Don't stop the presses! The Stratford Festival will produce the classic American newspaper comedy The Front Page on its Festival Theatre stage in 2019 – in a new adaptation by Canadian playwright Michael Healey that aims to highlight the play's consideration of the value of a free press in the Donald Trump era.
Actor Graham Abbey is set to direct Healey’s new version of the 1928 play by former journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, in which the playwright will keep the original 1920s Chicago setting but freshen the story up for a time when the American president has derided certain news outlets as “the enemy of the American people.”
“We’re interested in making a comedy, first and foremost,” says Healey, best known for his international hit play The Drawer Boy.
“But then we’re going after the elements of the play that are already there but that we want to bring to the fore … such as the larger, thematic question about why a viable press is of use in society, particularly one where there might be a corrupt government or two running around.”
Is he thinking of Trump in particular? "Of course," says Healey. "I just think, without trying, you get so much current resonance from a play like this one, given the current state of things."
Most recently seen on Broadway in 2016 starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery, The Front Page’s tale about star reporter Hildy Johnson and hard-nosed tabloid editor Walter Burns breaking a major scoop about police corruption has been almost continuously revised and adapted for new eras since Hecht and MacArthur’s original wild and streetwise script premiered in 1928.
The play has been turned into movies and TV shows and was perhaps most famously adapted into the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday, which starred Rosalind Russell as a female Hildy.
Later, playwright John Guare returned His Girl Friday to its stage roots in an adaptation that the Shaw Festival presented on its mainstage in 2012.
Healey’s new Front Page adaptation, which he says will remove the original’s “sexism and racism,” will similarly flip the gender of one of the protagonists – but, this time around, it will be editor Walter Burns who becomes a female character. “[Burns] is now the wife of the former owner, now deceased, of the paper, who has taken an enormous interest in the paper and finds she’s extremely good at bringing the best out of her employees by treating them just appallingly badly," says Healey
The Front Page will be the first time a play by Healey – whose recent plays include the political satires Proud (about former prime minister Stephen Harper) and 1979 (about former prime minister Joe Clark) – has been produced on Stratford’s legendary thrust stage. Indeed, only a very few Canadian playwrights have ever heard their words spoken on it.
“I’ve been coming [to Stratford] and seeing plays on that stage since the seventies, since I was in high school, so it’ll mean an enormous amount,” Healey says. “I don’t envy Graham the task of staging this play that takes place in one room on that stage, but I’m very thrilled and excited to write jokes and hear how they work out in that big house.”
The Front Page replaces a production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1939 comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner that had been previously announced for Stratford’s 2019 season. Artistic director Antoni Cimolino said in a release that the substitution was due to “creative collaborations that haven't fallen into place.”
Unveiled last month, the Stratford Festival's 2019 season will also feature Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Elton John’s Billy Elliot: The Musical on the Festival Theatre stage. Its other Canadian works will include Kate Hennig’s Mother's Daughter – about Mary I, and the last of her much-produced Queenmaker Trilogy – and the English premiere of a new Wajdi Mouawad play called Birds of a Kind.