PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 700 Sundays: A Mensch for All Seasons

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 700 Sundays: A Mensch for All Seasons The thunderous applause that greeted Billy Crstyal's official first night on Broadway--on a Sunday (Dec. 5), aptly enough, in 700 Sundays at the Broadhurst Theatre—subsided reluctantly only when The Great Man himself held up his hand and ad-libbed a postscript.
Billy Crystal (top); Yogi Berra; Joe Torre; Stanley Tucci; Harvey Keitel; Robin Williams; Rob Reiner; Barry Levinson; Mike Wallace; James Lipton; Chaz Palminteri; Brenda Blethyn; Des McAnuff; Camryn Manheim; Marc Shaiman & Scott Whitman
Billy Crystal (top); Yogi Berra; Joe Torre; Stanley Tucci; Harvey Keitel; Robin Williams; Rob Reiner; Barry Levinson; Mike Wallace; James Lipton; Chaz Palminteri; Brenda Blethyn; Des McAnuff; Camryn Manheim; Marc Shaiman & Scott Whitman Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"I have to thank my cast," announced the cast of one, provoking yet another bellylaugh (only, in truth, he was quite serious—or at least, true to the spirit of the whole evening, seriocomic). "They are here," he declared. "They are all here. I just get to be them."

And, with that, he introduced in the audience various members of his family tree whom he gave a sound and hilarious shaking—two brothers and a couple of uncles, one of whom is The Barbeque King who, in Crystal's mimed vision, loomed like Mount St. Helena.

Then came the well-placed cherry on top of this particular Sunday. "This may sound corny," he admitted a little sheepishly, "but tonight it's really appropriate to say on a Broadway stage: `My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. I thank you.'"

Somebody up there has naches.

For the better (and best) part of two hours, Crystal delivers a pretty rapid fire runthrough of his life so far, culminating with the passing of his mother just as he was getting this memoir together and taking it on the road. He lost his father to a heart attack at age 54 when he was 15, and, since the poor man worked six days a week, the son figures all he had with his dad was 700 Sundays. But they were golden days, and he remembers them well. And since a good portion of those Sundays were spent at Yankee Stadium, making the once and future comic into a lifelong and rather rabid Yankees fan, it was not surprising to find the opening-night guest list had a heavy Yankee accent. Even Yogi Berra, who never came near the theatre where Ben Gazzara did an incredible copycat impersonation in Nobody Don't Like Yogi, came out for this. "Billy's a good egg," assessed Yogi.

"A ton of Yankees are here tonight," beamed manager Joe Torre. "Just about our whole front office was here—from Brian Cashman, our general manager, on down—and Jorge Posada. The Yankees feel Billy's part of the team, and we're proud of him tonight. Every emotion you could conjure up is right up there on that stage—the laughs, the smiles, the sadness, the cries—all Billy, and to let everybody in on his life, I think, is pretty special."

Sportcaster Bob Costas felt 700 Sundays went beyond club lines. "It's secondary he's a great Yankees fan. The frame of reference is so familiar to so many of us. We grew up in that era. And the combination of humor and heart that he has is what sets him apart."

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an infrequent first-nighter at best, honored the comic with his attendance. Hizzonor and an entourage of seven showed up with Swat-Team precision just as the lights went down, stayed collectively in their seats during intermission, greeting the occasional constituent who extended his hand and then fled en masse as Crystal was taking his bows (missing all of the emotional curtain speech above).

Celebrities who turned up were a reflection of Crystal more than anything else, not necessarily the sort usually found on the opening-night red carpet. They consisted of film co-stars (Robert DeNiro, Stanley Tucci, Harvey Keitel), fellow funnymen (Robin Williams, Regis Philbin, Caroline Rhea), film directors (Rob Reiner, Barry Levinson), newscasters who've had Crystal as a guest (Mike Wallace, James Lipton)—plus Jon Bon Jovi, Jessica Lange, Chaz Palminteri, Rue McClanahan, Brenda Blethyn, director Michael Mayer, Heather Randall, producer Pierre Cossette and Sheila MacRae.

The guest list wasn't the only indication that Crystal jumped in and personalized his opening-night party at Tavern on the Green. Even the usual Tavern cuisine was varied accordingly. "Part of the show was about how Jews eat Italian food and Chinese food on Sunday night so that's what we served, said professional party planner Suzanne Tobak.

"That was Billy Crystal's idea. It was our job to make all of that happen." The Crystal Room—which was called that before the show—went with less tables than usual to accommodate a dance band, Central Plaza, and newly installed makeshift dance floor.

"Certainly the band was Billy Crystal's idea because it's everything that's important to him. And he put together the musicians who actually played. About the only thing we can claim that was our idea was the goodie bag." It was an overlarge replica of a Chinese takeout container, but what it contained was pure Crystal: a Yankee cap, a baseball autographed by Crystal, brown and blond fortune cookies containing catch-phrases from the show, a Yankee catcher's mitt key chain, and two CDs, one of which was recorded by his uncle, Milt Gabler, and contained Billie Holiday's classic "Strange Fruit."

Guest books at the Tavern entrance were also Crystal's idea. "It's a special evening for him, and he wanted something to take home to make it special," explained Tomack.

The nonexclusive press conference was a departure from the norm—and definitely his idea. Instead of repeating himself in endless one-on-ones, he met the press en masse with director Des McAnuff and co writer Alan Zeibel in one of Tavern's siderooms. It lacked the intimacy of the other arrangement, but Crystal arrived looking like the guy who'd just made it across the finish line and was trying to make it gracefully through the party grind. Considering the performance he was coming from, it was understandable and forgivable.

Yes, he was happy he did it. "I'm beyond happy," he admitted. "Of all the things I've done, I've never felt as full and as creative as an actor and a comedian and a writer as I do doing this show. I've been talking about doing this for years and years and years, so last year I said to Des and Alan, `All right, let's put aside six weeks, and let's workshop it.'

"The way we rehearsed the piece was I just started talking and Alan would write this down and that down, and suddenly we'd have a first act, then a second act. It was all the truth and all real. The whole was written to improvisations of music. All the music in this show I picked and brought them into rehearsal and said, `This could go with that material.'"

It's a different kettle of fish than hosting the Oscar show, which he has done rather famously eight times. "The Oscars isn't mine, and it's satisfying to a degree. But this is the story of my life. You can't compare the two. I'm free here. I don't have to worry about commercial breaks, introducing this one, introducing that one. Here, it's constantly a new night for me every time I get out there so there's really no comparison. This feels like a culmination of a lot of things that I've been through, written about, thought about, joked about and mused about. Now, because of Alan and Des, we put it all together."

Unquestionably, one of the sweetest things about calling your own tune is that you get to name your own producers. Crystal picked his wife of 34 years and a foresighted club-owner who believed in him before he even made it to the starting gate.

"Janice and I have produced a lot of things together—two beautiful girls and a great life together. To have her by my side with one of my oldest friends, Larry Magid, who was the first guy to headline me—in a nightclub in Philadelphia called The Bijou—when I really had no credits, no TV, no nothing, but he liked what I did, and he made an audience happen to me there. I kept coming back and back, and soon there were people in line. I never forgot that. It meant so much to me. That's why I wanted him to do this show."

Zeibel was particularly "well cast" for this bleed of comedy and pathos. He is best remembered in these parts for the Off-Broadway show about his friendship with the late Gilda Radner (Bunny Bunny), and he was already familiar with Crystal's emotional cornerstones. "Billy has been one of my best friends—if not my best friend—for 30 years, and we'd been talking about doing this for years. I just said, `Let me know when you want to do it,' and finally he called and said, `Let's go,' so we dropped everything and we rehearsed and we wrote and we went to La Jolla for 12 shows, and then we went down and I did a pilot and he did something else, and then we regrouped and worked our butts off steadily for six or seven months, trying to get this thing ready for Broadway."

Zeibel is thinking of giving his young comic/old comic (read: Morty Gunty) one-acter, Comic Dialogue, "a revisiting" and has two books about to be published: a novel, The Other Showman by Random House and a children's book Our Tree Named Steve by Putnam's.

Like Zeibel, director McAnuff is slightly euphoric about the Crystal collaboration. "He's fantastic, a wonderful human being, and you have to be sensitive, I think, when you're directing a story about somebody's life. Not that I would say it requires kid gloves, but I think so much of this is about his openness and his confidence, being able to go up there for two hours and open his soul. I've really encouraged him to play those moments totally and to trust the story. It doesn't all have to be funny. He is very transformative."

McAnuff is the only director who has two shows on Broadway right now—Dracula is the other—and he has another warming up in the wings at his La Jolla Playhouse which he hopes to bring in early next season: Jersey Boys, a bio musical about Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers The Four Seasons (Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Bob Crewe). "The fact is it's already the biggest success we've ever had at the Playhouse. It has just now surpassed Rent, and Rent we did after it opened on Broadway. We opened the tour out there. I think it touches a nerve. It's the story of these guys. It's not a typical anthology show. It's not fictionalized. It's actually their story, the story of the band." There was a distinctly California cast to the first-night contingent, people like superagent Bernie Brillstein and "The Practice" Emmy winner Camryn Manheim. The actress said she has four movies en route to movie theatres, one by way of Sundance, so she's taking the time to try on some stage work. "I'm here to do a reading of a play at Manhattan Theatre Club. If it feels good and jells, maybe I'll come back and do it. It's by Jonathan Tolins, who wrote Twilight of the Golds. It's called The Forgotten Woman right now."

Another temporary California transplant, Robin Williams came with his wife, Martha. It didn't bother him a whit that his "Comic Relief" partners have one person shows now on Broadway—Whoopi Goldberg and Crystal. "Two out of three is fine," he piped. He hasn't ruled out Broadway, by any means, though. "If I ever find a show that I feel enough about doing, I'll do it," he promised. "But standup comedy—it's a nice living."

Dana Reeve, widow of Christopher Reeve, was present as a friend of the court. "Billy was lovely to my husband and me, but I'm really here with Martha and Robin." (Williams was Reeve's roommate at Juilliard.) For the present, Dana is giving her acting career a rest. She had done the new Donald Margulies play, Brooklyn Boy, when it premiered at South Coast Rep and was planning to appear in it next month at Manhattan Theatre Club. "Rehearsals were to start at the end of the month, and I asked to be released from my obligation. I'm going to stay home and devote myself to family right now. (Polly Draper replaced her in the play, which bows at the Biltmore with Adam Arkin Feb. 3.)

The Tony-winning tunesmiths of Hairspray, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, took the night off from work. "We're actually making headway," said Shaiman of the film-inspire project, Catch Me If You Can, they are working on with Terrence McNally.

Tovah Feldshuh did not have a tough commute to the opening. She crossed the street, from the Helen Hayes where she is nearing the end (Jan. 2) of her 17-month run in Golda's Balcony. After a month's break, she resumes performances in L.A. Feb. 1.

Next on Andre DeShields' horizon is a return stint at The Classical Theatre of Harlem, where he did Dream on Monkey Mountain in 2003. "We're going to do Caligula in the spring. Rehearsals start March 1. Alfred Pryser, artistic director of the theatre, directs."

But first he must lance that lovin' feeling, which he'll do with two Monday night gigs at Joe's Pub—on Feb. 7 and Valentine's Day. "I think of the two shows as mixing a good martini," he said. "On Feb. 7, it will be shaken, and, on Feb. 14, it will be stirred."

Jeremy Piven, until late of the movies exclusively, said he's bracing for his Off-Broadway debut in the new Neil LaBute, Fat Pig, which opens Dec. 15 at the Lortel. "I play a tragically flawed Everyman who falls in love with this very heavy woman and then can't honor his love because he cares too much about what society—and his friends—think of him. It's very Neil. You kinda tell the truth and run. I don't know how else to do it."

Crystal looked pretty exhausted for most of the party but posed patiently for pictures with his guests. It's not science fiction to suggest—as did Variety's Robert Hofler—that the comic will host the Tonys for his newfound community, but he waved the notion away as if he couldn't think that far in advance. (True, perhaps.) "I gotta go to my party," he said.

Bill Crystal gives his opening night curtain call
Bill Crystal gives his opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben