A Second Helping of 700 Sundays: Billy Crystal Brings His Childhood Back to Broadway
By Harry Haun
Billy Crystal, starring on Broadway in a return engagement of his one-man show 700 Sundays, chats with Playbill.com about coming back to the Great White Way.
Don't look now, but Billy Crystal's re-entering his second childhood — his third, if you count the 700 Sundays he put in 163 times at the Broadhurst during the first half of 2005.
The title of this autobiographical stand-up one-man–many-charactered show, now rating a nine-week reprise at the Imperial through Jan. 5, 2014, is the number of Sundays he shared on this planet with his father, Jack Crystal, a jazz promoter-producer who owned and operated Commodore Records. When Dixieland sales went south in 1963, his dad took an early slide at age 54, suffering a fatal heart attack while bowling.
This past March, the 15-year-old that Jack left behind with undeveloped memories and a spotty family photo album turned 65 years old. Suddenly Crystal realized he had been fatherless for 50 years. "The symmetry of that got me thinking, 'It's time to do that show one more time — to say goodbye to him,'" he explained. "I've really missed not doing it. I last toured with it three years ago and felt, 'I'm not done with this yet.'
"I thought there was a very emotional kind of rightness about doing it one last time. I thought I should do it and then lay it away and find something new to do, which would be exciting — while I still love it and have the passion and the energy for it."
The first time around, Crystal arrived on Broadway with $10 million in advance sales and sold out consistently throughout his run. He even once set the then-record for highest weekly-grossing Broadway non-musical ($1,061,689). At season's end came the awards: Two Outstanding Solo Performance Awards — from the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle — and a Best Special Theatrical Event Tony.
"The only dream I have left for this show — because I've achieved everything I wanted as far as audience acceptance goes — is to go to London and play the West End." He hasn't made plans for that, but it may come to pass; and he may record it this time.
The comedian's total recall of his childhood requires much theatrical shaping, so Des McAnuff, who directed, and Alan Zweibel, who supplied "additional material," have returned to their original posts for that. "When we opened the show, I had a four-page outline. At the rehearsal studio, I started improvising these stories of what it was like growing up in a Jewish house in Long Beach, and they were making notes. I'd recount them as best I could, then this became index cards, which went up on the board. After three weeks of doing this, we had a structure for the whole show.
"So we opened at the La Jolla Playhouse with key-word outlines in the wings that the audience couldn't see so I could remember where I was going. I think ours is the only show that ever opened on Broadway with no script, just a four-page outline."
Crystal's Broadway baptism has left a lovely afterglow for him. "It's the greatest thrill to have a show that's well received in New York," he admitted. "The people are amazing. The audiences are fantastic. You can feel the people scurrying in the theatre district, racing to get to their designated shows. Then, basically, the doors shut, and the streets are quiet for two hours. Then, they open, and everybody spills out — hopefully, in a good mood. I loved being part of that."
There was a steady procession of celebrities beating a trail backstage to congratulate Crystal, and they would party onstage in front of the set — David F. Weiner's exact replica of 549 East Park Avenue, his boyhood home in Long Island, N.Y.
"Every night I would invite them up on stage after the show and take a picture in the doorway of the house. All of them looked like they were coming over to visit. The quilt of people was so amazing — from Joe Torre to David Bowie, from Mel Brooks to Henry Kissinger, from David Letterman to Dustin Hoffman. The people who took the time to come backstage, who I had not met before and who you wouldn't think would be moved by the story, for whatever reason — basically, it's the story of a family, and a boy and his dad — coach Bobby Knight, Pat Riley..." His favorite? "Kurt Vonnegut, because his take on the show was so interesting."
To be sure, Crystal delivers the comedy goods — most notably, miming a backyard barbecue that turns into family free-for-all. "Pantomime is an art that I sort of understood from watching Sid Caesar and Red Skelton. Without saying a word, you see this family fight break out. I always look forward to doing it."
But it's the poignancy implied in the title that frames and informs the piece. "Recapturing the emotions I felt over my losses was the hardest thing to do. Going back into that now a few years later is still difficult. But, as an actor and as a son, it's a delight to play because the drama of it is very real and it never fails to move me."
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