Mr. Tuesday Night, Billy Crystal, returned to Broadway in 2014 with a revival of his autobiographical “700 Weekends”, a funny, and also very moving, one man show. Billy was very good, and the show very professional, though a little moribund. It wasn’t his follow up, “Mr. Saturday Night” based upon his flop movie from 1992 with the same name, a true musical comedy. Taking questions after the musical comedy currently playing at the Nederlander, Crystal said that the problem with the movie was that the three women’s roles were severely underwritten, and he was right. By turning the spotlight away from himself he gave the show the redemption arc it deserved. It became much less mean-spirited and also much more rewarding, it felt good as the Borchs Belt type comedian who lost his prime time show (on CBS -I wonder if they paid for that product placement?) in 1958 and in 1994 is still embittered.
The Borscht Belt comedians who worked the Catskills from the 1920s through the 1960s, with the brightest star, the Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, and more, graduating to radio and by the mid 1950s onto the nascent network television, is the back story. They owned primetime. And this is the starting place for Billy Crystal’s musical comedy. Billy Crystal’s roots aren’t really in the Jewish comedian’s of yores self-Deprecation, insults, complaints, marital bickering, and hypochondria (here). Billy is an iteration later and while he started in stand up he broke out in sitcoms and graduated to movies. He was different to his forbearers, there is no one you can look at from that first wave of Jewish comedians and think “ha ha”, not earlier vaudeville guys like The Marx Brothers and not the slapstick of The Three Stoogies (all of whom light the menorah) not even the comedies of Mel Brooks was quite the same. The Billy of “When Harry Met Sally…” and “City Slickers” was a leading man, not the way Woody Allen was a leading man but a cosmopolitan Cary Grant as schmo and wasn’t kidding at all, and with “Mr. Saturday Night” he looks and acts like a leading man playing a Borscht Belt comedian.
Watching the Emmy’s in 1994, decades after his arrogant and inappropriate behavior lead to his prime time variety show getting cancelled, Buddy Young Jr’s (Billy) death is prematurely announced. When his survival becomes known, he gives an interview to The Today Show and the result is an immediate uptick in interest in the comedian who had been playing retirement homes , with his estranged brother (the sublime David Paymer, an old time foil of Billy’s), his long suffering wife Elaine (a spectacularly lovely Randy Graff) his daughter Susan (performed by swing Tatiana Wechsler the night I saw it), and his newly signed up for agent (Chasten Harmon) along for the ride to redemption. The story is fiction 101, Buddy is mistaken for dead, he gets a second chance and blows it, he gets a final chance and is redeemed.
The musical is filled with hoary old jokes (“Come Upstairs and make love to me.” “Make up your mind, I can’t do both”) and the flashbacks (dancing cigarette packs anyone?) are nostalgia fun. Crystal is in complete control of the book that he co-wrote with the original movie’s Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz. It is an exercise in genre writing, looking into the further past from a closer past.
But the songs… oh no, no, no. Music by Jason Robert Brown and lyrics by Amanda Green, two pros, are not at fault for an artform in free fall. The late Stephen Sondheim had little ace new material in the 21st century, first runner up Adam Guettel hasn’t had a new musical on Broadway since 2005, and coming round the bend is Duncan Sheik whose “Spring Awakening” 2006 he sincerely failed to replicate. Otherwise it is filled to overflowing with the Stephen Schwartz’s of the world. The songs are perhaps not awful, the lively novelty one’s from his network show in flashbacks are fun, but they are miles from memorable and the big ballads are brutal, Elaine gives everything to “Tahiti” and still the song can’t sustain it.
But Billy is so great in the role and the evening is such a pleasant break from the relentless awfulness of the 2020s, none of it matters. “Mr. Saturday Night” finds Crystal doing what he is paid to, weaving a fairy tale for us to get lost in.
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