"My first hero." That's what Billy Crystal calls his father, Jack, during "700 Sundays," the comedian's fond journey back to his boyhood that opened Sunday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre.
And the show can probably remain there for as long as Crystal is willing to tell his frankly sentimental, yet very funny tale. The man may be talking about his own family, but Crystal's story is a universal one - of growing up, coming to terms with his parents (not to mention a carload of crazy relatives) and making his way in the world.
Crystal, an elfin man with an endless supply of energy, is a savvy storyteller. With the help of director Des McAnuff, he has put together an affecting memoir that is surprisingly theatrical, considering the comedian is the only performer on stage.
The man certainly has had a varied and successful showbiz career -from "Soap" to "Saturday Night Live," movies such as "Analyze This" and, of course, gigs as host of the Academy Awards.
But what he talks about here is more personal, so it's fitting that designer David F. Weiner's setting is the façade of the family home, a modest brick house in suburban Long Island. The time is post-World War I1 when Ed Sullivan was on television, automobiles sported big fins and Mickey Mantle was the star of the New York Yankees.
Crystal is the youngest son of Jack and Helen Crystal. Dad was a jazz musician and concert promoter who also ran the Commodore Music Shop, a legendary jazz record store in New York. Mom was a housewife. And there was a parade of colorful grandparents, uncles and aunts, "the Jewish Kennedys," according to Crystal, who would "sell you the shirt off their backs."
The performer, dressed in a casually expensive burgundy sweater and dark slacks, prowls the stage as he lovingly tells their stories. What emerges are vivid portraits of people and a time. He talks of his Uncle Milt, who founded Commodore Records and who, among other things, recorded Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," when other record labels turned down the song about the lynching of a black man.
There are pictures, too, of those jazz and Dixieland musicians, garrulous, genial men who called the perpetually eager and always smiling Crystal "Face." He remembers going to the movies with Holiday and watching "Shane," which astonished him because it featured a little boy in a major role -child actor Brandon de Wilde.
There's Aunt Sheila and the story of her lesbian daughter's wedding in San Francisco as well as his family's encounter with a local Mafia kingpin who accidentally wrecks the family's new Plymouth, among others.
Home movies and old black-and-white photographs complement Crystal's monologue, and they show a peppy little boy, mugging for the camera and frantically tap-dancing, or adults doing the goofy things that always occur when the filming of home movies begins.
Yet the heart of Crystal's evening is Jack Crystal, a man who died too young (he had a heart attack in a bowling alley at the age of 54). His death jolts his 15-year-old son into a new appreciation of what the man accomplished and what his mother, Helen, then did to keep the family together.
The show's title, "700 Sundays," comes from a calculation by Crystal that father and son spent that many Sundays together before Jack Crystal died. Sunday was the one day of the week the two had to enjoy each other's company since Jack Crystal always held two or three jobs. Too short a time, of course, but they were enough to produce an affecting, hilarious evening of theater.
In the opening moments of "700 Sundays" we see home movies of little Billy Crystal cutting up at family parties with the desperate eagerness that is essential for a comic.
The 56-year-old man who bounds onto the stage a few minutes later is no less eager to win our affection.
Happily, however, he is much wiser than the goofy kid clowning and dancing on the screen.
If the impulses evident so early in his childhood propelled him into show business, we must be grateful. But we must be even more so that along the way his ideas deepened.
The first act of his one-person show is stand-up comedy. The second act is extremely moving theater.
The title refers to Crystal's father's death when the youngest of his three sons was only 15 years old. Crystal estimates that 700 was the number of Sundays the two shared.
Crystal's father loved jazz. He ran the Commodore Music Shop and produced Sunday jam sessions where legendary artists of the Golden Age -the '30s to the early '60s - performed. One of Crystal's earliest memories is seeing the movie "Shane" on the lap of one of his father's friends, Billie Holliday.
He also recalls going to the Borscht Belt resort Kutscher's, which, as he puts it, consisted of "1,000 Jews fighting for end cuts."
In an odd way, Crystal, hip and contemporary as he is, has a kind of limitless energy and craft that reflects the Borscht Belt at its best. A number in which he teases a grandfather with a new hearing aid requires great technical expertise, which Crystal has in abundance.
But if the first part of the evening is filled with shtick and sometimes easy laughs, the second is increasingly poignant. At one point, he and his mother watch a historic moment on Ed Sullivan. "I was seeing The Beatles. She was seeing the death of jazz."
His sense of personal detail is that of every powerful writer. A policeman gives him his father's wallet after the heart attack that killed him. It contains only "his driver's license and pictures of us."
Much of the second act describes his relationship with his mother, who is at first indomitable, then, as illness attacks her, helpless. His sense of comedy keeps the narrative from becoming sentimental. It also accentuates the emotional moments.
Everything about the show, directed by Des McAnuff, works to build its impact, from the witty set, an evocation of Crystal's Long Island home, to the music, jazz to Gershwin to Rachmaninoff.
"700 Sundays" is a brave portrait of an eccentric, endearing family. It is hilarious and unexpectedly touching.
It’s Crystal clear - Broadway belongs to Billy. He owns it for as long as he wants it.
Onstage or off, memoirs are usually not much fun. The glorious exception is "700 Sundays," Billy Crystal's ruminating reminiscences of growing up in and around New York, which last night stealthily slid into our hearts and the Broadhurst Theatre.
This is not a one-man show - it's a one-man phenomenon. Crystal juggles both time and emotion. He has you recall memories you hardly knew you had, makes you roar at jokes you thought you'd forgotten, and crystallizes tears into hard-core nostalgia.
He's as dazzling as Chaplin on a good day, as sentimental as Al Jolson on a bad day, and can make a trip to the Catskills as thrilling as a climb up the Himalayas.
For a man of 58, Crystal has some pretty good memoirs to talk about. And the show he has devised with additional material by TV writer Alan Zweibel runs the gamut of a youth dominated by his beloved father, a jazz concert and record producer who worked with such legends as Billie Holiday.
The title memorializes the 700 Sundays he spent with his hard-working dad, before Jack Crystal succumbed to a heart attack in a bowling alley.
Billy Crystal is the rare stand-up comedian who doesn't tell jokes - he tells stories. And those stories are mostly about growing up comic in a Jewish landscape.
Helped by Des McAnuff's invisible staging, Crystal has shaped the show into adroit segments, many of them dealing most affectionately, but with lavish caricature, with the kind of family a comedian would either die for or have to invent.
He describes a rude sexual awakening that makes you wonder what Portnoy could have been complaining about; his abiding boyhood love for the Yankees (which survived even his traitorous part-ownership of the Diamondbacks), and a horrific tale of high school basketball.
He is a terrific mime (Marcel Marceau, stand back) and has two incredible vignettes, one miming a bellicose uncle at a barbecue slinging around silent four-letter words as if they were Tabasco sauce, and the other lip-syncing to Spike Jones' classic pastiche rendering of "You Only Hurt the One You Love."
But the memory I will treasure most from Crystal's belated Broadway debut is of his sheer daring.
Talking of his father's death and only recently his mother's strokes - a quiet killer taking her life in ironic zebra-striped phases of despair and hope - he goes to the brink of sentiment, looks down the abyss, grins calmly at his captivated audience, and moves on.
This is acting at its peak; it's masterful. Come back to Broadway any time, Mr. Crystal. You own the street.
Successful comedians, especially those who have sharpened their teeth in the cruel world of standup, are usually not people you would want to have over for a cozy evening with the family – at least not without a home insurance agent and psychotherapist on call. Imagine getting through an intimate night with, say, Jim Carrey or Richard Pryor without broken crockery, mangled feelings or at the very least the kind of exhaustion that could keep you in bed for a week.
But over the last couple of decades, one American comic has stood out as a helpful mensch of an elf in a profession of angry and depressed goblins. That's the movie star and perennial Academy Awards host Billy Crystal, who opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater in "700 Sundays," his long, sentimental journey of a one-man show about growing up on Long Island.
If you already have tickets to Mr. Crystal's autobiographical play - and if you don't, good luck, because they are already as scarce as this season's must-have Prada - you needn't bother putting on the psychological armor you would wear for insult artists like Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers or Dame Edna Everage. No, the ideal attire for "700 Sundays" would be something closer to an old bathrobe, with plenty of Kleenex in its pockets.
For this show, directed by Des McAnuff, has been carefully set up to suggest a night of home movies, screened by a buddy from your high school days who is equal parts attention-grabbing show-off and soft-hearted sweetie pie. In resurrecting the boy he was and the parents who made him the man he is today, Mr. Crystal does indeed show flickering, faded films from his childhood (shot with an 8- millimeter camera), projected onto the windows of a replica of the quintessentially suburban house in Long Beach, where he spent his youth. (David F. Weiner is the set designer.)
"We grew up here," says Mr. Crystal. "We measured our heights on the doors here; we made people laugh here." As you may have gathered, you would be hard-pressed to find a Broadway show with a more artfully calculated comfort factor. (Comfort, in this case, does not come cheap. "700 Sundays," which is scheduled to run through March 6 and has already racked up $10 million in advance sales, charges $100 for orchestra seats.)
Granted, on the surface, Mr. Crystal's family was no American every-clan. His father was a jazz concert promoter who managed the fabled Commodore Music Shop on East 42nd Street, which had been steered into fame by Billy's maternal uncle, the pioneering record producer Milton Gables. So little Billy was steeped in an atmosphere of "Jews and jazz, brisket and bourbon." And when he saw his first movie ("Shane"), it was in the company of Billie Holiday.
Still, you probably won't disagree with Mr. Crystal when he says, in describing his family albums: "Let's face it. We all have the same five relatives. They just jump from album to album." In fact, what feels unusual about Mr. Crystal's portraits of his relatives is their loving and idealizing nature, especially in an age when the word family keeps close company with the adjective dysfunctional. "700 Sundays" makes the characters in Neil Simon's domestic comedies look as tortured as figures out of Eugene O'Neill.
Mr. Crystal has a way of making even the ostensibly exotic feel as wholesome as apple blintzes. This is true even when he is talking about an eternally flatulent grandfather, an uncle he describes as "Santa Claus on acid" or the "lesbyterian" wedding ceremony of a gay cousin.
Though Mr. Crystal's politics clearly shade more toward blue than red, "700 Sundays" is the most unabashed paean to family values outside of a Hallmark shop. (Mr. Crystal has been married to his first wife, Janice, for 34 years, which makes him a museum-worthy rarity among Hollywood stars.) "Heroes don't have to be public figures," he says. "They can be right in your family."
The everyday hero who dominates the first act is Mr. Crystal's father, who died when Billy was 15. (The show's title refers to the number of Sundays in the years his life overlapped with his father's.) The second act celebrates the heroism of Mr. Crystal's indomitable mother.
Despite the projected photographs and film and physically full-bodied impersonations by Mr. Crystal, his parents never entirely come to life as individuals. The affection and warmth he feels for them are no doubt real, as is the grief with which he recalls their deaths. But part of Mr. Crystal's comic art involves turning individuals into archetypes, larger and less complicated than they are in life. And there is inevitably a synthetic gloss to a show that prominently features a credit for "additional material" (by Alan Zweibel).
It goes without saying that "700 Sundays,'' which also covers Mr. Crystal's introductions to baseball and Catskills comedy, features funny one-liners, starting with the recorded announcement that immediately precedes the show: "At this performance, the role of Billy Crystal will be played by Miss Bernadette Peters." But it's the gutsier physical comedy that will appeal to theatergoers looking for more than rosy nostalgia.
Choice examples of this bolder style of performance include Mr. Crystal's impersonation of his infant self emerging from the birth canal (looking, he says rightly, like Joe E. Lewis) and of his adolescent dialogue with his penis, which has a mind (and a bass voice) of its own.
And there is one inspired bit in which Mr. Crystal becomes a live, one-man home movie of a backyard barbecue. The sequence is Chaplinesque in its energy, timing and precisely measured exaggeration.
What Mr. Crystal summons here is indeed the home movie of pretty much everybody who grew up in the American suburbs in the Eisenhower era. Its very familiarity suggests why "700 Sundays" needs no critic's benediction to be a sold-out hit.
The literature of the American theater is chockablock with dysfunctional-family dramas, stories about fathers loathing mothers, wives resenting husbands, brothers and sisters who care too much. or not enough, and the damage wreaked on the psyche of anyone within loving distance.
But a functional family drama? What a concept.
In fact, "700 Sundays," the Billy Crystal solo that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre with the sort of advance sales known only to mega-musicals, is far more than a concept. It is also more than a glorified stand-up routine, more than a self-aggrandizing personal tribute, more than a greatest-hits rehash of real- or-imagined career triumphs.
"700 Sundays" is a real play - make that a sweetheart of a real play - about growing up with love, humor and loss in the Crystal bungalow in Long Beach, Long Island. The set, designed by David F. Weiner, is a replica of the front of that modest red-brick house with the aqua woven-plastic lawn chair that seems to have been allotted to every '50s family of certain uncertain means. Three windows - two downstairs, one above - are dressed in Venetian blinds, from which slats of light make shadows as memories grow distant.
Crystal has dared to trust that his family stories, complete with his family's home movies projected on the windows, are worth imposing on strangers on Broadway for major money. He and director Des McAnuff dare right. Yes, the visit to almost anyone's childhood would feel pretty long at 2 1/2 hours. Eugene O'Neill, this is not.
On the other hand, O'Neill's family wasn't this funny. Crystal definitely has a story to tell, one of "Jews and jazz, brisket and bourbon" in a home where hard-working everyday parents clearly adored each other and their late-life third son, a show-off named Billy. Oh, they also happened to be besotted with jazz greats, who hung out in the little house because the father, Jack, and the uncle, Milt, ran the Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan, then produced legendary - and integrated - jazz records on Commodore, the first independent music label.
Sentimental? You bet. Manipulative? So what? The title refers to the finite number of Sundays Crystal was able to spend with his father, who worked every other day of the week and who died, suddenly, at the bowling alley when the son was just 15.
Crystal, dressed simply in a brown sweater and dark pants, holds the stage with all the savvy and accumulated affection of a multifaceted, good-natured career. Unlike other solos in the Vegas-ization of Broadway, this one weaves the comic routines almost incidentally into the plot. Without having to have him explain, we understand exactly the territory from which the young Crystal channeled second-generation Jews, how this little white boy with the open face could develop the unerring timing from the outsider rhythms of jazz, and where he located his inner Sammy Davis Jr.
We can also trace the sadness to a story seldom explored - the life-altering effect of being a child who loses a parent. Crystal describes this as "Somebody handed me a boulder," which he carries and embraces through his life. We also see the pressure on a child to amuse the remaining parent, to keep her laughing through her loneliness and even her stroke.
Until his family took him to the Catskills, he wanted to be a baseball player. As he remembers the impact: "I could never be Mickey Mantle. But this ... ?"
So he does a virtuosic - also adolescent - bit about his deaf grandfather's flatulence. And we can see the little boy who practiced the routine until it had the rhythms of a percussion symphony. And he does a wonderful monologue as his indomitable Aunt Shirley, complaining that, because of her gay daughter, she and her husband are the "only barren grandparents in our cul-de-sac."
Best of all, a big photo of Aunt Shirley is projected on the bungalow window. And we can watch tiny Billy tap dance on one leg while the big Billy does it live. Some of the humor (especially the one about the French and about Eleanor Roosevelt) panders and, really, that star- encrusted sky at the end is too much. Stars in the sky we get all the time on Broadway. Stars who write plays are the real special effects.
At one point in 700 Sundays (* * * out of four), Billy Crystal fondly remembers watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's TV program as a teenager. So it's fitting that the philosophy driving Crystal's new one-man nostalgia trip can be summed up in the title of one of that band's hits: All You Need Is Love.
It is love that redeems the lack of invention and excess of schmaltz in Sundays, which opened Sunday, natch, at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre. Conceived and written by Crystal, with additional material by Alan Zweibel, the show is an unabashed valentine to the 56-year-old actor/comedian's father, who died when Crystal was only 15, and other relatives and family friends who shaped his boyhood in Long Beach, N.Y.
Aspects of Crystal's youth will seem familiar to people of a certain age, particularly those who grew up in some of the ethnic enclaves surrounding New York City. There are the grandparents speaking Yiddish, which Crystal describes as "a combination of German and phlegm"; the vacations in the Catskills; and trips across the bridge to see Broadway shows and baseball games.
But as the nephew of Milt Gabler, founder of the noted jazz label Concord Records, Crystal also got to mingle with entertainment giants long before entering show business himself.
We learn how Louis Armstrong attended a family Seder and how the young Crystal saw his first movie, Shane, sitting on Billie Holiday's lap.
Jazz musicians also were among the first to see "Mr. Billy," as Holiday called him, take his first steps as an entertainer. The child would tap-dance and ape Bill Cosby routines at home, where artists who worked with Gabler - and Crystal's father, who ran Commodore's music store and produced concerts - held court. "The house always smelled of brisket and bourbon," Crystal recalls.
If the attempt to show camaraderie between Jews and blacks, two groups that struggled together for years before tensions developed between them, can seem self-conscious, Crystal's affection for the artists who made up his extended family is as endearing as his love for his parents and brothers.
Crystal's mother, who died two years ago, plays a prominent role in the second act as the future star struggles to cope with his father's death. Crystal's earnest depiction of this period is mitigated by buoyant humor and good-natured parody. In a beat, he will shift from sentimental raconteur to sprightly stand-up comedian, evoking his aunt's garrulous gruffness and his grandfather's flatulence.
Director Des McAnuff helps ensure that the proceedings move along briskly, never getting mired in the maudlin - which is more than you can say for the Oscar ceremonies that Crystal is often hired to host. Saying goodbye to Hollywood, at least for now, and hello to old friends and memories, Crystal seems very much at home indeed.