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Tales of the City

Peter Filichia looks at the history of Windy City, the musical version of The Front Page, soon to hit Philadelphia.

David Elder and Paul Schoeffler in Windy City
(© Mark Garvin)
Reserve the front page of the newspaper for the news: Windy City is getting another chance. The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia is opening a new production of this musical adaptation of The Front Page this month, with Broadway stars David Elder and Paul Schoeffler in the leads. The show, with book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh and music by Tony Macaulay, has had a peripatetic journey since it opened in London's West End in 1982. There, the reviews were mixed, the run was an unexceptional 250 performances -- and yet, the show won the Evening Standard Award as Best Musical.

Not surprisingly, it made it to America. In 1985, there was a lovingly ornate production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, in the days when that theater was the nation's leader in subscriptions and money-spending. Michael Anania provided a stunning cherry wood set of a press room of the criminal courts building in Chicago, circa 1928. There, every Chicago reporter was waiting to see if condemned killer Earl Williams would be hanged in the morning or reprieved by the governor. Everyone, that is, except Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson, the ace reporter for the Chicago Examiner, who'd fallen in love and was leaving the paper -- much to the astonishment, consternation, and absolute refusal of editor-in-chief Walter Burns. Then Williams escaped, and Hildy couldn't leave "The Story of the Century." Or could he?

That's what makes The Front Page -- and, by extension, Windy City -- so fascinating. How many stories have there been where a man is torn between two loves? Here, Hildy is, too; but they're not two women. The real crisis in many men's lives is "Love of a Woman" vs. "Love of a Job." Which one would a man really rather keep? Which could he more afford to lose, taking in both financial and emotional feelings?

Of course, those questions became even more interesting in 1940, when Hollywood made its second film version of The Front Page -- this one called His Girl Friday. Screenwriter Charles Lederer, thinking that "Hildy" sounded like a woman's name, made a sex-switch and provided Rosalind Russell with one of her most famous roles. Windy City collaborators Vosburgh and Macaulay have admitted that they considered musicalizing this version, "though I once heard that Jerry Herman was going to musicalize it for Carol Channing," Vosburgh said when I met the collaborators a dozen years ago. "Ultimately, we wanted it to be tough, true to the original, a man's musical, but one in the tradition of the Golden Age."

Both Vosburgh and Macaulay said they were disappointed with their original director, Peter Wood, because he wouldn't allow them into rehearsals. "He told me 'that's the way I do it when I direct Tom Stoppard's plays,'" said Vosburgh. "Well, later I talked to Tom, who said that Peter Wood did no such thing." A quick look at Vosburgh makes one think that his knowing Stoppard is likely; the bookwriter-lyricist, with his Shavian looks, clearly appears to be an Englishman. Except that he was actually born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he married and stayed in London. That's why Windy City got done in England, after his first hit, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. Vosburgh's work on the latter was delicious, too, especially in the Marx Brothers parody, where Groucho sang to the Margaret Dumont stand-in: "Your angelic face I regard as the face of a saint ... Bernard!"

He also did excellent work with Windy City, rhyming "circulate" with "(they) work you late" a sure truism in the newspaper business. His American roots did show through in one lyric, when he had the reporters complain that they "don't get Easter off" and that they had to work "your keester off." Said Vosburgh, "The problem is that in London, 'keester' isn't a term used for your posterior, so we had to have the actors point behind them so the British would know what we were talking about."

Those lyrics all come from the show's title song, a darned good melody by Macaulay, who is indeed English. "I'm a wannabe American, though," he said. "I write as if I were American. I'm not interested in English culture very much. I'm a big American movie buff, too, which is why I got interested in The Front Page to begin with." He provided wonderful tunes for a dynamite eleven o'clock number, "Water under the Bridge," where Hildy rues his decision to stay on the job; the plaintive "Long Night Again Tonight," where the reporters feel chained to their desks; and the jaunty "I Can Just Imagine It" where Walter seduces Hildy into staying.

Granted, there are times when Macaulay's pop roots show: He broke through as a Top 40 songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s, penning such modern classics as "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All," "Don't Give Up on Us (Baby)," "Build Me Up, Buttercup," and "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again." Truth to tell, some of Macaulay's melodies suggest a half-century beyond the 1920s; "Wait Till I Get You On Your Own," Hildy's fiancee's erotic plea, and "I Can Talk to You," in which Earl's girlfriend Molly bares her soul, feel too contemporary even for a decade that was famous for roaring. (Perhaps Macaulay should have adapted Switching Channels, the 1988 Front Page remake that was set in a TV studio.)

But we'll see if these songs even appear in the Walnut Street's Windy City, for the creators have been tinkering with the show since the Paper Mill engagement didn't move to Broadway. There, Gary Sandy tried to do justice to Hildy, but never could accomplish that task. "He was a baritone with a top E," said Macaulay, "but our score goes up a fifth higher than that." A 1994 production at the Marriott Lincolnshire (near the real Windy City) had high hopes, too, but couldn't manage a transfer. At least, the same year the authors saw a German production, entitled Extra Blatt, which even yielded a cast album. Let's hope that the Walnut Street production results in a triumph -- and maybe even an Original Broadway Cast album.


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