Movie star, stand-up comedian, nine-time Oscar host, six-time Emmy winner, two-time Grammy nominee, Tony-winning star of the smash one-man play 700 Sundays, and most recently, a Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award recipient: Billy Crystal’s résumé covers almost every facet of show business. “And you never saw my dog act!” Crystal quips before settling in with coauthors Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to talk about Mr. Saturday Night, the trio’s first-ever Broadway musical comedy. Based on the 1992 film directed by and starring Crystal, this hilarious, highly anticipated new show begins performances March 29 at the Nederlander Theatre.
Mr. Saturday Night centers on acerbic comedian Buddy Young Jr., a character created by Crystal in 1984 for an HBO special. “He’s his own worst enemy,” Crystal says of Buddy, the headliner of a 1950s TV variety show who finds himself, at age 73, a has-been alienated from everyone who tried to help him. Crystal, Ganz, and Mandel collaborated on the screenplay a year after their first film, City Slickers, became a huge hit. Thirty years later, Crystal is the same age as the character he played on screen in heavy makeup. “Now they have to make me look younger,” he says of flashback scenes in the musical, directed by Tony winner John Rando (Urinetown). In a masked-and-distanced chat with Broadway Direct before rehearsal, the three newly minted librettists reflected on their long and fruitful partnership and their joy at bringing Mr. Saturday Night to Broadway.
First, thank you for capping off Broadway’s comeback season with this exciting new musical comedy.
Billy Crystal: It’s a thrill to have put the show together from a call Mel Brooks made to me back in 2005. Someone had suggested the idea to him, and then Babaloo and Lowell and I started talking.…
Babaloo Mandel: He butt-dialed us. [Laughter.]
Crystal: The great thing about working with them again is how much I love their talent and how much I trust them — I know I’m in safe hands. It was a risk back then [in 1992], coming off When Harry Met Sally… and City Slickers, to play a 73-year-old bitter Jewish comedian, so it’s thrilling to come back to the character all these years later. And now I don’t need makeup.
Mandel: Wait until you see this guy [pointing to Crystal] and what he puts in. He’s the center of the show. Lowell and I wrote A League of Their Own, and I thought Penny Marshall, directing it in the heat of summer, was the hardest working person I had ever seen. Billy makes that look like a Disney cruise.
Lowell Ganz: Every night [after rehearsal], I go back to my hotel and my wife asks, “How was it?” And I say, “I didn’t have to sing and dance, so I’m fine!” [Laughter.]
Crystal: The fact that they’re sitting right there while we’re trying stuff — I feel so free. We never stop trying to make the show better and funnier and more emotional in the most honest ways.
For those who aren’t familiar with the movie, how would you describe Buddy Young Jr.?
Crystal: Buddy is a stand-up comedian who is much better than his career [turned out], because of his inability to deal with people and pressure. The tagline for the movie poster was “It’s Lonely at the Middle.” Now he’s below the middle, looking up. What’s also been fractured is his family, and when we started working on the musical, we realized we needed to elevate those characters. It’s not just Buddy’s story — it’s the story of a family trying to come together again.
Ganz: There’s a sadness underneath a comedian who is stuck in the middle, who never got to be a big star, so the piece has deep roots, in addition to being very funny.
It must be a treat to have David Paymer reprise his movie role as Buddy’s endlessly patient older brother and manager, Stan.
Crystal: David and I are a pair of old shoes. When I cast him in the movie, there were “names” who wanted the part and who read with me, but David and I had just done City Slickers together and I kept thinking of him as we worked on it and saying, “He’s this guy.”
Mandel: So, he turned down Denzel. [Laughter.]
Crystal: David was better than anybody, and an Academy Award nomination later, he’s still the guy. We’re brothers.
We’re also excited to see Tony Award winner Randy Graff [City of Angels] as Buddy’s loving wife, Elaine.
Crystal: You’ll love everybody. The thing about this cast is that everybody gets a moment: The songs are funny or heartbreaking or emotional, and the relationship between Buddy and Elaine and their daughter, Susan, who is played incredibly by Shoshana Bean, makes this the most fascinating kind of story. It’s hilarious, but it’s a heartbreaker too.
This is the first collaboration between three-time Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown and Tony-nominated lyricist Amanda Green. What can you tell us about the music?
Ganz: These songs are what we would write if we had talent. [Laughter.] They caught our sound.
Crystal: Jason loved the film and the character, and in his own way, he’s got Buddy in him. He can be very funny, he can be very emotional. He understood it. Amanda brings a smart quality because she’s from a show-business family and is the daughter of a powerful figure [composer Adolph Green]. It all fell together, and the score is eclectic and powerful and really funny.
Ganz: It’s tuneful. I’ve always liked that word.
What does it mean to the three of you as native New Yorkers to bring Mr. Saturday Night to Broadway?
Ganz: I never imagined that something like this would be part of my career. Babaloo and I left New York for California a million and a half years ago to become TV writers [on the staff of Happy Days], so this is a complete bonus.
Mandel: From a living room full of relatives, I have one aunt left. She’s 93, she’s sharp as a tack, and she’s counting the days for the show to open. This is for her.
Crystal: I had the great good fortune of having two Broadway runs in 700 Sundays, which took place in New York and Long Island and the world that brings me here today. So to come back to Broadway feels very special. I had written the beginnings of a second solo show, but it felt like “I did this already — let’s revisit [Mr. Saturday Night].” I’m thrilled that we did.
Can you sum up what Broadway audiences will experience at Mr. Saturday Night?
Mandel: The jokes are huge, and you’ll leave the theatre humming the songs.
Ganz: It is primarily an entertainment, from the performances to the jokes to the choreography to the music. But there has always been a heaviness under Buddy that makes it worth our doing it, a sadness that gives it a reason to be. We’re determined that the audience will experience something real while having a really good time. You will laugh, and it will bring you joy.
Crystal: I love this character — he hurts me, he thrills me — and when I feel the audience responding to him, it’s so rewarding. When Buddy bruises himself or someone else, the audience goes, “Ooh,” but I know where we’re going; I know that there’s going to be redemption for him. That’s what’s exciting about doing it live, to create that magic as [Broadway audiences] get back to what they have missed. I can’t wait for people to see this show.
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