds us in compelling fashion of the commendable role the Fourth Estate plays, when in the hands of doggedly inquisitive practitioners. And a TV series such as Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” can take an archly jaundiced look at the off-camera elbowing for power and influence in an elite network bullpen stocked with hyper-articulate banterers. But the kind of grittily captivating black humor that powers “The Front Page” is rarely apparent in the contemporary portraiture of American journalism. It’s as if all of the more vibrant colors have washed away.
It could be that, as the image of a newsman or woman has shifted in the minds of many Americans from being a rugged individualist to a cog in a corporate machine — beholden to shareholders more than to their readers — the sense of newsgathering as something fun has eroded. One need look no further than the myriad polls revealing in what low esteem the press is held in this country to understand why entertainment consumers might not relate to characters, even deeply flawed ones, who report the news.
Unlike nurses or teachers or others in workaday trades, they no longer seem to be “one of us,” people we can laugh along with. In fact, it’s portrayals of those who betray trust in the business that tend to get told: Think of Jeremy Renner in “Kill the Messenger,” a 2014 movie about a reporter’s massively botched investigation of a purported CIA plot, or Lindsay Duncan, as a virtually satanic theater critic vowing to eviscerate Michael Keaton in that same year’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
Thoughts about how the profession is sanctified — or vilified — in art come to mind as Broadway braces for the official opening Oct. 20 at the Broadhurst Theatre of the first major revival of “The Front Page” in 30 years. The production, directed by the versatile veteran Jack O’Brien, has drawn in both size and quality a cast the like of which is almost never seen: Among the 25 actors are Tony winners and other well-known faces (Robert Morse, Holland Taylor, Dann Florek) with veritable walk-on roles. Tackling the marquee parts are Nathan Lane as blustery editor Walter Burns; John Slattery as his star reporter, Hildy Johnson; John Goodman as Chicago’s clown of a sheriff; Sherie Rene Scott, playing a good-hearted hooker; and, among the bleak chorus of grousing newspapermen, Jefferson Mays, Dylan Baker, Christopher McDonald, Lewis J. Stadlen and David Pittu.
The reporters, covering the Criminal Courts Building for a gallery of competing Chicago papers — this is the 1920s, remember — seem more dedicated to winning a poker hand than scoring a scoop. They’re not above a Red-baiting smear campaign or ignoring a double murder because it involved black people. The depiction of the racism of the time is so raw in the play that a detestable word, used multiple times by the reporters, has been scrubbed out of the script for this revival, as it was in an acclaimed 1986 production at Lincoln Center Theater, directed by Jerry Zaks.
“They had axes to grind,” O’Brien says, of Hecht and MacArthur, who, he adds, knew exactly whom they were portraying: “They are based on real characters from Chicago.” And of the reporters, the director observes, “They’re angry, sullen. If they don’t get a story, they don’t get paid. They’re a pond of underfed piranhas.”
Hildy, of the particularly aggressive Examiner, becomes embroiled on the night of his planned departure from the news business in an elaborate caper that involves hiding a condemned murderer in a roll-top desk in the reporters’ shared office, until his paper can break the story of how he recaptured him. The play goes to the heart of newspapering — and the ineluctable lure of the big story — but it’s also about the seamy day-to-day reality of poking around where you’re not always wanted.
“Journalists!” Hildy declares, dismissively. “Peeking through keyholes. Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs. Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of companionate marriage. Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. A lot of lousy, daffy ‘buttinskis,’ swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.”
Putting aside what we now recognize as sexism and a callousness toward rape, Hildy’s words emphasize the ignoble aspects of a working stiff’s calling that could at other times offer the little guy the irresistible thrill of the chase. What’s priceless about “The Front Page” is the way in which it intermingles so deftly the tawdriness and the romance of the job.
“It’s the densest play I have ever worked on,” O’Brien avers — and for him that’s quite a statement, given that he directed all three parts of “The Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s trilogy about pre-Revolutionary Russia, which won the 2007 Tony Award for best play. “If you were to look at an X-ray of the play, it would look like three-dimensional chess. It’s powered by three or four separate farce engines — and you have to keep all the plates in the air, with a continued sense of energy and event.”
When all the engines of “The Front Page” are purring, its central conflict becomes one of the great comic relationships of all time. That pairing being, despite Hildy’s impending marriage to the lovely young socialite Peggy, the testy professional love affair of Walter and Hildy. (In the inferior 1940 movie version, “His Girl Friday,” the relationship becomes love in the flesh: Hildy, in the person of Rosalind Russell, is now a woman, and the ex-wife of Cary Grant’s Walter).
The tensions in news business comradeship have been explored successfully in other comedies, such as the witty 1987 movie, “Broadcast News,” starring William Hurt and Holly Hunter, and the 1990s CBS sitcom, “Murphy Brown,” starring Candice Bergen. And yes, the process of reporting has been examined ecstatically in motion pictures such as “All the President’s Men” (1976), or under an incisive critical microscope (1981’s “Absence of Malice”). Plays, too, have staked out this terrain, as in the case of David Hare and Howard Brenton’s underappreciated “Pravda” (1985), which originally featured Anthony Hopkins as an Australian media tycoon not named Rupert Murdoch.
All of these, though, reflected a rise in status, economically, professionally and socially, of those who engaged in the craft of daily journalism. And even if some of them dexterously mined the irony of flawed people assigning themselves the elevated roles of society’s truth seekers, none of them accomplished this with quite the depth and panache of “The Front Page.” With characters who could seem at once so craven and so uproarious.
O’Brien has a hard time with a definition of Hecht and MacArthur’s play as comedic. He sees the manifold layers of the piece and wants to bring all of them out. “My job,” he says, “is to put the closest thing to real life on the stage and to dupe you to think that it’s all really happening.” To further the cause of authenticity, Scott Rudin, the play’s lead producer, has dispensed with modern custom and invited all the major drama critics to “The Front Page’s” official opening night, rather than to a preview performance in the days before opening. The idea is to replicate the exhilaration of the openings of yore — perhaps even of the play’s first opening night, in August 1928, at a time when newspapers expected their reviewers to file for the next morning’s editions.
Whatever the critics’ verdict, O’Brien already has his, one with which this critic cannot quibble. “God, this is a masterpiece,” he says. “It couldn’t have been written in any other country, by any other voices.”
The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Tickets: $67-$157. At Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.