The crowd at the Oct. 20 performance of Broadway’s “The Front Page” included some faces you don’t see every day at a Broadway opening: Critics, hunched in aisle seats with their notebooks at the ready.
In recent decades, it’s become standard operating procedure on Broadway to invite critics to a pre-opening preview performance, in order to give the journos time to write in advance. But in the old days — that is, the days of “Front Page,” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s legendary newspaper comedy from 1928 — critics mingled with opening-nighters, rushing up the aisles before the curtain came down in order to bang out reviews for the next day’s paper.
For his starry production of “The Front Page,” with a cast led by John Slattery and Nathan Lane, producer Scott Rudin reinstituted the first-night tradition as a throwback to the era. That’s why you could look across the audience to see ink-stained wretches sitting alongside the likes of Jon Hamm, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Tambor, Chris Rock, Jason Sudeikis, Steve Martin and Diane Sawyer.
There had been some grumbling among the writers about the change in protocol, but at the opening night performance, most critics seemed sanguine about it. “I kind of like the purity of this,” said Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News. “Besides, if you write for the web, you’ve already got to write fast.”
Several of the critics in the house remembered the days of rushing out of an opening night to bang out a review in 45 minutes. Marilyn Stasio, who reviewed “Front Page” for Variety, recalled fighting for cabs, and then fighting for an unoccupied typewriter back in the newsroom, during her years at the New York Post in the 1970s.
“There was a door in the newsroom where the printers would come out and stare at us, waiting for the copy,” she remembered.
Critics bolted from “Front Page” before the curtain call, just like in the old days, although they had to push through the photographers charging down the aisle. Over the applause you could hear a publicist bellow, “Let the critics through!”
In keeping with Golden Age traditions, the production’s opening night party was held at that theater-district bastion Sardi’s, where Hamm and Slattery had a mini-“Mad Men” reunion with Robert Morse, who has a scene-stealing role in “Front Page.”
Morse gained an understanding of journalism early, thanks to a grandfather who was a sports editor at a Boston paper. “I got my first review in Barnstable, Mass., when I was 15 years old,” he said at the party. “I played Ko-Ko in ‘The Mikado’ to wonderful Cape Cod reviews. And that started me on my road to perdition.”
Back at the theater, one of the earliest laughs of the night also brought “Mad Men” to mind. In “Front Page,” Slattery plays a veteran hack who intends to chuck his newspaper career for a cushy gig in New York. In what industry? “Advertising,” he deadpanned.