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Conversation with Joel Grey

A legend of the Broadway musical stage never meant to sing and dance

By Judie Jacobson

Joel Grey made his theatrical debut at the age of nine in the Cleveland Play House production of “On Borrowed Time” — and made his Broadway debut exactly two decades later as a replacement in Neil Simon’s first comedy hit, “Come Blow Your Horn” (1961). Since then, he has appeared in a slew of hit Broadway shows, including “Stop the World I Want to Get Off,” “George M!,” “Goodtime Charley,” “The Grand Tour,” “Chicago,” “Wicked,” and the list goes on.

But Grey’s career took off in a big way in 1966 when he was cast as the Master of Ceremonies in the ground-breaking Broadway musical “Cabaret” — a character described by the New York Times as “a white-faced, smirking, sexually ambivalent observer of changing mores and philosophies in pre-Hitler Berlin.” Grey won a Tony Award for his brilliant portrayal, and then an Academy Award and Golden Globe for recreating the role in the 1972 film version of the show. He is one of only nine actors to have won both the Tony and Academy Award for the same role.

Joel Grey will discuss his extraordinary 50-year career — and sing a few songs, answer a few audience questions, sign a few books — in an onstage interview at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Feb. 19.

Born Joel David Katz in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, Grey was the son of Mickey Katz — the great klezmer clarinetist and comedian who was perhaps best known for skewering Jewish stereotypes in song parodies — and his wife, Grace. The family later moved to Los Angeles, where Grey graduated from Beverly Hills High School.

An accomplished actor, Joel’s resume boasts a long list of dramatic roles on stage, screen and television. On stage, his dramatic performances include the Roundabout Theatre production of “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” (Drama Desk nomination), and Larry Kramer’s seminal “The Normal Heart” at the Public Theatre, which he also co-directed with George C. Wolfe in its Broadway premiere. Among his film credits: Man on A Swing, Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Seven Percent Solution. His television appearances include: “Brooklyn Bridge” (for which he received an Emmy nomination), “Law and Order: CI,” “House,” “Private Practice,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Warehouse 13,” and “CSI.” In 2010, Joel was honored for his illustrious television career by The Paley Center for Media in both NYC and Los Angeles.

An accomplished photographer, he has four books of photographs and, in 2011, the Museum of the City of New York presented an exhibit called “Joel Grey / A New York Life.”

Grey’s memoir, Master of Ceremonies, will be published in February 2016.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Joel Grey about his life and career.


Q: Your father was a popular comedian and performer with a huge following in the Jewish community and beyond. Did you learn anything from his experience that helped you in your own career?

A: I did. My father was a very serious guy when it came to excellence and being prepared and giving the audience everything he had to give. Before he became a comedy star, he used to play [clarinet] for dances — and he would play until he was seating and the last person was on the dance floor. He just wanted to give everybody as much as they could possibly want. It was very generous-spirited of him. He always believed that it was professional to show up dressed to the nines, having practiced his clarinet at home before. He was very serious about what he did and about what he owed to the audience.


Q: You began on stage at a very young age. Did he put you on stage or is that something you were drawn to?

A: I was a serious legitimate actor at the age of nine. I really never thought I would sing or dance ever. I just had no interest in it. I wanted to be an actor who played all kinds of parts and toured the country, because I came from a very classical education in that respect.

So, we moved to California where my dad had this show that was very successful called “The Borscht Capades.” It played every weekend to sold-out houses in Los Angeles. It was the talk of the town. And, as I sat in the audience, I thought ‘well, this looks like fun.’ But I didn’t sing or dance — so what would I do? So, I had an aunt — my dad’s older sister — who said, “Come over to my house.” And she played a record for me by a famous Yiddish musical comedy star by the name of Aaron Lebedeff singing a song called “Roumania, Roumania.” It was one of those Danny Kaye-type comic songs that were sung very fast. I didn’t know how to sing and i didn’t know how to dance, but I knew I needed to get on stage; and so, I learned that song by rote and I went on — and that was the beginning of my song and dance career.

From that I went on and Eddie Cantor saw me in Florida and put me on television — and then in night clubs all over the world. And all the time I was trying desperately to get back to my original passion — the theater.


Q: Which you did.

A: Which I did — with a lot of difficulty.


Q: Was your first real break “Cabaret”?

A: Yes. And “Cabaret” was definitely was a trend-setter. As a matter of fact, many people say that even David Bowie was influenced by “Cabaret.”


Q You filmed “Cabaret” in Germany, not that many years after the Holocaust. Was that a strange experience for you as a Jew?

A: Oh yes, it was strange for all of us, but especially for me. I went to see Dachau then, but I waited until I was finished filming because I didn’t want to be totally pulled apart.


Q: Would you say this was your favorite role?

A: In many ways. That and my role in the “The Normal Heart.”


Q: You’ve done it all professionally — stage, film, TV. Which do you prefer?

A: Well, there’s nothing like a live performance; but then there’s the excitement when you do something that’s really complete — like “Cabaret” — and you’re happy to have it be playing forever. You’re proud to be a part of it.


Q: You’re also a very accomplished photographer.

A: I’m working on my fifth book. I always did photography for my pleasure only — but for the past 10 years I’ve been doing it professionally.


Q: Do you have anything professionally on your bucket list?

A: Something big. February 16 is the publication date of my memoir, which is called Master of Ceremonies.


“An Evening with Joel Grey” at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Feb. 19, 8 p.m. For information: (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org.

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