"I love that moment just before the curtain goes up," Joel Grey says, "whether I'm sitting in the audience or standing backstage. It's full of expectation. It's a thrill that's unequaled anywhere."
Grey, 79, has felt that excitement for 70 years. He is best known for his legendary, Tony- and Oscar-winning role as the provocative Emcee in the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. He was Amos, Roxie Hart's duped husband, in the long-running revival of Chicago and the original Wizard in Wicked. Now he's comic gangster Moonface Martin in the hit musical Anything Goes at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Grey directed the workshop that led to last season's Tony-winning Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. (He took over the lead role in the original Off-Broadway production in the 1980s.) He was nominated for a Tony as co-director with George C. Wolfe, who came in because Grey was doing Anything Goes. He was also the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York last year.
Grey grew up in Cleveland the son of Mickey Katz, a Yiddish comedian and bandleader known for parodies of popular American songs. "My father was a musician and wanted me to study piano. I had no interest. When I was eight, I went to the theatre, and I remember looking at the stage afterward and pointing and saying, 'I want to do that.' I don't think that's ever changed." At nine he appeared in On Borrowed Time at the Cleveland Play House. The family moved to Los Angeles, and he did high school theatre. "I directed a Tennessee Williams play, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion. I was expelled. I've always had an edgy part."
His father had a show called The Borscht Capades. "Since I wasn't getting any jobs, I asked him to put me in it. I learned a song in Yiddish called 'Rumania, Rumania,' which I didn't understand. I learned it phonetically. It was a success. The next thing I knew, Eddie Cantor came to see me [in Miami Beach] and put me on television. That was the big leap." Grey was 18. (Cantor co-hosted NBC's "Colgate Comedy Hour" in the early 1950s.)
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Grey made his Broadway debut in 1951 when Borscht Capades reached Broadway. Mostly, though, he played nightclubs. "When I was 19, I played the Copacabana." He couldn't get a major Broadway part. "I found myself successful but miserable. Because I'm a theatre person."
In the early 1960s he specialized in taking over Broadway roles and going on tour. First was Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn. He replaced Anthony Newley in Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence. Then came the phone call for Cabaret.
"It was the first part I didn't audition for. When Hal Prince and Kander and Ebb were putting it together, they had me in mind. Unbeknownst to me. We know the rest."
He went on to star in the Broadway musicals George M!, Goodtime Charley and The Grand Tour, earning three Tony nominations.
Anything Goes's Moonface Martin was a role he first couldn't visualize playing. "But Kathleen [Marshall, the director] never faltered. We finally got an idea that it was like Bert Lahr or the Marx Brothers, something specifically stylized."
The future? "After Wicked, I never thought I'd do another long-run Broadway musical. And here I am doing it again and loving it. So I'm not going to say 'never' ever again."