Celebrated Actor Returns to Broadway in an American Classic
The ensemble cast of the revival of The Front Page now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre is inking much buzz on Broadway. Led by Mad Men favorite and Spotlight star John Slattery, the celebrated cast also includes Nathan Lane, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Rene Scott, Holland Taylor, and Robert Morse. Directed by three-time Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien (Hairspray), the screwball comedy was written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
The dialogue-heavy material has existed in various reincarnations including a number of films and stage productions about the news business set in the 1920s Chicago Criminal Courts Building. Attached to it over the years is an impressive list of stars including Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, Susan Sarandon, Carol Burnett, Richard Thomas, John Lithgow, and more. In 1993, it was even selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
New York City Monthly spoke with John Slattery fresh off the subway about starring with a dream cast in his return to Broadway after a 10-year hiatus, flexing his acting muscle in one his most challenging roles and declaring The Front Page one of the funniest plays to see on Broadway.
The Front Page originally debuted in 1928, and it’s known to be a speedy comedy with very fast dialogue and action. You haven’t been on Broadway in 10 years, not since 2006’s “Rabbit Hole.” As The Front Page lead character Hildy Johnson, what has been the biggest challenge of this show thus far?
I’ve never played a part this demanding on stage because of the size of the part, the speed with which it has to be
done in order to make it work the way that it was intended, and the real di iculty, like most things, is making all that, the speed and execution, look e ortless. So, it’s the technical demand. It’s a muscle I haven’t worked quite literally in 10 years.
But within the play, it’s making the play work as it’s intended without making people see the strings we are pulling. Rabbit Hole was demanding in a different way, really emotional and dark, and to have to go to that place every day. Every play takes you somewhere, which is why the audience comes, to take you to that world. You have to live in that world. This is really fun and fast-paced.
As an accomplished actor yourself, what has the experience been like performing alongside Nathan Lane, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Rene Scott, Holland Taylor, and of course your Mad Men co-star Robert Morse?
It’s what you grow up hoping to be a part of. It’s an A-List, it’s an all-star team is what it is. All the people that aren’t above the title that I’ve worked with Dylan [Baker], Danny Mastrogiorgio, Halley Feiffer who plays Peggy, they are all super talented. You want the best producer, director, cast to bounce it around with and that’s what we’ve been given. It’s an ideal situation.
Nathan, he and I go way back; this is our third play together. It’s hard, he’s such an icon at this point, whatever has been said isn’t enough. His technical ability and comedic ability is so well known, but his emotional intelligence, he’s attuned to the temperature of the theater, he’s just unbelievable. It’s like watching a wild animal, I mean that in the best way. You have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s all routed in the most incredible technique; it’s no accident.
As the sarcastic, liquor-loving ad biz womanizer Roger Sterling in Mad Men, you were nominated for two Critics Choice Awards and four Emmy Awards, and you won the SAG Award with the cast twice. Since this and The Front Page are two of your most recent projects, what has been most different about your eight or nine years on Mad Men, where the seasons were really spread out compared to returning to the stage, where it’s much faster?
Like you say, it’s an entirely different discipline. The basic idea is the same, pretending to be someone else. The information is given to the audience in a completely different way. The TV series you start kind of with an empty tank, line by line, joke by joke, and over the years, it’s a great advantage to walk into a room six years into a show and people start laughing before you open your mouth. If you’re lucky. Here you start from zero and it changes every night and it’s alive every night and there are 25 people in the cast or something and all are really experienced. It’s a high-wire act; it’s like a circus.
There’s a framework and a definite skeleton that’s been meticulously worked out, but you get in front of the audience and let it rip, it’s really exciting. You don’t get it on a film set. There’s a whole different kind of challenge being emotionally ready when the bell rings. That instant reaction, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You do it for one person in the audience who might be moved, you don’t know what’s going on in their day, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on in yours. And then it’s gone. The best part of that live experience is that it’s singular.
Also, the variety of the disciplines is what I like. I loved doing every single second of Mad Men, but I wouldn’t want to do it forever. Spotlight. Rabbit Hole. I don’t want to live in that world every day. That’s no reflection on the quality of it.
You are definitely on a hot streak, appearing in many films and TV shows including the recent Academy Award Best Picture film Spotlight, Veep, Arrested Development, Desperate Housewives, Mona Lisa Smile, Sex and the City, Will & Grace. Has stepping into the director’s chair for several episodes of Mad Men and Netflix’s Love given you new perspective on acting in general or helped with your current role in any way on The Front Page?
Yeah, it has helped. I’ve never directed theater though. I’d like to. In terms of making films and being in them, it allows you to see a side of it that takes the burden of of being an actor because you see the music and the design and writing and cinematography. It gives you a perspective; you had to carry the thing on your shoulders. It’s good to try to have a vision of something.
2016 has been a big year in the news business, and The Front Page is all about the newspaper business in the 1920s. With Broadway’s healthy array of musical and dramatic fare currently on stage, why is now a great time to check out the comedy within The Front Page?
Well at least half the country is miserable from the last election. People need a good laugh. There isn’t a time in at least recent history that I can point out that there isn’t anybody that wouldn’t appreciate a little escapism, just to get out of your own life and be transported to a story. It’s hilarious, it’s incredibly well-written, it’s acted supremely well by a huge cast. It’s a big splashy hit comedy. Who wouldn’t want to see that? It’s like an old Warner Bros. movie, someone keeps coming through the door.