PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Joel Grey

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Joel Grey Broadway somehow seems complete again now that Joel Grey is back on the boards.
Joel Grey
Joel Grey

Grey, of course, is best known for his Tony Award-winning role as the Emcee in the original production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, a role he recreated on film to Academy Award-winning effect. He also received rave reviews for his portrayal of the put-upon, cuckolded husband Amos Hart in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago; in fact, his performance of the Act Two specialty, "Mister Cellophane," stopped the show nightly in that long-running musical.

Similarly, Grey is currently delighting audiences with his role as the Wizard in the new Stephen Schwartz musical at the Gershwin Theatre, Wicked. To his list of actor, singer and dancer, Grey also now adds best-selling photographer. His first tome, "Pictures I Had To Take" (PowerHouse Books), is a captivating look — in photos — of places Grey has visited throughout the world in the past few decades. Playbill On-Line recently caught up with Grey as he spoke about his newest roles, on stage and on the page.

Playbill On-Line: How does it feel to be back on Broadway?
Joel Grey: Terrific, so much fun!

PBOL: How did the role come about? Were you approached...
JG: A couple of years ago, and I was unavailable, and they came back to me about three times, and each time I was unavailable. And, then, at the end of the summer, they called me and said they were making some changes from San Francisco. Three roles were going to be recast, and I had a meeting with Stephen [Schwartz] and with Joe Mantello and Winnie Holzman and the producer about my thoughts about the role and what I thought — if I were to do it — what I would like to see happen.

PBOL: Had you seen the musical in San Francisco
JG: No. PBOL: But you had read the script?
JG: Yeah, I had read the script, and I thought there were some exceptionally ambiguous things about the Wizard [laughs], and the Wizard should be ambiguous, but I thought that [the role] needed more...And Winnie and Stephen were both very, very supportive of that and excited about that because they felt — I think they were so busy dealing with the rest of the show, and it is essentially the girls' story that they just didn't address it. And, in order for me to do it, it sort of forced them to, and then made it more interesting for me. And I also knew that [the song] "Wonderful" had to be something else for me than they had originally conceived. I always knew that [Elphaba] and I would dance, which was never in there.

PBOL: How was it joining a cast that had already been working together? Was that difficult?
JG: No, it wasn't at all because these girls are so wonderful. They're just splendid actors and delightful people, so we immediately connected, and the cast was enormously welcoming. The only thing that was a problem is that it was all telescoped. We had to get so much done in so little time, and everybody had really a big head start. So, they had already played it and rehearsed it for eight weeks and teched it and then played it for a month, so I had to catch up.

PBOL: And, it's a huge production.
JG: It's overwhelming, and I think so beautiful.

PBOL: What's it like backstage?
JG: It's pretty intense, lots going on. There's some stuff that if it doesn't work right, it's a little dangerous. And I'm involved in some of that, so it sort of was unnerving for the first couple of weeks. Not just doing your part but staying alive! [Laughs.]

PBOL: The Gershwin Theatre is also so huge. Does that affect how you perform at all?
JG: It was interesting, at first — it was very daunting because I'm of the school that something intimate has to be intimate. And, I was afraid that we wouldn't be able to talk to each other the way we do and have the communication about ideas. And then it seems that what Eugene Lee did in order to adapt the show and make it more intimate actually worked, and I just love doing it. I love playing this play. . . Every single night it's screaming and applauding and standing, every single show, from the first preview.

PBOL: Chicago was like that, too, your last Broadway outing.
JG: Yes, it was, it was, you're right...and I also had the number in the second act in Chicago. I did a lot of research about the Wizard and about the "Wizard of Oz," which was fascinating. It was really a piece about populism, about the gold and silver standard. That's what [author L. Frank Baum] was talking about, and the Yellow Brick Road — gold brick — and Dorothy's shoes originally were silver, so it was about gold and silver, and they made them ruby red in the movie.

PBOL: Tell me about how your book of photos came about.
JG: I was looking through some pictures to find baby pictures of my daughter when she was about to have her child. And two artist friends were over, and I had all these shoe boxes out. And in them were all the photographs that I'd taken over the years. And they said, "Well what are you doing with these?" And I said, "Nothing, I did, I did. I went, I saw, I showed them to my family. I had the experience." And they said, "No, you have to do something more." And I said, "What?" "You have to go to a lab and see what's really on these negatives and then play with the negatives and the color." So I did, and I became very obsessed with it. I spent about three months with the printer in the dark room, and had a good time and brought them home. And one day, this brilliant editor and art director, Sam Shahid, was over for dinner, and he said, "What are these?" I said, "Oh these are some prints I'm just fooling around with." He said, "It's a book. Give me everything you have." He took hundreds of photographs and called me six weeks later and showed me a mock-up of the book. The next thing I knew we had two publishers, then we had a show at Staley Wise this past spring, and they sold, I think, 40 photographs, some of them 30x40, and it's just so much fun.

PBOL: Are you still taking photographs?
JG: Oh yeah. I was on a boat trip in Croatia this summer. And there's a whole bunch of new work. I'm hoping that this book, in fact, sells out so that they'll go into a second printing, and then we'll do "Pictures I Had to Take 2"...I think they're going to sell it in the lobby [of the Gershwin].

PBOL: You used to perform a lot in concert and had a club act. Do you still do that at all?
JG: Not much. I had to cancel a couple of things that I was going to do when [Wicked] came up, but that world is different.

PBOL: Do you prefer being in a show?
JG: I love being in a show. I love the community aspect of it. I like the discipline of it, too.

PBOL: How long do you think you'll stay with Wicked?
JG: Hmmm, six years. [Laughs.] I've never stayed more than a year, but often, like with Chicago — nobody expected even to go to Broadway with it from Encores. So that was amazing, and then everybody stayed and stayed and stayed because it was so much fun. And we had a little tour, and I played it in London, which was my first time there.

PBOL: Do you have any other projects coming up?
JG: Well, I do. I had something that I had to sort of put aside, something I've been developing that I can't really talk about.

PBOL: And, last question. When people hear the name Joel Grey, what would you like them to think?
JG: Good father. Integrity. I think those are probably the two most important things.

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