Back in 1992, Billy Crystal starred in the movie Mr. Saturday Night, which he made his directed and co-wrote with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. The film co-starred David Paymer as his brother. It didn’t do very well at the box-office, though I thought was reasonably entertaining.
Jump forward 30 years, and the movie has now been adapted into a Broadway musical and opens next week, on April 27. And Billy Crystal will again be starring in it – and David Paymer will be playing his brother. And the script has been written by… Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.
The 30-year gap, while a challenge, is not as odd as it would be on other projects. That’s because in the movie, the character of standup comic Buddy Young, Jr. ages about 30 years or so, to age 73 when he's largely washed-up, but has a chance for a big comeback -- and Crystal is now 74. So, that means rather than having to wear heavy make-up to look old, Crystal and Paymer will pretty much only need to wear a wig to play their younger selves.
I’m also intrigued by the musical score, for several reasons. On the one hand, the music is by Jason Robert Brown, a highly-accomplished composer, who has won two Tony Awards. On the other hand, he’s best-known for very serious, almost brooding works. His two Tonys, for instance, were for Parade (a true story from 1913 about a Jewish man wrongly accused of killing a black girl, and ultimately being lynched) and Bridges of Madison County, based on the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. He also won a Drama Desk Award for the off-Broadway show, The Last Five Years, about the break-up of a crumbling marriage. (It was made into a movie with Anna Kendrick. In fairness, for all its comedy, Mr. Saturday Night is not a laugh riot, and somewhat serious about a self-absorbed comic who has broken most of his relationships.
But what’s also odd is that Jason Robert Brown, who as far as I know has written both the music and lyrics to all his shows, is only writing the music for Mr. Saturday Night. Why not the lyrics, I have absolutely no idea. I’m also intrigued that the lyricist is Amanda Green who has a Tony nomination, which speaks well for her talent, though it’s for a show I’ve never heard of, Hands on a Hardbody, that closed after 28 performances.
So – it’s just sort of…intriguing. And I’m curious how that all came about.
CBS Sunday Morning did a nice feature recently about Crystal and the show, and it includes snippets of several songs (all of which he seems to do well). Here it is –
Point of personal privilege.
I have a friend Lynn Roth who is a quite-wonderful filmmaker. She’s best-known as a writer, having worked on numerous series, and written such TV movies as Chance of a Lifetime with Leslie Nielsen and Betty White, and The Portrait starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall (now that’s quite a cast…), as well as The Patron Saint of Liars with Dana Delany and Sada Thompson. She also co-wrote the 6-hour TV fictional/documentary A Century of Women for TBS. She produced many of these and other productions, too. However, Lynn came to my attention long before I met her when she wrote and was the executive producer/showrunner of the TV series The Paper Chase, when it was revived on Showtime.
(You may recall that The Paper Chase had been an excellent CBS series that ran for one season with John Houseman recreating his Oscar-winning role as Professor Kingfield. It was so highly-acclaimed though that a few years after being cancelled, some PBS stations began running the series and then Showtime brought the series back, with Houseman and James Stephens reprising their roles. I’d loved the CBS show, but the Showtime incarnation was even better, since they were able to deal with subject matter that was more substantive and could handle it in a richer way, and it ran for another five years. This new Showtime series was the one that Lynn was in charge of. I remember meeting her for the first time at a lunch of Writers Guild members. When I heard her name mentioned, I asked if she was the Lynn Roth who did The Paper Chase, and then went into detail how much I absolutely loved the show. It will not shock you to learn she was pleased…)
Lynn also directed several episodes of The Paper Chase, and wanted to break into directing feature films, which is alas a big hurdle, especially for women. But eventually, her determination broke through, and she got her chance and eventually directed two movies. The first of them, Changing Habits, had a terrific cast starring Moira Kelly, Christopher Lloyd, Teri Garr and Shelley Duvall, among others. She didn’t write this one – the comedy/drama turned out to be written by another friend of mine, Scott Davis Jones – but directed it wonderfully. Her next feature film, though, she did both write and direct, The Little Traitor, based on a novel about the bond that develops between a British soldier (played by Alfred Molina) and a young boy set against the birth of the State of Israel, with a co-starring performance by Theodore Bikel. It’s terrific.
Changing Habits is a lot of fun -- vibrant and rambunctious -- but unfortunately difficult to find, though this is the trailer, to at least give you a sense of it.
The Little Traitor, however, is available for free to subscribers of Amazon Prime, streaming online. (You can add it to your Watch List here.) It’s really beautifully done.
And this is the trailer –
I mention all of this because after six years trying to get it made, Lynn has a new movie she’s directed and written. It has the unlikely title of Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog. (For anyone who may be reading this overseas, in England it’s playing there as Shepherd: Hero Dog). Based on the novel by Asher Kravitz, it's the story of a dog taken from his Jewish family in Germany under the Nuremberg Laws before WWII. He is adopted by an SS Officer who trains him to round up Jews at a Nazi work camp and, soon after, the boy is sent there himself, where the dog and he cross paths.
Here’s the trailer.
The film was released in late May – hardly the ideal time to put out a movie, though it's done nicely. I don’t know its further national schedule , or what if any streaming service it might be on. At the moment, however, for those in Los Angeles, it’s playing at the Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall (which used to be the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, a more familiar name to residents).
It will run at the Lumiere Cinema through October 14. If you live in the area and are thinking of going, know that the theater has an odd schedule, where they play a variety of movies throughout the day, each at their own time. For Shepherd, it plays every day at 2:20 PM.
Lynn is a high quality filmmaker, and has had an impressive career. But I’ve always felt she’s deserved far more, because she’s that talented. Every step moves towards that.
We’ll end with Lynn herself. This is an interview and Q&A with the audience that was done after a screening last year at the Sedona International Film Festival. The interviewer is Lynn’s longtime friend, actress-singer Lainie Kazan. And even if you only watch part of it (it's half an hour), you’ll get a nice view of Lynn and what went into making the film.
The inveterate Chris Dunn brought this to my attention. It was a wonderful thread on Twitter. A bit of background first, though, which is about baseball, but bear with me because the story really isn’t. But it helps round-out the tale, getting to know the person involved.
Yu Darvish is a Japanese pitcher who signed with the Texas Rangers in 2012. He was considered at the time perhaps the best pitcher in Japan and has largely had a very good career since coming to America and playing in the majors here, but not without some bumps along the way.
In his first season with Texas, he finished third in the American League voting for Rookie of the Year. The following year he lead all of baseball in strikeouts and finished second in American League voting for the Cy Young Award as best pitcher. He also struck out 500 batters in fewer innings than any starting pitcher in the history of baseball. So, he's very good.
He moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and had a mixed career. His record was good, though there were some inconsistencies, and he had a famous flameout in the 2017 World Series against the Houston Astros. It later came out that the Astros cheated by stealing signs between the pitcher and catcher -– whether that impacted Darvish’s collapse in the World Series, it’s hard to say. But it’s certainly possible.
Anyway, the following year he was signed by the Chicago Cubs. I was thrilled.
I had a fellow-Cubs fan friend, however, who was very down on Darvish after he got off to a very bad start with Chicago his first year -– not helped by coming off his World Series meltdown, and bolstered by criticism by a Dodgers fan who was friends with my friend. We'd argue because I'd defend Darvish, despite his problems. I liked Yu Darvish from the start -- though was certainly bothered when he started poorly. But I sensed it was an anomaly since his career was far better than that. And I didn't hold his Dodger post-season blow-up against him. (Hey, by those standards you should hate a lot of great players who performed badly in the World Series, like Dodger star Clayton Kershaw.)
It turned out that Darvish had been hurt his first year, and even had to stop pitching, eventually missing the last third of that season. Though he did start the season, he wasn't up to speed yet, working himself back in to shape -- and so the debates between my friend and I continued. Darvish finally got fully recovered by mid-season of his second year, and from that point on he was absolutely tremendous. But because his great "second-half" numbers got lost amid his full-season stats, it took a while for many people to realize that, particularly since his first year had been so problematic. But as the remainder of the season progressed, my friend was open-minded enough to start giving my debating points some leeway and finally accepted that Darvish had good games in him, though he still needed convincing it wasn't a fluke and would hold through the next year. By the third year, though, he became convinced and was totally on board. Darvish had a great season, leading the National League in wins and having the second-best earned run average in the league, a miserly 2.01. It reached the point that when the Cubs traded him after 2020 to the San Diego Padres, my friend was disappointed. As was I.
Which brings us to the tale. This comes from a series of tweets by Annie Heilbrunn, who is a sportswriter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. I’ve edited them together here in story form, and tweaked some of the text for normal-writing style.
And here it is --
Wanted to share a quick story about Yu Darvish. It starts with a boy named Landon, who, for his 10th birthday, was gifted a trip by his grandparents to Truist Park in Atlanta to see the Padres play the Braves. Landon is a Padres fan.
Landon and his dad made the 3.5 hour trip from Tennessee, where he lives. But the game was postponed due to rain, which would bum any kid out. However, one player stood outside to sign autographs in the rain: Yu Darvish. Landon was thrilled when he got a ball signed.
Landon's mom is not a baseball fan, but she noticed how happy Landon was (despite the rainout) and messaged Darvish on Instagram. Didn't expect him to write back, but wanted to say thanks for standing in the rain and making her son happy with a signed ball.
Darvish wrote back the next day:
But the NEXT day, Darvish followed up, asking if he could gift Landon and his family a trip to Petco Park in San Diego to see the Padres, since his trip was rained out. Darvish offered to pay the flights, hotel and tickets. Landon and his dad accepted, blown away by the generosity.
Landon came to Petco Park earlier this week, courtesy of Darvish, and saw his Padres play. He got to chat in the dugout with Darvish before the game. Yu gave him signed cleats, a glove and an autographed [Francisco] Tatis jersey. Landon said it was the best day of his life.
His family hopes to host Darvish for a homecooked meal if he ever comes through Tennessee. They are still in shock this trip even happened, and that a chance encounter led to it. Landon will likely never forget this moment. The end.
As you might imagine, there were a lot of comments to this Twitter thread, all ravingly positive. But this one stood out, because it was sort of an addendum to the story. A father wrote --
"We were there as well. Yu made my boy's dreams come true, he’s such a good dude. First game my son has been to that a player signed autographs, and to do it in the rain was awesome."
So, yeah, that's the answer to anyone who asks, "Yu who?" That's Yu Darvish
On Tuesday, I wrote that for me there are two standards for singing the song, "Old Man River" from the musical Show Boat. One was by Paul Robeson, for whom the song was written, and the other was William Warfield who sang it MGM's 1951 color movie remake. Robeson's is deeper and richer, Warfield's more textured. Both are powerful and remarkable.
Since I posted Paul Robeson's version yesterday, I figured I should follow-up with William Warfield. This is a piece I wrote about him and the song almost seven years to they day, on July 6, 2014.
Warfield and Peace
Yesterday, I noted that Paul Robeson's version of the song "Ol' Man River" was the standard by which others are judged. Having established that, I believe there is one other that I find pretty much at that level and equally definitive, and that's from William Warfield.
William Warfield was a man of great skill, and though perhaps less-known to the general public today than Paul Robeson, he did reach a level of great acclaim, thanks to having had a longer career and also living deep into the multimedia age, passing away only about 10 years ago -- still occasionally performing, and being active on the teaching staff at Northwestern University, where he became a professor in their acclaimed Music School. A position he kept until his death at the age of 80. All the while promoting the cause of and creating a scholarship fund for African-American singers.
Bear with me here, there are a couple of treats below.
Trust me on this.
Among his many accomplishments, he was an opera star and toured throughout Europe for the U.S. State Department in Porgy & Bess with Leontyne Price, who subsequently married for a while. He also made the premiere recording of Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs."
And when the musical Show Boat was remade as a film in 1951, it was Warfield who played the role of 'Joe.' He subsequently re-created the role in the 1966 revival at Lincoln Center, and on a studio recording with Barbara Cook and John Raitt. His interpretation of the song was slightly different, perhaps more textural than explosive, but with the resonance, power, sadness and hope the song demands.
The main version used in the remake was trimmed back from the original, though it's repeated throughout the film, as the story requires. This footage edits two of those sequences today.
A year before then, in 2001, the Hollywood Bowl did a semi-staged concert version of Show Boat, which starred Broadway stars Alice Ripley and Douglas Sills, as well as Susan Egan. I went to see it -- in large part because, as I noted, I love Show Boat. But mainly because it featured -- at age 81 -- William Warfield!
In fairness, Warfield didn't play the role of 'Joe,' but rather took a non-singing part as the narrator, coming on stage through to fill in the truncated book. But just seeing him there, participating in Show Boat, was a joy. And they were wise enough to include a nod to the audience, when -- after Warfield introduced the character of 'Joe' and then walked off -- when he and actor Gregg Baker cross paths with one another, they both stopped for just a moment, and looked at each other, which brought an appreciate laugh and applause for the 15,000 audience members.
But the biggest nod and emotional surprise came near the end of the show when 'Joe' has a reprise of "Ol' Man River," and not only did Baker perform The Song...but Warfield returned to the stage to join him and have some solo moments. If you thought the audience went crazy...you'd be right.
(Here's how the Los Angeles Times described it in their review, which I just tracked down. "...while, in a twist that brought a tear to many an eye, William Warfield, who sang that song so memorably in the 1951 film and served as Sunday's narrator, reprised a verse of it as old Joe at the story's end.")
When Warfield passed away the next year, I wrote a note to the Music School at Northwestern, and explained about seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl the previous summer. I got a very nice note back, explaining what a wonderful and beloved member of the department Warfield had been -- and how when they gave him a party for his 80th birthday, he put on an impromptu concert, which included a performance of "Ol' Man River," which she said bowled everyone over and there wasn't a dry eye.
Lest you think that was hyperbole, here is a rare treat. William Warfield in 2000, at age 78, at a small event performing "Ol' Man River." This comes with rarely-heard, moving lyrics from one of the song's reprises -- along with his powerful tribute to Paul Robeson.
Just so you know, the performance actually lasts a minute less than what the video says. That last minute? It's roars of cheering.
There are many wonderful performances of "Ol' Man River." But when anyone dives in, Paul Robeson and William Warfield are the standards you're matched again.
And as you see here, William Warfield he just keeps rolling along...
At this point, there's a good chance you’ve seen stories about Zaila Avant-Garde, the 14-year-old girl who the other day won this year’s Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee and wat the first African-American to do so. You may have also read about some of her other talents, like that she’s in the Guinness Book of Records three times. More about that in a moment -- and more, because I want to present her in a little more in-depth way than the coverage she's gotten. Because, as you'll see, she deservies it.
First though, let’s see her win the contest that got all the attention.
What you may have read about her Guinness world records is that they were for her skills dribbling a basketball. But while that’s certainly very impressive, it also sort of gives the suggestion of a solitary skill, another “geek” thing she can do by herself alone in her room like spelling. But the thing is, dribbling a basketball is a part of…well, actually basketball. And she’s really good in it. And by “good” I mean absolutely wonderful. Her ball control and physicality is tremendous.
And so, instead of jumping right to her dribbling, I first wanted to show a video of her playing basketball,. Though here's the thing -- as tremendous as the video is, it doesn’t do her justice. That’s because it mostly shows her dribbling and driving with the ball, not making many long, three-point shots. I did find a video of that, her shooting bombs from all over the court, but that’s all it was, her alone shooting three-pointers, and I thought a video of her playing actual basketball showed her skill far, far, far better – especially since it does includes some three-point shots about halfway through, made (not alone on court during her own relaxed time, but) during competition with opposing players guarding her after she’s been running around the court. And another reason this video doesn’t do her justice is that, as truly impressive as she is here…it's from three years ago, and she’s only 11 years old!
And trust me, you ain’t see nothing yet.
Because here it is. Here she is dribbling and juggling basketballs, what she got her three Guinness Book of World Records for. There are several videos of her doing other tricks beyond just these. This is merely just one of many. I’m not going to say anything more about the specifics you're about to see, this since it not only speaks loudly for itself, it shouts it from the rafters. And it’s not repetitious, her skills just keep getting better and better as the video progresses – and they’re jaw-dropping amazing from the first. And no, I’m not exaggerating. And no, too, there are no special effects here, this is all Zaila Avant-Garde. In real time.
And remember, as she was painstakingly teaching herself this unearthly skill, she was training to become the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee champion.
There are probably more "Oh, my God" moments here than in most tent revival meetings.
Yeah, between that and her regularly basketball, not too shabby for a Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee winner.
I thought I’d end with arguably the best video of all. Her being herself, interviewed on the Today Show. Showing why she can likely do whatever she wants to in the future. And probably will.
The other day I came across a wonderful radio interview from probably 15 years ago (maybe longer) that was with Joan Rivers and my friend Treva Silverman. (Also known to me and a few others as TLT -- The Lovely Treva.) The history between Treva and Joan goes back a long way -- not showbiz "a long way," but really long, like in this case, back to college. Treva today is a writer, and they worked together on-and-off over the years, but eventually Treva carved out her own very successful writing career. She most famously worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (winning to Emmy Awards for it), but also wrote for The Monkees, the wildly-admired (deservedly so) though unsuccessful He & She that starred Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, That Girl and many others series, and wrote several TV movies. And she plays a mean honky tonk piano. (Okay, it's not honky tonk, I just like saying that, since early in her career she did get work playing the piano, and it's how I choose to characterize it...)
What stands out in the interview is how clear it is that Treva and Joan do go back that far. And it shows here. You can hear Joan let Treva take over stories about their history together – and that Treva has no hesitancies in doing so. Which may not seem like much, but Treva is generally a very quiet, deeply polite person. Though to succeed in TV comedy, you need to have a tough side.
By the way, the stories they tell are a joy.
There's one thing in the interview that I really disagreed with, and that's when Joan Rivers talks about how there aren’t that many Jewish comics – and then, joyously, Treva actually contradicts her and politely, but pointedly explains why she's wrong...with a wonderful line.
And I have one quibble with the interview. Though only one. It's that in the introduction, the hosts don’t give Treva's credits and, most especially, don’t reference The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not just to give Treva her due, but as hosts, knowing those credit would help inform the interview for the audience. They wouldn’t just think, “Oh, she’s a ‘successful comedy writer,’ nice.” But “Oh!!! She wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show! I looooved that. And The Monkees. Wow. And she won two Emmy Awards.” It’s weird that they didn't do that.
But still, it's a delightful, fun, funny, and insightful conversation.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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