PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 700 Sundays — Life With, and Without, Father
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the return engagement of Billy Crystal's one-man show 700 Sundays.
"Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor's mind toward some resolution which it may never find."
Robert Anderson got there first in his 1968 play, I Never Sang for My Father, with these sentiments of a son grieving for his dad. Billy Crystal just did the math: 700 Sundays, which began a nine-week revival Nov. 13 at the Imperial, is a funny/sad look back at the number of Sabbaths he shared on this planet with his father.
First Sunday: March 14, 1948. "I Am Born," as David Copperfield's first chapter heading has it — and Crystal hilariously re-creates his emergence from the womb.
That was then, and this is 65 years (plus change) later. Last month he realized he had been officially fatherless for half a century, and the symmetry of that prompted him to wing his way back to Broadway with his 2004 Tony-winning one-man show.
Jack Crystal, his dad, suffered a fatal heart attack at the too-young age of 54, putting too much into his regular Tuesday night bowling and leaving behind 15-year-old Billy, a resourceful and unsinkable wife Helen and two sons away at college, Joel and Rip.
The Duke and The Count attended Jack's funeral (i.e., Ellington and Basie). He had been a jazz promoter/producer and co-founder of Commodore Records on East 42nd with his brother-in-law, songwriter Milt Gabler ("L-O-V-E," "Danka Schoen"). That kind of musical backdrop was a unique and enriching environment for an impressionable lad to grow up in. Lady Day, no less, served as his babysitter at times. "Miss Billie," in fact, took "Mr. Billy" to his first movie, "Shane" ("He ain't coming back.")
For someone collecting Social Security, the four-times-a-grandpa comes out of the chute like a fireball and doesn't let up, delivering "Billy Crystal: The Early Years" as rapid-fire standup, replete with a myriad of nuanced and/or Jewish mannerisms. The opening-night audience, a heavy mix of Jersey and Long Island, lapped it up.
Crystal comes fully equipped with sound effects, too — a faulty hearing aid, a 1948 family car coughing and sputtering into movement, a rabbi with a Sylvester the Cat speech-impediment and Edward G. Robinson in "The Ten Commandments" snarling "Where's your Messiah now?" He plays the audience like his dad's mandolin.
Act One could be called "Happy Days, With Melancholy Clouds Forming." Act Two lowers the boom, with the death eventually of both parents, and Crystal is unstinting in conveying a teenager's overwhelming loss and "other-ness," pushing mountainous boulders to get from day to day. You might not have noticed what a terrific actor he is.
It's a sentimental journey, to be sure, dark at times, but always open to the flick of a wit that can shed some unexpected lightness on the proceedings. "We knew we had a story to tell," said Alan Zweibel, who shares writing credit with Crystal. "When we were putting it together, we did what we had to. We weren't afraid to go long stretches without jokes. When you go with the funeral, you need something to break the tension a bit so you throw in a narcolepsy joke. It was all about the storytelling. We knew we could make it funny. We wanted it to be funny the right way."
The new edition of 700 Sundays, nicely and tightly paced by director Des McAnuff, comes in a good 20 minutes earlier than it did nine years ago. The senior citizen in the center ring finished it up without undue huff 'n' puff, threw in a cartwheel and still found time to deliver a touching, from-the-heart curtain speech to the crowd.
"On behalf of the entire cast..." he led off with grand largesse, quickly letting that be drowned out by hysterical laughter. He said he considered it a particularly special evening "because, oddly enough, this is the anniversary of my mom's passing. It just happened to be. And you know what? Somewhere, she's smiling and saying, 'Why didn't you talk about my work with charities?' This show is for her — for all of your parents out there. You know, this has been a dream come true, doing this show.
"I'm 65 years old now," he continued. "I think I'm the only 65-year-old doing cartwheels on Broadway. I so love performing the show. There are so many people out there that I love. When I say the cast is here, the cast IS here. My brothers are here. Beautiful Janice [his wife] is here. All my friends and people I really respect are here. That means so much to me. All these strangers who get to know the Crystal family and the Gabler family because of my stories — it really means a lot to me."
He wrapped it up with a story about his father's brother, Burns, who ran an art gallery and peddled the paintings of Zero Mostel. "Burns arranged for my mom and I to see Fiddler on the Roof in this very theatre. We sat in Row R over there, and Burns arranged for us to go backstage to meet the great Zero Mostel, whose Tevye is pretty much the greatest performance of any musical comedy in the history of Broadway on this stage. I was introduced to him. I was 16 years old. Burns had told him I wanted to perform, and he was very encouraging to me. 'If you're going to be funny, you got to work hard, and then you'll be even funnier. So try that. Just keep working hard.' He was so encouraging. And you know what? I'm in his dressing room."
There was a lot of eye dabbing on the way to the exit and the party at John's Pizzeria. Jimmy Fallon was especially verklempt. "There were so many parallels between his life and my life," he said. "It may not be the exact same experience, but it's familiar enough. I thought it very, very funny and tremendously moving. Billy's the best!"
Crystal and his wife got to the party late, but there were still celebrities around to rush up and congratulate him. Elvis Costello and wife Diana Krall were among the first. "I hadn't seen it before," Costello later admitted. "It hits you very hard when you see it the first time. Very emotional, extremely beautiful and beautifully told."
Bette Midler glad-handed Zweibel for a job well done. She and Crystal co-starred last year in "Parental Guidance," playing grandparents reluctantly turned babysitters.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar uncomfortably endured the pre-show press line so he could hear the amusing story of how five-foot-seven Crystal met him when he was seven-foot-two Lew Alcindor as rival high-school basketball players on the same court.
Derek Jeter told how he was on deck when Crystal struck out his one and only day at a contracted New York Yankee. He was released the next day, his 60th birthday.
Sean Young, who recently switched to the East Coast, even recalled working with Crystal, kinda: "On the Oscar show in 1987. He hosted, and I was a guest presenter."
Comedienne Lisa Lampanelli said Zweibel let her read 700 Sundays, "and I cried just reading the script so I figured I'd better bring the tissues." She and Zweibel are writing a show together — Skinny Bitch: A Big Fat True Story. "We've been trying it out in five different cities. The plan is to try it in Chicago in June and then come next year in the fall." Zweibel is also planning an evening of three one-act plays, having just written a third to go with the two he already premiered here in the "Summer Shorts" series at 59E59 Theatres (Happy in 2010 and Pine Cone Moment in 2013).
McAnuff's next directing chore will be a solo show with Christopher Plummer in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson. "It's called A Word or Two about his relationship with literature and words. This is our third show together in the last five years. It's brilliant. What a privilege to go from Billy Crystal to Christopher Plummer!"
The director was sporting a dapper purple hat — "a little Sinatra," he characterized it, "from Worth & Worth on 57th Street — the last haberdasherie in New York, I think."
By his estimate, 700 Sundays has been in the works five years longer than the title: "We started talking about this right after I did Tommy — about 20 years ago. We had a meeting here in New York where he said he was thinking about doing a one-man show and wanted me to think about developing it with him. We got together a couple of times after that, and then — coincidentally — about the time his mom got sick — I ran into him in Los Angeles when he was on his way to Seattle, which is all a part of the show. It was right after 9/11, and we talked about it again. About a year after that, we reached out to each other, and we've been working on it ever since."
The show is in a constant state of change, he said. "While it is structured very carefully, Billy is comfortable improvising in front of an audience, so it's always a line that is always shifting and changing. Every performance is fresh and new."
Director Christopher Ashley, the artistic chief of the La Jolla Playhouse where 700 Sundays was developed, was in town for the New York premiere of Little Miss Sunshine, which also started there, and to get a couple of Joe DiPietro projects off the ground: "One is a reading of an Old Hollywood murder mystery-comedy based on fact, The Unfortunate Murder of William Desmond Taylor, and we might have some juicy cast names in it for its very first reading. Then we're also doing preparations for a page-to-stage of his new musical with David Bryan called Chasing the Song at the La Jolla Playhouse this spring. It takes place in The Brill Building back when it was a musical mecca." Bryan and DiPietro's last team-effort was the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2010, Memphis, which Ashley is now reading for a London launch.
London is also an option for 700 Sundays, according to Crystal, "and I may even record it this time." Once the show was frozen, it was published by Warner Books.
His latest book, just published by Holt, is "Still Foolin 'Em" and already on the bestseller lists. Does that mean it might become fodder for his next show?
"Yes, I think there's definitely a possibility," he confessed, "but I don't think it's as much of a Broadway thing. I started out the book thinking, 'Well, I'll go and I'll do standup, and I'll write things about turning 65 and what's it's like for a man in this country with ageism. It started out that way, and that's how the book got sold, but then it started to flesh itself out into how did it lead up to being 65? What about my teens, my 20's, my 30's, my 40's, my 50's, avoiding things that are in 700 Sundays."
A one-man show is pretty heavy lifting, and some pretty heavy lifting preceded this revival. "I am older than when I did it before, but I'm in really good shape," Crystal said. "The legs are great. I work on my posture and my wind... I've been working out for weeks. I always stay in good shape. This is particularly good shape."
Crystal-gazers in attendance: A.D. Miles, head writer on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon"; Rachel Dratch, who's currently passing for a middle-school principal on ABC's "The Middles"; Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; Rebecca Holt of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; comedian David Steinberg; long-stemmed and personable Brooke Shields; and a couple of "Real Housewives."
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