Mahvelous Billy Crystal takes show on the road

by Christine Dolen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

10 December 2009

(Lilly Echeverria/Miami Herald/MCT) 

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was three decades ago that Billy Crystal became famous playing one of the first gay characters on the TV series “Soap.” We watched as the compact guy with the halo of dark curls morphed into Sammy Davis Jr. and a faux Fernando Lamas (“You look mahvelous!”) on “Saturday Night Live,” laughed as he tried to keep a straight face while Meg Ryan simulated sexual ecstasy in “When Harry Met Sally,” hooted as he played frustrated psychiatrist to Robert DeNiro’s messed-up mob guy in “Analyze This” and “Analyze That.” He’s everybody’s favorite Oscar host (eight times and counting), comedian-philanthropist (Comic Relief) and diehard New York Yankees fan.

But ask Crystal what he holds most dear in a long, varied career — a career that really started when he was a 5-year-old trying to make a room full of great jazz musicians laugh — and he’ll tell you it’s “700 Sundays.”

“This show,” he says simply, “is very cathartic for me.”

Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for best special theatrical event, “700 Sundays” is a personal and revelatory solo show, a piece that Crystal has taken on a limited tour.

Technically speaking, the actor-author-comedian will be all alone up there on the stage, reaching out as he works in front of a replica of his childhood home at 549 Park Ave. in Long Beach, a city on New York’s Long Island.

But in fact, when a man can embody as many voices and characters as Crystal can, he’s never alone. In “700 Sundays,” he plays himself as an eager-to-entertain child, a horny-angry teen and a reflective adult; he becomes his hard-working father Jack, his mother Helen, his brothers Joel and Rip, various uncles and aunts; an array of jazz musicians and comedians, and, unexpectedly, Billie Holiday.

Lady Day, he reveals, took him to his first movie at the Loews Commodore in Manhattan. He sat on her lap, and they watched Shane, and he loved it. Sitting on the lap of a legend? No big deal.

“To me, she was just one of Dad’s friends with a scratchy voice,” he says with a grin.

Crystal sat down for an in-person chat before a recent performance in West Palm Beach, Fla.

He had come in from Los Angeles just the night before, so a 9 a.m. meeting in the center’s elegant Founders’ Room feels like 6 a.m. to him. A fit, youthful 61-year-old who stands just a shade under 5 feet 7 inches tall, he’s in (sleep-deprived) professional mode: smart, focused, reserved, polite, funny only when the moment is right.

So much of Crystal’s entertainment past lives on in movies, DVDs, TV reruns, YouTube videos. But the stories he hadn’t told — about a father who worked so hard at several jobs that he could spend only Sundays with his family; about his famous uncle Milt Gabler, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer whose Commodore Records released Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit; about his mom, looking at him after she’d suffered a stroke and saying, “You’re Billy Crystal! What are you doing here?” — those stories are the heart and still-tender soul of “700 Sundays.” Even the title is deeply personal: It is, by Crystal’s count, the number of Sundays he spent with his father before Jack Crystal died of a heart attack when Billy was 15.

“One of the joys of doing the show is that people get a whole new point of view,” he says. “There’s the great exotica with the jazz people. There’s the family. The strongest connection in the show is that.”

Crystal developed “700 Sundays” the way a great jazz artist improvises. With Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff, who was then running California’s La Jolla Playhouse, and his longtime writer friend Alan Zweibel, he set the mood by listening to some of his favorite jazz records, then started telling stories.

“We wrote on all these file cards and put them on a big poster board,” remembers McAnuff, who juggles directing on Broadway with serving as the artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. “He’d improvise, create a structure of how to group the material together thematically. Then he’d do it again and again.”

The enthusiastic first audience, a group of theater students from the University of California at San Diego, let them know that “700 Sundays” would be something special. And the response to it has been pretty much the same ever since.

“For Billy, it’s a chance to be up there with his family, really, every night,” McAnuff observes. “It’s heartfelt, deeply emotional and real. Everyone has some sense of his body of work, who he is. So we’re already invested in finding out where he comes from.”

After doing the show on Broadway, then taking it around the United States and Australia in 2006-2007, Crystal took a break from it before deciding to do the tour that is bringing “700 Sundays” to Miami. He wondered, he confesses, whether he’d care about doing it as much this time.

“It’s the greatest joy to move people with this,” he says, comparing what he does to Rumplestiltskin — taking the “straw” of life and using “gold” of laughter to help overcome grief.

From his father, he says, he learned “some things to do and some things not to do. He worked so hard (to support the family), but at what expense?”

Crystal has been married almost 40 years to his wife Janice. They are the parents of two daughters, the grandparents of two little girls and a baby boy. Ella, their 6-year-old granddaughter, has just figured out that her grandfather provided the voice of Mike Wazowski in the animated Pixar film Monsters, Inc., so now it’s “Grandpa Mike.”

Because his time with his own father was so short, he says, “I made sure I could be the carpool dad, be at all the games.”

Coming back to “700 Sundays,” which New York Times critic Ben Brantley described as “. . . the most unabashed paean to family values outside of a Hallmark shop,” Crystal acknowledges that “physically, it’s a bear. I had a severe back injury in March that had me in a wheelchair for a while, so I do an hour warm-up before I go onstage.”

But staying strong mentally and emotionally? That’s not so tough.

“It’s an acting challenge to make it new every night, but every audience gives me something different,” he says. “I’m still finding new things. It’s never gotten stale.”

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