If the world came to an end tomorrow, a visitor to Chicago wrote in 1899, the Tribune "would come out next day after with illustrations and an interview with God Almighty." Thus well before their heyday, the '20s, Chicago newspapermen had captured America's imagination.
Brash, cynical, contemptuous of authority, these knights in rusty armor - constantly scrapping with each other, toppling politicos from their high horses - reflect the way Americans like to see themselves.
This image has never been projected more sharply than in "The Front Page," which is as crackling, as funny, and - recent headlines from Chicago indicate - as up-to-the-minute as it was when it was written almost 60 years ago.
In this production superbly directed by Jerry Zaks, both the outrageous farce and the toughness of the play come through with great force.
This balance is apparent as soon as you see Tony Walton's set: a pressroom as grungy and grand as a 19th century artist's studio in the foreground with a subtly stylized rendering - as from some old guidebook - of the Chicago Criminal Courts building as a backdrop. Realism and nostalgia are already blended.
In the first act the repeated, ominous thunk of a gallows being tested is an unsettling counterpoint to the banter of the reporters, which is as staccato and energized as the clatter of old-fashioned typewriters.
It is easy for the opening scene - with reporters making up news stories, too engrossed in a card game to cover real ones - to seem like a good-hearted joke. Here each of the actors has such a clear, hard-edged identity that their jaded apathy seems real, even disturbing.
The mood alters when Richard Thomas, as a star reporter determined to marry and go respectable, struts in to pay one last visit to the scene of his journalistic crimes. For the rest of the play Thomas is torn between his sweet, not very interesting fiancee (winsomely played by Julie Hagerty) and his real love, the newspaper business. Not for a second can anyone doubt who will win.
He becomes embroiled in the fate of a criminal doomed by the apparently eternal seaminess of Chicago politics. He is also at the mercy of a boss who sees the world as nothing but a source of banner headlines. This part is played with swashbuckling haughtiness by John Lithgow.
Together Lithgow and Thomas, who plays his role with an audacious swagger, make an endearing couple. (Male bonding was part of American show business long before Newman and Redford.)
You could sing the praises of this stunning cast for pages and pages. Some performances that bring particular pleasure are those of Jerome Dempsey as the pompous, blundering mayor, Bill McCutcheon as the play's one blearily honest man, Deirdre O'Connell as the doomed man's slattern girlfriend and Richard Shull as the inept sheriff.
Jeff Weiss is very funny as a fastidious reporter, but it seems unfair to single out any of the reporters since they make a smashing ensemble.
Willa Kim's costumes give a strong sense of both comedy and period. Paul Gallo's lighting gives the pressroom the kind of warm glow Chester Gould gave Dick Tracy.
At times the energy flags a bit, some of the female characters do not seem as sharp as the men, but for the most part this production is as powerful, as infectious as the Chicago jazz it uses as a background score. It confirms the vitality and solidness of the play itself.
Hold the Front Page! After many years of bleak wilderness-wandering around Henry Moore's reflecting pool, the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont - led this time around at cavalry-charge pace by Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten - is back playing in the play business. And what better way to open up shop last night than with "The Front Page."
Newspaper reviewers almost invariably, and equally almost certainly, give "The Front Page" a fairer shake than the old play really deserves, because in our inmost hearts we ink-stained wretches have newsprint where our adrenalin should be.
This 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, dramatizing, but scarcely fictionalizing, the great newspaper wars in Chicago in the 'twenties, is the prototypical newsroom saga.
There is scarcely a newspaperman in the English-speaking tabloid world, certainly not of my generation, who did not grow up with fond pictures of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in the secret lockets of their hopes.
This razzmatazz reporter and his rascally, unscrupulous editor may not have provided the greatest of role models, but by heck, and by Hecht, they made the newspaper world seem disgracefully exciting.
So this little, ink-stained American classic rightly had the honor of opening the first regular Vivian Beaumont season by the all-new Lincoln Center Theater.
Perhaps against my better critical judgment, I am a sucker for the play. I love it immoderately.
Even so, in my defense, and without any special pleading for the play, it is expertly crafted, full of sparkling lines, and in Hildy and Burns it has created characters as indelible as any in the annals of the American theater.
The authors have devised a broth of melodramatic chaos. The backdrop is a comically corrupt City Hall, complete with a prison escape by a harmless and bewildered anarchist about to be executed to satisfy the election platform of a Mayor and Sheriff pledged to "Reform the Reds with a Rope."
Among the lower-depth denizens of the Criminal Court reporters' room is our star newshound, the buccaneering Hildy, who is seeking to leave the Windy City, newspapers, and his hero-worshipped editor Walter Burns, to find fame and fortune in New York advertising with the sweet young lady he loves.
Like so many American plays that are not about fathers and sons, this one concentrates on male-bonding, together with the love-hate relationship the authors - once hard-bitten newspapermen themselves - had with their nefarious former trade.
Hecht and MacArthur keep the play running at a dizzying speed after a fairly slow, atmosphere-evoking start. Once Hildy, cocky and assured, ambles arrogantly into the play, it never looks back. Even the famous last line packs a farewell punch.
The contrivancies of villainy, and the machinations of these tough, cynical guys about town, doubtlessly seem more glibly exaggerated than they did some 60 years ago.
Remember, then the Red menace was more nebulously envisaged than now, the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti had been freshly executed, and many reporters still had the sleazy courage of their non-existent convictions.
The vicious inanities of City Hall may still strike as familiar a note as Gogol on the subject of Russian bureaucracy, and in some peculiar ways "The Front Page" does have a surprising similarity in genre with Gogol's "The Government Inspector."
It was this special atmosphere that was caught by Michael Blakemore's definitive, if almost too clinical, staging of "The Front Page" for Britain's National Theater in 1972.
Jerry Zaks' new production is much more like Harold Kennedy's famous 1969 Broadway revival starring Robert Ryan and Bert Convy. Once more the emphasis is on old Hollywood-style cartoon acting, which is dead on target for the play.
We are so accustomed to being told that the Vivian Beaumont was an "impossible" theater, that it is a pleasure to see how effortlessly Zaks, and his ornamentally-inclined designer Tony Walton, have conquered it.
Beautifully paced and timed, the performances are exceptional, from the broad comedy of Richard B. Shull, Jerome Dempsey, and Bill McCutcheon, to the subtler coarsities of the gentlemen of the Press, led by Jeff Weiss, Bernie McInerney, and Ed Lauter, and the ladies in the court, Julie Hagerty sweet as Hildy's girl, Beverly May tart as that girl's mother, and Deirdre O'Connell both sweet and tart as Mollie the whore with a heart of dime-store gold.
But the play depends as ever on Hildy and Burns, and here the production sizzles. Richard Thomas, with his intelligent whippet face and shifty grace, makes a charming, feckless Hildy, and as his manipulative master, John Lithgow - who has never been better - is wonderfully Mephistophelean. Two smashing performances coming through just where they were needed.
So "The Front Page" - yesterday's news that never dies - is back once more. It's still a toddlin' play.
As everyone who's seen ''The Front Page'' knows - and is there anyone who hasn't seen ''The Front Page''? - it's one play that will never receive a negative review in a newspaper. That's because Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur 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, that the discovery of a ''love nest'' rarely merits an extra anymore, or that cities like Chicago no longer have eight dailies engaged in cutthroat competition for the big scoop. ''The Front Page,'' to borrow from Shea Stadium parlance, is newspapering like it oughta be. Not even a critic as uncompromising as Joseph Cotten's Jed Leland in ''Citizen Kane'' would be so foolish as to question the work - part farce, part melodrama, all cartoon - that is the Rosetta stone of his and his colleagues' romantic self-image.
To see Hecht's and MacArthur's 1928 valentine to the press now, in Jerry Zaks's attractively cast and appropriately slam-bang revival at the Vivian Beaumont, is also to appreciate it as a play. Well, not as a play exactly - but as an efficient machine (once cranked up) for manufacturing mirth. As Walter Kerr memorably wrote on the occasion of the last Broadway appearance of ''The Front Page,'' in 1969, plays of this American vintage were meant to be machines: ''A play was like a watch that laughed.'' As recent revivals have demonstrated, ''The Front Page'' still ticks louder and faster and funnier than equivalent Broadway contraptions manufactured a decade (''You Can't Take It With You'') or two decades (''Arsenic and Old Lace'') after it.
One knows that the old thing is going to work at Lincoln Center early on, when Jeff Weiss, the Off Off Broadway maverick who went legit last season in the Kevin Kline ''Hamlet,'' appears as Bensinger, the man from The Tribune. Bensinger is the fussbudget of the newsroom at the Chicago Criminal Courts Building - that dread animal, a neat reporter who thinks of himself as a poet, no less. Mr. Weiss, his mouth razor-blade-thin, simply can't wait to pull out his bottle of disinfectant and zap any offending germ in the vicinity of his roll-top desk. He does so with a snap of the wrist so wicked it could induce whiplash. When subsequently mocked by colleagues for his prissiness, he responds with an ''Oh shut up!'' - withering and yet defensive - that Jack Benny might have admired.
Arriving minutes later, but no less welcome, is Richard Thomas, the Hildy Johnson of this outing. Mr. Thomas, a benign presence, is not the obvious choice for the role of a brash star reporter who enters ''stinko'' and soon thinks nothing of trading his prospective mother-in-law (the formidable Beverly May) for the story of a condemned anarchist's jailbreak. But as he's proved several times on stages in several cities in recent seasons, Mr. Thomas isn't the juvenile he's mistaken for - he seeks out acting challenges and rises to them.
Affecting a mustache and an all-purpose Windy City ethnic accent, he soon becomes the swaggering mug required, far more desperate to please the managing editor he's supposedly just quit forever, Walter Burns, than the fiancee whom he's promised to meet at the 11:18 P.M. train for New York. (The usually thankless role of the fiancee is played by Julie Hagerty, whose determined appeals to reason in the face of chaos make humorlessness a howl.) Once John Lithgow's Burns joins Mr. Thomas in Act II, the real marriage of the evening is complete. Whether the tall Mr. Lithgow is trying to detain the deserting Hildy by tossing him on the floor (''At a time of war, you could be shot for what you're doing!''), or sadistically plotting Bensinger's humiliation, or feigning sentimental enthusiasm for Hildy's marital plans (''I was in love once, with my third wife''), he provides comic ruthlessness of a high style. Be assured, too, that Mr. Lithgow delivers the play's immortal curtain line with such bravura finality that one can easily forgive the Beaumont's lack of a curtain.
Like many good newspapermen, Burns regards politicians as his sworn enemy, and this ''Front Page'' is especially acerbic in its portraits of the bumbling, platitudinous Chicago officials who cross him. Richard B. Shull, forever wincing as if life were one long embarrassing encounter with a whoopee cushion, plays the incompetent sheriff ''Pinky'' as the exact kind of backroom ''moron'' that he's called - moronic enough to permit a jailbreak but not so stupid that he neglects to hire his relatives at city expense for the search party. The scene in which he and Jerome Dempsey's windbag Mayor try to bribe Bill McCutcheon's slow-witted, reprieve-bearing gubernatorial messenger is as clownish as any scenario on the Watergate tapes.
Indeed, dated as the Hecht-MacArthur portrayal of newspapering may sometimes seem - one does hear rumors these days of reporters who have actually bettered the play's going pay scale of $70 a week - its cynical view of the political circus remains pertinent. The ward heelers of ''The Front Page'' lie and pander to voters as shamelessly as contemporary pols and are as adept at exploiting capital punishment and radical conspiracies to self-aggrandizing ends. Nearly every scene bristles with the still-extant realities of politics in an urban society of racial and class divisions.
Mr. Zaks properly maintains a frisky tone, even so. ''The Front Page'' is not foolproof - witness the logy 1974 Billy Wilder film version - and it really must move. Mr. Zaks keeps everyone running, although one might question whether he needs a set deep enough to accommodate a marathon. Tony Walton has designed a cigar-hued newsroom within a mammoth gray courthouse - a handsome edifice whose imposing size and gloom smack a bit of Marienbad. Both the designer and Mr. Zaks conquered the Beaumont's problematic stage more resourcefully when their ''House of Blue Leaves'' passed through last spring in transit to Broadway.
Aside from the usual lulls during the by-now ritualistic plot exposition and resolution, the evening's only other significant blemishes are both anachronisms: the opening invocation of a Frank Sinatra recording of ''Chicago'' is more redolent of 1960's Las Vegas than of the 1920's Chicago found in Willa Kim's nostalgic costumes, and, worse, only wimpy amounts of tobacco smoke becloud the poker-playing reporters of the Lucky Strike era. Not the least of the romantic newsroom notions propagated by ''The Front Page,'' after all, is that one becomes a newspaperman precisely because it's hazardous to one's health.