When the film "Mr. Saturday Night" hit the big screen in 1992, it seemed to have everything: There was Billy Crystal as the abrasive stand-up comedian Buddy Young, Jr., and a top-notch cast as his long-suffering family. It was Crystal's first shot at directing, and he played Buddy from a young star to a washed-up has-been.
For Crystal, the film was a personal victory. But a hit, it was not.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, "We talked about 'Mr. Saturday Night,' and I asked you, was 'Mr. Saturday Night' a hiccup or a career killer? And you said, 'Oh, I thought it was a career killer.'"
"I did, yeah," Crystal replied. "And this was, I thought, for me, my best work. And the fact that it didn't perform as well at the box office as we wanted was, like, uh-oh, it's the first time you get punched in the face, basically."
And what made it sting even more, Crystal said, was that it came on the heels of some pretty huge career milestones, like 1989's "When Harry Met Sally," and 1991's "City Slickers," which was a whole new level of box office success.
But even though the Buddy Young Jr. story didn't shine as brightly, Crystal never gave up on it: "So, you get up, you put it back together again, you go, 'All right, what's next?'"
"So, let me ask you, though, if it's like getting punched in the face, why revisit it? What is it about this guy?"
"Because I thought there was something else to be said with him," he replied. "There was more to do with him. And what we learned from the film that didn't work as well as it could. we found works in the show."
The show is "Mr. Saturday Night" – the musical. It's a lot more than a re-work of the movie, because as any Broadway fan knows, you can sometimes say a lot more with a song.
Another difference is Crystal himself, who turned 74 last month. When he played Buddy on film, he was only 43, and needed hours of makeup to play a 73-year-old. "It was a disaster – I mean, just my skin, it was exhausting," Crystal said. "Now, I just show up! They have to make me look younger now. I'm actually older now than I was in the movie originally!"
Bringing a movie to Broadway isn't an entirely new idea: In 2001, Mel Brooks turned his 1967 film "The Producers" into Broadway gold. A few years later, Crystal – who'd by then had his own Broadway show, the Tony-winning "700 Sundays" – got a call from his old friend Mel. "When I was finishing '700 Sundays,' Mel Brooks called me and asked me, 'Billy, would you come across the street and do 'The Producers'? Be in 'The Producers'? Play Max Bialystock? That's one question.' I said, 'Mel, I love you. And I've been waiting for this call my whole life. But I don't wanna be the fifth person to play Max Bialystock.' And he said, 'You won't; you'll be the 12th.'
"And then, 'But there are these people who asked me did you think 'Mr. Saturday Night' could be a musical? So, I'm just throwing it out there.' And that was 2005."
And now, more than 800 Sundays later, here we are. At its heart, the show is about a man getting one last shot at greatness … and the fear of fading away.
"It's every comedian's worst nightmare," said Crystal, "to wake up one day and not be funny and not be relevant and not be needed or thought about."
"Is that your worst nightmare?" asked Smith.
"Oh, I think it's everyone who works. They go, 'Oh, are they gonna ever forget me? How do you stay funny? How do you stay ahead of it? How do you stay with it, you know? How do you stay on the surfboard?'"
He does have some help. In the film, David Paymer played Buddy's long-suffering brother, Stan, earning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Now, Paymer's back on board for the Broadway run.
"We're two slippers," said Crystal. "You know, we're two old slippers. We've carried these guys in our soul for a long time."
Smith asked, "If there was no David Paymer, you think you could pull this off?"
"Not the way I wanted to."
And what Crystal wants is to do the show right, and he's given the toughest job to himself: he sings in no fewer than eight numbers.
Of course, we've heard his singing voice before. As Oscar host, he'd often start the show with a song:
"I would do the medleys, and that was a thrill to sing with a big orchestra and the great Marc Shaiman, the medleys that we put together. But this is different."
Different, indeed: "Mr. Saturday Night" opens April 27, and Billy Crystal will do seven shows a week –a tough schedule even for younger players.
He trained for this like an athlete, in rehearsals, and at his home tennis court. He quipped, "I know the Yankees are looking for a shortstop – just sayin'."
Smitha sked, "Are you ready for this, physically?"
"I think so. I'm in great shape. And yeah, you drag your butt home after a show, and then you wake up and the first thing you do is go, (CLEARS THROAT, SINGS SCALES) bah, bah, bah, bah, all right, I got my four – bah, bah, bah, bah. All right, I'm here."
"Is that what you do when you wake up in the morning, really?"
"Yeah, you wanna make sure you're not too, you know, hoarse or tired or anything. Yeah. Listen, it is the ultimate challenge. And right now, I feel really strong and ready to do it. There's an electric feeling, you know, when I sing that young duet, and I'm 28? I feel like I'm 28. If I can revisit that seven times a week, it's worth it."
"Now, when you get off stage, do you still feel 28?"
"No. I feel 97!" he laughed.
You'd never know it: Billy Crystal is light on his feet, and his timing seems just right. He said, "So far, it's working. It's working and thrilling. Like, crazy good. It's like, I almost giggle sometimes, 'cause I feel like, I don't know, I plant my feet, I get my body right, and I get there, little 5'7" me hits these big notes. And it's kind of a joy. I smile thinking about it!"
And seeing him up on stage in a role that he loves, it's hard not to smile with him.
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Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
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