NEW YORK – Billy Crystal has taken his boyhood memories back on the road.
“I really miss doing it. … I missed the juice,” says the performer of the enthusiastic audience reaction to “700 Sundays,” the funny – and poignant – family tales that form the heart of his 2005 Tony-winning one-man show, written with good friend Alan Zweibel. It’s now on tour through the end of the year.
“I never thought when I stopped – which was two-and-a-half years ago in Melbourne, Australia – that I was done with it,” the 61-year-old Crystal says. “There were still things I kept finding every night. … Then we had a couple of other losses in the family this year that made me think, ‘You know, I want to get back out and do it again.’ And so here we go.”
Loss triggers the stories in “700 Sundays,” the centerpiece being the death of Crystal’s father, Jack, who died of a heart attack at age 54 when his son, Billy, was 15.
The show’s title 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. He was a jazz musician and concert promoter who also ran the Commodore Music Shop, a jazz record store in New York.
Has Crystal changed in the days since his New York stage success? For one thing, the performer says, he is more rested than during the show’s initial run.
“It was grueling, great time on Broadway,” he recalls in a recent interview. “But I think I am more removed from the initial pain of doing the show. It was so close to my mom’s passing, which motivated me to want to write the show and deal with grief in a funny and honest kind of way. And I’m a little older and a little wiser now.”
Other relatives from his suburban Long Island childhood pop up, too, in “700 Sundays”: Uncle Milt, who founded the legendary Commodore Records; Uncle Berns and Aunt Sheila, among others.
“I always felt when I finished each performance that I had this great visit with everybody including the audience,” says Crystal, who forged his comedy career in such diverse television shows as “Soap” and “Saturday Night Live,” and movies such as “City Slickers” and “Analyze This” as well as gigs on the Academy Awards.
“In movies, you never have that relationship with the audience that you have when either you are doing a standup show or this kind of play,” Crystal says. “That’s who I am. I have been in front of people my whole life.”
And that may be why he is such an accomplished storyteller, according to Des McAnuff, who directed Crystal in “700 Sundays.”
“It’s probably a lot of other things, too, starting with that thing which is very hard to define – talent,” explained McAnuff, who directed “Jersey Boys” and who runs the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. “I also think his family background had a lot to do with it”
“We think of ‘700 Sundays’ sometimes as jazz because it does involve a melody but it also, like jazz, involves improvisation. And, of course, Billy grew up in a jazz household surrounded by brilliant, witty jazz musicians. That really helped to shape his soul.”
“He also was the youngest brother in a family of raconteurs and clowns,” McAnuff continued. “His uncle Berns, who passed away recently, was known for being a great wit, comedian and entertainer. Billy comes out of a tradition of that sort of work. Like Danny Kaye. A tummler – the one who entertains at family gatherings. It’s a great tradition and he happens to be the kind of culmination of a lot of other people’s talents.”
“The generation before me is pretty much all gone,” Crystal says. “When Dad died, Uncle Berns really stepped in. … He also filled in the blanks. My Dad didn’t talk much about his childhood. He didn’t talk much about the past. Berns filled in the gaps. He became a mentor.”
Berns answered questions for his nephew, questions such as, “‘What was Dad like as a teenager?’ He was my guide to unlocking and finishing the portrait that I was painting,” Crystal says.
And what of Crystal’s own children, Jennifer and Lindsay? What do they think of “700 Sundays”?
“They were tremendously moved by seeing it and understanding who I was as a little kid and teenager,” Crystal says. “Seeing the home movies that are in the show meant a lot to them. Hearing my stories was great for all the family to hear. They became a chronicle for all my nieces and nephews, too.”
Crystal also credits the success of “700 Sundays,” to his wife, Janice, the show’s producer and calls her “the strength of my life. We have been together since the Johnson administration. I was 18, she was 17.”
“I don’t think the show could get done without her,” he says, adding that she knows what it takes out of him – as well as what it gives back.
“Her faith in me goes all the way back to when I first decided to be a comedian and go out on my own. After all the years of my long career, you still need to hear, ‘You can do this, you know.”‘