New York City Theater
Billy Crystal in "700 Sundays"
All the world loves Billy Crystal. That's crystal-clear. On the night his one-man Broadway show "700 Sundays" opened, hundreds of people lined the sidewalk across from the Broadhurst Theatre. They were waiting for a glimpse of the star as he emerged after the show. This is a rare tribute in the cynical, weary, hardened world of New York theater.
Why is Crystal so beloved? First, because he's a pussycat, as warm and unaffected as could be--just a nice Jewish boy. But this hamishe quality combines with considerable gifts. He is a fine stand-up comic/impersonator/writer/actor-and sometimes all four, as in this new show about growing up Jewish on Long Island. And these multi talents have served him well in recent years, for instance, in playing host to the Oscar ceremonies.
"700 Sundays" is a tribute to Crystal's parents and his extended family, but particularly his father. The 700 Sundays to which he refers approximate the number of Sundays shared with his late father. In a time when most plays depict dysfunctional families, it is refreshing to meet one which is affectionate and caring-normal, or what we like to think of as normal. Joy and good times and family get-togethers prevailed. The home movies which Crystal has incorporated into the show reveals the five-year-old Billy (looking much the same as he does today) grinning, mugging, and attempting to tap dance.
But Crystal's childhood was, in fact, unusual. His father Jack Crystal and uncle Milt Gabler played vital roles in publicizing the great black jazz musicians. In the grandfather's radio shop in mid-Manhattan, Milt Gabler began by selling his favorite jazz records. A jazz record store followed (to be run by Jack Crystal) and Milt Gabler went on to found his own label, Commodore Records. Jazz music was no longer the best-kept secret, confined to a few aficionados. And Billy Crystal was exposed early on to such jazz greats as Billie Holiday (who baby-sat for him), Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins and others.
The tragedy of Billy Crystal's life was that his beloved father died when he, Billy, was 15, leaving his mother with the struggle of supporting the family. But humor, as is often the case with Jews, took over, and Crystal would move on to a smashing career. But Crystal's humor is gentle and forgiving, lacking the sting of many of his peers. In recalling life in Long Beach: "On Sunday nights Jews are not allowed to eat their own food. That was in the Bible. On Sundays, we ate out-Italian or Chinese." And referring to relatives: "They were great people who would sell you the shirt off their backs."
In all, this one-man show, which is playing to sell-out houses, is a joyous valentine to Billy Crystal's family.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 8, 2004