On the surface, Billy Crystal's Tony Award-winning solo show 700 Sundays is the same as it was nine years ago when first performed on Broadway during a record-setting, eight-month run at the Broadhurst Theatre. But in nine years a lot has changed. Crystal is older, and you can see it. And with age has come a certain maturity.
Crystal has traded a black-on-black sweater-and-jeans combo for a more grandfatherly blue collared shirt under black-on-black sweater and jeans. He's also a lot more subdued in his delivery. Heartstrings were always tugged when the manic, side-splitting laughter subsided, but in this return, "final" engagement, now at the Imperial Theatre, there's a gravitas, a more noticeable melancholy in his voice. No longer is Billy Crystal regaling us with stories about his crazy relatives. He's delivering a eulogy for a generation, and grieving right in front of us.
That generation was filled with, as he puts it, "Jews and jazz" and "brisket and bourbon." Young Billy grew up in two separate worlds: There was his Long Island family full of eccentric European-Jewish immigrants, and his Manhattan clan, filled with some of the world's greatest jazz musicians. It was Billy's uncle Milton Gabler, who brought this jazz family together as proprietor of the Commodore Music Shop and later the Commodore Records label, which recorded such legendary songs as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." (It was Holiday, incidentally, who took Billy to see his first movie, Shane.) When Gabler was lured to Decca Records, the business was bequeathed to his brother-in-law, Billy's father, Jack, who ran the shop and emceed a series of concerts that partially set the youngest Crystal on the path that would get him out of Long Island and into the bright lights of Hollywood.
But 700 Sundays, the title of which refers to the amount of time Crystal spent with his father on his one-day-a-week off, isn't about Billy's rise to fame (that's saved for his equally hilarious and heartwarming new book, Still Foolin' 'Em) — it's about those formative years, so important to any young artist's life. 700 Sundays is about how Crystal was equally influenced by his smoking, phlegm-hacking relatives and bourbon-swilling jazz pals. It's about his deep love of the New York Yankees. It's about how a boy, aged 15, suddenly loses his father, his hero, to a heart attack and discovers both the strength to go on and the ability to laugh through tears.
What makes 700 Sundays, once again directed by Des McAnuff, so noteworthy is Crystal's ability to engage the audience, bringing us from guffaws to sobs and back in ways that never seem manipulative. It's thrilling to watch Crystal jump around the Imperial's stage, adorned with a replica of his childhood home (designed by David F. Weiner), breathlessly performing material that touches him so. Even more joyous is when we realize how uncannily Crystal has transmitted his feelings. We may never have personally known any of the aunts and uncles he lovingly recalls, or the musicians he imitates, but these vivid portrayals of a bygone generation resonate so highly because they conjure memories of our own relatives. Though they might not be with us physically, through Crystal the indomitable spirits of this nearly lost generation lives on.