About the author:
Billy Crystal has brought his Tony-winning autobiographical show 700 Sundays back to Broadway for a limited engagement, and fans won't want to miss it! Crystal impersonates a ton of characters—from his nutty relatives to famous artists—who played a part in influencing the comedian and actor during his childhood in Long Beach, NY, with special emphasis on his beloved father, who died suddenly when Billy was 15. In addition to 700 Sundays, Crystal recently released a memoir of his life in show business, Still Foolin’ ‘Em (Henry Holt), which became an instant New York Times bestseller. In an exclusive excerpt from the book, Crystal takes us back to 2002 and charts the development of 700 Sundays, which opens at the Imperial Theatre on November 13.
[After 9/11] I did two movies, America’s Sweethearts with Julia Roberts, and the sequel to Analyze This, but my heart was leading me down another path. [Comedian/manager] David Steinberg and I did two performances [of a Q&A-based stage show] for [director] Des [McAnuff] at the La Jolla Playhouse. We did another charity event in Atlanta, and I was loving being onstage again. I needed it. After that, Des and I had a meeting. He liked what we were doing, he said, then hesitated and added, “I think you should go deeper, and I think you should do it alone.”
I’d hoped he would say that. I pulled out the four pages of notes I had written in 1998, for something called 700 Sundays. I had been making more notes on the idea and feeling more confident every time David and I did the show together. I found I was talking to him less and performing more, and I thought I could create a play that would take my life, with its joyous moments and its sad ones, and celebrate them all. At times, the play would be a humorous and poignant look at my grief. Des read intently as I sat across from him, and when he was finished, he raised his head and said, “This is the show. Let’s do this.” I immediately asked him to direct it. We set aside six weeks to put the show together, heading toward a two-week run and workshop at the famed La Jolla Playhouse.
I asked my friend Alan Zweibel, an exceptional comedy writer, to work with us. We’d started in the clubs together, and there was no one I felt closer to for this project. We rented a small rehearsal space at Pepperdine University, and along with Lurie Horns Pfeffer, our stage manager, we got to work. I brought some jazz recordings and classical pieces to inspire improvisation, and I just started talking, telling Des and Alan the stories of my life—everything from my birth and circumcision (“They cut off the top six to eight inches”) to vivid descriptions of what happened the night my father died. We realized as we worked that my story was everyone’s story and that this would become part of the show’s strength. I just needed to trust that.
New pieces emerged, and older material got a new life. Alan was the perfect addition to the process. He’d ask questions that would lead me to other stories, and on and on. Lurie would transcribe it as best she could. Each new scene was given a large index card, which went up on a board. Before we knew it, the board was full; the show was taking shape. We now had a few days to opening night at the playhouse.
In my notes I had said the house I grew up in should be the set and its windows should be screens for my treasure trove of photos and video memorabilia. Using my old photographs, set designer David Weiner cleverly laid out the façade of the house so its windows would be projection screens on which home movies and photos could be seen. In essence, the house became the family album. Next Lindsay and I gathered the photos and edited the home movies into an opening montage. We timed the music to the photos and the film, and then it all went into a computer program. The rehearsals were grueling—over and over again I’d perform the two hours of it for just Des and Alan and Lurie. When we arrived for our first rehearsal onstage, there was my house waiting for me. The opening film montage played in the upstairs windows, and I saw all my relatives in the moments of my most vivid memories. It took my breath away.
Because the show was being created on the fly, I had large notebooks placed in the wings so only I could see the keywords written on them. This way I couldn’t get lost. We rehearsed all day, sometimes bringing in students to watch sections of the show. When we announced the fourteen performances at the playhouse, tickets sold out in an hour. The playhouse has been a stepping-stone for many a Broadway play, most recently Jersey Boys. Its patrons tend to be sophisticated theatergoers aware that they are seeing something in an infant form. Still, I’m quite sure there has never been an opening night for a play that had no script, just a detailed eight-page outline.
The opening night arrived, and from the moment I went out there, through the front door of my “house,” I was in heaven. The audiences laughed hard, cried harder, and at the end of each show didn’t want to leave the theater. I felt connected to my work and my pain in a way I hadn’t before. Like losing weight on some miracle diet, I could feel the grief I’d been wearing like a tailored suit melt away. I knew why I’d stopped doing stand-up so many years ago, and I knew why I was back. I had something to say.
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