I’ve long trumpeted the pleasures of shot-from-the-stage plays and musicals. Productions that were only seen by live audiences have been available to much wider audiences thanks to Live From Lincoln Center, Great Performances and streamed-into-movie-theaters presentations from the likes of London’s National Theatre and the Stratford Festival.
Since the pandemic lockdown, theaters have upped their exploration of streaming options, realizing there are audiences to be had beyond their in-house seating. At their best, these video captures are more than just “well, I can’t be there live so I’ll have to settle for this” compromises. Instead, they can be terrifically satisfying as films.
Not even those in the industry seem to know how to classify these. As BroadwayHD streaming service creator Stewart Lane said recently at a panel I moderated, “Theater critics don’t traditionally review filmed Broadway shows because they consider the product a TV show or film. And television and movie critics don’t traditionally review the capture because they consider it theater.”
So let’s change that. At least here.
I’ll still write elsewhere on this site about movie adaptations of works that were birthed in theaters (as I did recently with 13: The Musical and hope to with Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical). And I may even chime in on the gimmicky live musicals that have become a staple on network TV (although I’ll probably skip the animated / live hybrid Beauty and the Beast airing Dec. 15).
But shot-from-the-stage films of theater productions — and, sometimes, the issues they raise — will be the focus of this recurring feature, Screen Plays.
And now, on with the show!
Mr. Saturday Night
Now, about Mr. Saturday Night, which begins streaming today on BroadwayHD.
A passion project — or, more accurately, a passion character for Billy Crystal since at least 1984 when he played the past-his-sell-date comic on Saturday Night Live — Mr. Saturday Night, aka Buddy Young, Jr., has perhaps found its / his best possible medium.
That may be faint praise, but the show is certainly more fun than Buddy’s previous incarnations.
From SNL sketches to stand-up stages to an ill-fated movie, the character and material just never seemed as compelling to audiences as it was to the guy performing. In the early bits — sometimes under aging makeup and greased hair (and sometimes not) and pretty much always behind a massive cigar — Crystal sometimes played Young as a cheesy lounge act. Or as a man-out-of-time excuse to tell obvious insult jokes in bits that seemed deliberately unfunny, as if he was trying to out-Kaufman Andy Kaufman. But Buddy’s persona as a self-destructive asshole trying to regain his former glory solidified in the 1992 film of the same name as the show, which was also Crystal’s directorial debut.
Few wanted to watch.
Thirty years later, the show arrived on Broadway, still with Crystal front and center and with his co-writers on the film, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, providing the script, punctuated by tunes by lyricist Amanda Green and composer Jason Robert Brown. Crystal even brought along his cinematic co-star, David Paymer (who was Oscar-nominated for his role in the film).
Given its history, the stage production of Mr. Saturday Night was already a tough sell in spite of Crystal’s celebrity power. What might be good for short-term box office isn’t necessarily best in the long run. Sure, Hello, Dolly! was known for Carol Channing, but after she left the show, a series of well-known ladies took over the part (among them Pearl Bailey, Betty Grable and Ethel Merman). If Mr. Saturday Night did find a theater audience, who of Crystal’s stand-up peers would have the guts or the desire to replace him once he was done with the show? Gabe Kaplan? Jay Leno? I don’t think so. And the show’s road prospects were even more dire. Tellingly, Crystal had no understudy for the Broadway run. It’s his show.
So a stage show — let alone a musical — was an inherently risky proposition. Factor in post-lockdown audience reticence and other variables, and Mr. Saturday Night closed in September 2022, after a run of less than six months.
The uniqueness of the show — and the likelihood of it not having much of a theatrical afterlife — is one of the reasons why I was excited to hear it was pro-shot for BroadwayHD. And, after watching it, I’m glad it was. And not just for archival purposes.
The plot of the film remains the same. Buddy rises from a seize-the-moment Catskill stand-up appearance to TV fame, only to let his ego get in the way. His career dip coincides with alienating his loving brother and troubled daughter. An enterprising agent commits to re-juicing his career, raising the question of whether or not Buddy can keep his worse nature in check.
Plot-wise, the biggest challenge is that Buddy’s problems are almost entirely self-inflicted. Much has been made of the fact that Crystal had to age up to play the older Buddy in the film but had to age down to play the younger on stage. If anything, though, Crystal seems almost too young, spry and smart as the older Buddy in the show. It’s often a delight seeing this much joy in him, but it sometimes undermines the character. When the funniest guy at the party is also the biggest jerk, it’s tough to relax and fully enjoy his company.
The primary pleasure here are the punchlines, though. And there are a lot. Stories about fictional stand-up comics don’t have a track record for having particularly funny jokes (I’m looking at you, Punchline). But Mr. Saturday Night is packed with them. Even when they are redundant, they’re upgraded by Crystal’s impeccable delivery. Throw in a fun F-Troop parody and a spot-on Today bit and you have more laughs than any recent Broadway show this side of The Book of Mormon. That’s no small thing. And some nicely placed callbacks make clear that we are in the hands of professionals.
As for Crystal’s singing, well, the first musical I saw on Broadway was They’re Playing Our Song, starring Robert Klein. Like Crystal, Klein wasn’t really a singer either, not in the traditional Broadway sense. Jackie Gleason and Buddy Hackett starred in musicals back in the day. So did Sid Caesar. You wouldn’t describe any of them as silver-throated. But character sometimes is as important as vocal quality. And technically perfect singers aren’t always the most fun to watch. I wouldn’t suggest he record an album of standards, but Crystal gets by OK, at least in the earlier numbers. Of course, having Randy Graff (as Buddy’s wife) and Shoshana Bean (as his daughter) around to do the heavy vocal lifting certainly helps overall.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers ask why this is a musical in the first place. Outside of the music in Buddy’s acts, the songs never feel essential. And Buddy’s inevitable self-awareness, via song, isn’t cathartic. It just feels like filler.
Good thing there are more laughs before the curtain falls.
Now, who’s going to get Crystal back on stage in a revival of The Sunshine Boys?