UC Santa Cruz professor makes Broadway debut as lighting designer for comedian Billy Crystal's hit show

In February of 2003, David Cuthbert received a call from southern California's La Jolla Playhouse to do the lighting design for a benefit performance by comedian/actor Billy Crystal. The benefit was only scheduled for two evenings, so Cuthbert promptly put together a quick design and moved on with his life. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as an assistant professor of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz.

Last April, the phone rang again and Cuthbert was asked to work on the same Crystal show at the same venue, but this time for a two-week run as a workshop production. Eight months later, Crystal's one-man show, now significantly enhanced and titled 700 Sundays, opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre to tremendous acclaim--with Cuthbert on board as lighting designer.

Crystal, who hosted the Academy Awards for the eighth time in 2004, 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 Crystal's Broadway debut. 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.

Cuthbert recalled the first time he saw the show, an unlikely mix of stand-up comedy and deeply personal stories about the death of Crystal's parents.

"I saw it with the set designer and we sat there in stunned silence," Cuthbert recalled. "We were both really moved. I remember saying that I understood why this guy is such a big star-he's earned it."

Once Cuthbert learned that the show was going to Broadway, he had approximately one month to come up with the new lighting design.

"My first impulse was not to do much with the lights; I didn't want to distract from the show," said Cuthbert. "But Billy actually wanted me to do a lot of things-he's an actor and director; he knows what he wants. So we worked a lot on moods and shifts in emotion."

" I was a little worried going in because all of the electricians are union and have a rich tradition of being difficult," Cuthbert added. "But I ended up having a great group of people and things went really smoothly."

Cuthbert spent six weeks in New York preparing for the show, which opened on December 5, 2004. Three days later, the box office was at an $8.5 million advance, according to Playbill. The show is scheduled to run through March 6, and Cuthbert said there is talk of it traveling to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It will also be turned into a book that is slated for publication in November by Warner Books.

"This is definitely the biggest show I've ever worked on," Cuthbert noted. "More people will see this show than all my other shows combined. It will also make more money than all of my other shows combined," he added.

Cuthbert's background includes a solid track record of work on the West Coast as a lighting designer for such venues as La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe, Sledgehammer Theatre, San Jose Rep, A Contemporary Theatre, the Intiman, the Magic Theatre, and Shakespeare Santa Cruz. His national tours include The History and Mystery of the Universe (about Buckminster Fuller) and two productions with the New Pickle Circus. He has also earned six awards for design excellence, including a San Diego Critics Circle Award.

Now in his second year on the UC Santa Cruz theater arts faculty, Cuthbert noted that continuing his professional career outside the university is essential for him as a professor, particularly to keep up-to-date with technology and trends in the theater. "I can't imagine trying to teach without actually doing lighting design," he observed. He added that working on a show like 700 Sundays also helps to expand his range.

"It's not the type of show that I'm normally hired to do," he explained. "I'm known for doing new and experimental plays. So in that sense, it was a bit of a challenge to create something realistic and subtle."

"But by far it was the most supported I've ever been as an artist," Cuthbert said. "Every whim I had, I could make happen. They would go to the ends of the earth to do whatever I needed to make sure the show worked."