Randy Graff, Shoshana Bean, Chasten Harmon

Meet the Women at the Big, Beating Heart of Mr. Saturday Night

Tony Award–winning actress and singer Randy Graff has vivid memories of seeing Billy Crystal do stand-up comedy live in downtown Manhattan back in the early ’80s. The actor/comedian/writer/director/producer — himself the recipient of a Tony, a Mark Twain Prize, and a bevy of Emmys — was already a television star, poised for still greater fame on the big screen. “If you had told me then that I would be playing his wife in a musical one day,” Graff muses, “I would have said you were out of your mind.”

Some four decades later, Graff finds herself cast as Elaine Young, loving and patient spouse to Buddy Young Jr., the titular stand-up comic in Mr. Saturday Night. The new Broadway musical, based on the 1992 film, is slated to begin previews March 29 and open April 27 at the Nederlander Theatre. Crystal is reprising his role as Buddy and has cowritten the book with television and movie veterans Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, his collaborators on the screenplay. Three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown crafted the music, and fellow Broadway regular John Rando, who earned a Tony for the musical satire Urinetown, is directing.

But women also play a major role in the new Mr. Saturday Night, creatively and on stage. The lyricist is Amanda Green, whose previous credits include the critically praised Hands on a Hardbody and Bring It On: The Musical — and who, with Brown, Crystal, Ganz, and Mandel, has given the female characters songs and dialogue that flesh out their own stories and their relationships with Buddy.

Wicked and Waitress alumna Shoshana Bean and Chasten Harmon respectively play Buddy and Elaine’s adult daughter, Susan, who becomes estranged from her father, and Annie Wells, the young agent who gamely tries to revive Buddy’s career.

“The women are more dynamic now — not just to the story, but to Buddy’s story,” Bean explains, chatting with Harmon and Graff during a rehearsal break. “We’ve spoken a lot about his character. Can we root for this guy, who can sometimes act like a jerk? I think it takes really smart writing to make that credible.”

Like the film, the musical includes flashbacks documenting Buddy’s rise from a youngster entertaining his family with his brother, Stan — played by David Paymer, also returning from the movie — to a successful performer in the Borscht Belt, as the summer resorts in the Catskills popular among Jewish families in the 20th century were called. When Harmon, a company member in Diane Paulus’s celebrated revival of Hair, watched the movie for the first time recently — “I was about 7 when it came out,” she notes — “I felt like David Paymer’s character was almost like a voice for the women, calling Buddy out on his behavior. He had more lines, more engagement. It was beautifully done, but I think it’s even more potent when the women get to really share the nature of our relationships and how they evolve.”

For Graff, a self-described “Catskills baby” herself — “My family went there every summer, up until I was 17,” she says — both the comedy and the music in Mr. Saturday Night immediately felt familiar. “One of my bucket-list checks was always to work with Jason Robert Brown. The music here is definitely Jason’s voice, but it’s very traditional and jazzy because he crafted it for Billy, who was raised on jazz and loves it. When the older characters sing, it’s in the vein of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé at the Sands,” she says, recalling the traditional pop singers at one of the Las Vegas hotels they played in the ’50s and ’60s. “When I first heard that music, I said to Jason, ‘You’re taking me to the Sands!’ And Jason said, ‘If you cut my chest open, you would see Steve and Eydie.’”

For Bean, the chance to pay homage to her Jewish heritage was also a draw. “When you talk about the Borscht Belt, there aren’t many comedians left who are rooted in that tradition, in the humor that came from the pain and struggle of our people. Billy is like the last of the Mohicans, so this feels like such a gift, an opportunity to learn from a master, and to authentically tell this woman’s story. It has been a long journey, being a Jewish woman, in my life and in this industry, and this makes me feel proud of who I am and of my people.”

Indeed, while all three actresses say the rehearsal process has been playful, with lots of laughter as Crystal and his cohorts encourage them to try out their own ideas — “It’s like living-room theater,” Harmon says — they add that the more bittersweet and sobering aspects of the story have also been further explored. “I feel like the show starts off as a musical comedy, then turns into a play with music as we confront the more serious issues,” says Graff. “I knew it was a priority for our director to really mine the relationships here, and get deeper into the dynamics of the family. We’re really going to be taking the audience on a ride, and it’s all served beautifully by the music.”

Bean notes, “That’s my favorite type of show to attend as an audience member, where I laugh, I cry, I reflect, I learn something.” And preparing for the ride has been, as Harmon puts it, “like working inside a big, beating heart, where you feel like you’re held right in the center. That’s how you know it’s working.”

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