Bette Midler and Billy Crystal Want You to Watch the Very Jewish 'Mr. Saturday Night' – Kveller
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Bette Midler and Billy Crystal Want You to Watch the Very Jewish ‘Mr. Saturday Night’

In a room full of Upper East Side Jews, the two icons kvelled about the musical now streaming on Amazon Prime.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 23: Billy Crystal And Bette Midler 92nd Street Y: BroadwayHD Screening Of Mr. Saturday Night And Recanati-Kaplan Talks With Billy Crystal And Bette Midler at 92nd Street Y on May 23, 2023 in New York City

via Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for BroadwayHD

When people dream about being culture writers, they fantasize of rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars in opulent rooms or on bustling red carpets, but I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more than to watch Bette Midler and Billy Crystal in a theater on the Upper East Side filled with mostly older Jews.

Last week, I found myself at a vaunted Manhattan establishment, the 92nd Street Y, a place where every generation of (Jewish?) New Yorker is represented. I was there for a screening of the musical “Mr. Saturday Night,” followed by a Q&A with, as a fellow attendee excitedly whispered as she entered the theater, two New York icons: Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. (Midler was technically born in Honolulu, but her career began New York, in “Fiddler” on Broadway and singing in gay bathhouses.) The screening alone was three hours long, sans intermission, which is definitely something one could complain about. And yet, the coughing and throat-clearing was at a minimum. No sounds of lozenges opening could be heard. By the end, there was not a kvetchy face in sight.

We were all laugh-drunk and dewy-eyed — and the best was yet to come.

“Mr. Saturday Night,” filmed during the musical’s Broadway run in 2022, is now available to stream on Prime Video through Broadway HD and I shall speak about it plainly: If you are a Jew who loves musicals and you haven’t watched this show about an aging Jewish comedian’s second chance at the limelight, you are doing yourself a great disservice. I mean it. Make plans to stream it right now, preferably with someone you love (I propose a screening party/brisket dinner combination, since the latter is oft-mentioned in the musical) and then come back and read the rest of this article (I promise, there are some worthwhile Billy Crystal quotes awaiting you).

Is watching a movie of a musical as good as attending a Broadway performance studded with amazing actors — like Crystal, who plays entertainer Buddy Young Jr., the unfathomable Shoshana Bean, who plays his resentful daughter Sussie, Tony award-winning Randy Graff who plays Buddy’s sweet wife Elaine, and David Paymer, who plays Buddy’s brother Stan? No, that’s a special magic reserved only for those lucky select few who managed to snag a ticket during the musical’s brief run (Better Midler was one of those lucky ones who attended the musical’s premiere). And yet, watching it in a movie allows you to pick up on details that you just might miss in the theater.

The character of Buddy Young Jr. has been living with Crystal for a long time, since he premiered him in a “Chorus Line” parody for an HBO special, and then at “Saturday Night Live.” He’s inspired by great Jewish comedians like Sid Ceasar, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, who, Crystal told the crowd that night, “were really funny, but also tortured souls.” The musical  is based on the 1992 movie by the same name, which was Crystal’s filmmaking debut. It tells the story of aging comedian Buddy Young Jr., a former talk show host who watches the Emmy awards only to discover that he is included in the in memoriam segment of the show, leading him on a journey into his past and future, and opening up new possibilities to fulfill his potential.

The play isn’t really a copy-paste of the movie; lots of details are changed. In 1992, while in his 40s, Crystal had to wear elaborate makeup to play the older Buddy. Now in his 70s, there’s an air of comfort and authenticity to the role. It’s all moored and enhanced by the beautiful prescient and funny lyrics of Amanda Green and the catchy, lovely tunes of Jason Robert Brown (“13: The Musical” and “Parade”).

Buddy Young Jr.’s journey is so, so Jewish, from a childhood in the Bronx, to having his breakthrough in the Borscht Belt — “the bible belt, but for Jews” — at a fictional Catskills resort called “Farber’s,” where he performs a scat in Yiddish (which doesn’t really include any Yiddish, and which the actor reprised at the 2022 Tony Awards). After the airing of the Emmy segment that pronounces him dead, a Chabadnik rings to say Kaddish, and the family receives a brisket delivery.

But the Jewishness is also in the little moments: the Yiddishisms, Buddy and Stan sipping tea together in the former’s living room like two old Jewish men, Stan saying that “if I don’t answer the phone, they call the paramedics,” a joke about a waiter asking two Jewish women, “Is anything OK?” and the cover of Buddy’s album “Disco Jew,” which “went zinc.” But more than anything, it’s the play’s motto, that comes from Buddy’s Jewish mother, and which is a recurring theme throughout the show, that feels the most Jewish to me: “If you stick around long enough, maybe they’ll give you something.”

It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Even the schmaltziest jokes have a sense of authenticity and place, and live in perfect harmony and balance with raunchy humor and smart recurring gags. But what the show has most of all is “neshama” — soul. This is a story about finding redemption, love, forgiveness and the power to move on. It’s a show about a Jewish father, who was always so driven by his career and vision, learning to finally love his daughter the way she deserves. It’s about a Jewish woman learning to take the reins of her own life, about the redeeming power of family, the one you find, the one you’re born into, the one you marry. It’s also a show that drives home the fact that it’s never too late to make amends, to start anew.

Crystal himself, through “Mr. Saturday Night,” showed us that older comedians can learn new tricks. “Mr. Saturday Night” was Crystal’s first musical. He talked in the Q&A about how terrifying it was to make that premiere in front of his grandchildren (he has four!). But he was also so youthful on stage after the screening — bursting with energy, and pee-in-your-pants hilarious. He proves, just like Buddy Young Jr, that a true comedian’s talent has no expiration date. As Midler urged him to do his famous impressions, from Bob Sheppard to Bob Woodward, he inhabited these characters just like he did in the ’80s, if not better.

For her part, Midler was a fabulous interlocutor. Despite admitting that she has social anxiety, she absolutely thrives under stage lights, and it’s a rare magic to see her being Bette on stage. She let Crystal transport her, and us, in a journey through the great Jewish comedians of the past and present. And despite the fact that all of us would have loved to see her break into song on stage, she kept the evening about the musical and Crystal, appearing as utterly charmed by him as the rest of us.

“You start wanting to make your parents laugh and it keeps growing,” Crystal said about how he became a comedian. He talked about the magic of making this musical, encouraging the audience to give standing ovations to the cast and crew sitting in the crowd. He joked about a man who was coughing in the front row during the run of the musical, who said apologetically, “I don’t have a cold, I swear to God, I’m just allergic.” Crystal quipped, “He sounded like every Jew I grew up with.” He also recalled how every Friday during the show’s run, Bean would lead the cast and crew in  a Shabbat celebration, and cast-member Jordan Gelber would bring the challah.

Crystal ended the night by recounting his favorite moment during the first screening of “When Harry Met Sally.” During that Katz’ Deli scene (you know the one), when Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm, he told the crowd, “Nobody at that point in the movies, with the exception of Ron Jeremy, had ever said the word orgasm.” He added, “The crowd goes berserk and I realized at the end of that laugh, [director] Rob [Reiner] and I were holding hands. That was the greatest thrill of all time.”

Soon, the crowd shuttled into the streets of New York City, mere blocks away from where Crystal was born. We all stuck around for four hours, and what can I say? We definitely got something.

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