Thirty years ago, Joel Grey shocked New York audiences as the provocative, decadent and leering Emcee in the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. He won a Tony Award and went on to garner an Oscar in the 1972 movie version, directed by Bob Fosse.
Now Grey is back on Broadway, setting off sparks of a different kind in the revival at the Richard Rodgers Theatre of Kander, Ebb and Fosse's 1975 musical hit, Chicago. The New York Times said that Greyas Amos, the duped husband of Roxie Hart, who stands by his aging chorus girl wife even after she murders her lovercreates "pure show-biz electricity."
"Amos is about being in love," Grey says over lunch at the Union Square Cafe. "Nobody else in the show believes in much of anything, but for Amos, no matter what Roxie does, no matter how often she betrays him, he is continually willing to forgive her, because he loves her."
Grey is also in love with Chicago, which co-stars Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth and James Naughton and is directed by Walter Bobbie. First presented last spring as part of the Encores concert series of great American musicals at City Center, it is based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins that relates how Roxie, after her crime, hires a canny lawyer, goes public with her story, wins her freedom and becomes a major celebrity.
"It's a very dark piece, a cynical story for a cynical time," Grey says, discussing the reasons for the revival's resounding success. "The main reason the show's a hit is it's so damn good," he says. "I don't think there's been a show with a score as consistently good as this in many years." It's a score that includes "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle" and Grey's show-stopper, "Mister Cellophane." "It's also been so successful," he continues, "because it reminded everyone of how good Bob Fosse was."
Chicago is presented essentially as it was at City Center, with a minimum of scenery and costumes, which, says Grey, is another reason the show works so well. "It's about the people, the words, the music, the lyrics, the dancing. That's where the focus should beand where it is. And it works."
Grey, who looks at least a decade younger than his 64 years, was born in Cleveland on April 11, 1932, the son of Mickey Katz -- a Yiddish comedian, vaudeville star and bandleader known for his parodies of popular American songs. He made his theatrical debut at age nine in On Borrowed Time at the Cleveland Playhouse and at 16 he toured with his father in a show called The Borscht Capades. He got his first break from comedian Eddie Cantor, who hired him to perform on his television show, "The Colgate Comedy Hour."
In the 1960's Grey starred for a year in Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn. He replaced Anthony Newley in the national tour of Stop the WorldI Want to Get Off and Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence before landing his benchmark role in Cabaret. He followed Cabaret with a star turn on B'way as George M. Cohan in the 1968 musical George M!, getting his second Tony nomination. His third and fourth nominations came for roles as diverse as Charles VII in the 1975 musical Goodtime Charley and the Polish-Jewish refugee Jacobowsky in The Grand Tour in 1979.
"I got to know myself as a theatre person at age nine," Grey says, "and right away I had a sense that it was where I always wanted to be. Every time I go to the theatre and the lights go down, I get a rush of excitement. What's it going to be this time? Will it be something that will transform the audience and make them leave the theatre a little bit different from the way they were before the show began?"
Well, if that something is Chicago, the answer is a resounding yes.