UCSC theater arts professor designs lighting for Billy Crystal HBO special

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David Cuthbert, chair of the UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts Department (left) with Billy Crystal, outside of the theater in New York City after the live TV shoot for HBO. (Photo courtesy of David Cuthbert)
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Cuthbert (left) at work in the video truck outside the theater during the live taping while a video technician fixes an issue with his feed. "The second day of shooting was the closing performance, so there were no second chances."
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Billy Crystal (Photo by Joan Marcus)

During the first week of January—in the midst of the polar vortex that was blasting the country—UC Santa Cruz theater arts professor David Cuthbert was freezing in a video truck parked outside the stage door of the Imperial Theater in New York City.

Cuthbert was working as the lighting designer for Billy Crystal’s Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays, which was just wrapping up a nine-week engagement on Broadway. The last two shows were being taped live for a two-hour special that will make its debut April 19, on HBO.

“I was all bundled up, watching a camera feed on one side, and a light board display on the other, making sure the overall lighting looked good on camera,” Cuthbert recalled.

“My associate designer was on headset with the Follow spots, having them make subtle adjustments during the live performance. We had to be very careful not to make any lighting changes that might catch Billy's eye, as it could throw off the performance, so it was a pretty intense process.”

Crystal, who has hosted the Academy Awards nine times, has starred in a wide variety of films including When Harry Met Sally, Analyze This, City Slickers, Mr. Saturday Night, Throw Momma From the Train, The Princess Bride, and America's Sweethearts.

But 700 Sundays, a two-act autobiographical play, was his Broadway debut in 2005. The title refers to the number of days he was able to spend with his hardworking father, who died when the comedian was just 15.

Crystal plays various characters that have influenced who he is today--covering his youth, growing up in the jazz world of Manhattan, his teenage years, and finally adulthood. The show won the 2005 Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event and both the 2005 Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Solo Performance.

“Billy is actually very sweet and very funny in person, but is a very hard worker and takes the work seriously,” said Cuthbert, who has now done lighting for the show three times since its inception in 2003. This time, he said they had to make numerous adjustments because of the transition to television.

“We worked to tighten it up a lot,” said Cuthbert. “As it’s about Billy's family, it is all very dear to him, so cutting anything can be difficult, but we got it down a bit for TV. As such, a lot of the lighting had to be tightened up as well.”

“Working on the show for over a decade, it has been interesting to watch as Billy ages with it, and how he holds up,” Cuthbert added. “It’s a marathon that he literally trains for--he has a gym in the dressing room. But the energy he displays is remarkable. At curtain call, he would do a cartwheel, then remark that he enjoyed being "the only 65-year-old doing cartwheels on Broadway tonight."