Few entertainers are as synonymous with a character they have portrayed as legendary actor Joel Grey is with the Emcee from Cabaret. Grey does not so much act the part as embody the character and become the master of ceremonies at the fictional Kit Kat Club in 1930s Berlin.
Grey performed in the original Broadway run of Cabaret as well as the 1972 film version, winning a Tony Award and an Academy Award for the same role. He is one of only nine performers to do so.
Grey heads to Central Florida to headline the 10-year anniversary celebration of the Garden Theatre in Winter Park. Grey spoke with Watermark by phone about life in the theater, coming out as a gay man in his later years and what we can expect from THE Master of Ceremonies at the Garden Theatre.
You grew up in Cleveland and were raised around entertainers because of your father’s job. What was that upbringing like?
My father was a musician and comedian; my mother was a homemaker. It was kind of exciting growing up because he was my dad and he was making music and making people laugh. He made people happy and was getting a lot of respect in the community for having that expertise and talent. I saw that as something really positive.
Seeing your father perform and entertain like that, is that what drew you to theater?
No, actually I went to see a play when I was a kid, and I was sitting there with my mother at the Cleveland Playhouse. I looked up on the stage and I just had a moment, and I said I want to do that. I was 8 years old and told my mother I wanted to perform, so she enrolled me in a children’s theater and I took to it like the proverbial duck to water.
Do you remember that first role you had and being on stage?
Yes I do. I remember it very well. It was the role of a pilgrim in Massachusetts and the play was called Hurricane Island. There was a big storm coming and for my part I had to climb up the ladder to let the townspeople know that the storm was coming. I remember that the ladder was so shaky and it was so scary but I knew I had a job to do. That’s when I knew I believed in the art of telling the story. I was 9 at the time and that belief in the art has never stopped.
You have been doing this for more the seven decades now, and you still get that same sense of excitement when you go on stage?
Yes [laughing] absolutely. Still to this day getting on a stage is so powerful and exciting. That hope of being able to not only tell the story but letting the audience be able to see themselves in the play. It’s amazing.
You and Bernadette Peters have been close friends for years, and I had the privilege of speaking with her last year. You came up in conversation when I asked her about being able to interpret Sondheim like no one else. She mentioned your ability to do the same with the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. So I’ll ask you the same question I asked her: What is it about their music and words that you are able to understand and interpret them so beautifully?
They just fit so well with me, and they have a bit of cheekiness like I do [laughs], and a melodic power that is so appealing. You know they were friends of mine before I ever worked with them. And I so adore Bernadette. She played my sister in George M. It was her first job and it was 50 years ago. April 11, my birthday actually, will mark the 50th anniversary of George M.
When you first worked with Bernadette could you tell that she was going to be a huge Broadway star?
Within a second of meeting her I could tell, and we have been close friends now all these years. She is like my sister.
She is absolutely fabulous, I adore her.
Yeah, everyone does [laughs], you have a lot of company there. She is so wonderful.
All the interviews you have done over your many years of performing, every one of them comes back to your role of the Emcee in Cabaret. Does it get frustrating at all, as an actor, being tied so closely to one character?
Not one bit, and you know why? It is too good a part. That role just has such a powerful connection for me and I am so grateful and so honored to be able to be associated with such an iconic character.
How did the part of the Emcee come to you?
Hal Prince. He was the original director and producer of the Broadway show. He had the idea after being in Germany when he was in the service, he was in a bar and saw a German emcee and he remembered this guy. He talked to me about it, and Kander and Ebb about it. The next thing we knew, there he was.
The character is so iconic in part because of your performance, and you were recognized for that with a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. You then went on to perform the Emcee in the film version of Cabaret and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but you almost didn’t get the part for the film version. The film’s director, Bob Fosse, didn’t want to cast you. Do you know what his reservation was?
We never knew. There were people who thought he didn’t want to cast me because he wanted to play the part himself. Bob Fosse was a talented performer and he liked the part.
What was the set like while filming?
How about “difficult”? [laughs] Yeah, that set, it was just a lot of big personalities.
While you will forever be known for your performance in Cabaret, you have played some other legendary characters and turned in brilliant performances on Broadway— you were George M. Cohen in George M., Amos in Chicago and the Wizard of Oz in the original run of Wicked just to name a few. Do you have any one role that stands out from all of them that you enjoyed playing more?
No. Each one is unique and brilliant in their own way, and I loved playing all of them.
You were out to close friends and family for many years but you decided to come out publicly at the age of 82 in a PEOPLE magazine interview, and then speak very candidly about your struggles with your sexuality in your 2016 memoir Master of Ceremonies. What made you decide to go public then as opposed to earlier in your career?
It was a time in the United States where I looked around and it seemed appropriate. You know, timing is everything.
Was it difficult writing your book, looking back on such a long and successful career and recounting those stories of having to live in the closet during those times of celebration?
It was naturally poignant, but it was something I always knew that I was going to do and was ready to put it out in the world. Like I said, timing is everything and the timing was right to put my story out there and share my experiences.
As someone who has been a part of Broadway for as long as you have, what shows have you seen recently that everyone needs to pay attention to?
The last thing I saw that wowed me was The Band’s Visit. It’s a musical based on a film and it is absolutely superb. It’s just one of the best things I have seen in years. So make sure you read up on it.
Along with being a legend of theater, you also have a passion for photography. In fact you have released several books of your work throughout the last couple of years. When did you develop this love for photography?
I think I have always been interested in the visual arts. I have been taking pictures personally all my life. Pictures of my children and places I have gone to when filming movies, and I’m always interested in capturing those visuals that stand out to me. One day someone said to me, looking at a picture I took, “that’s a great photograph. Do you have anymore?” And I said “Oh yes I do [laughing].” I have been taking pictures for pleasure for so long that I had thousands of negatives. The next thing I knew we had made it into a book. Now here we are and I’m working on my fifth book.
What’s your favorite subject to take pictures of?
Lately, it’s sexy pictures of flowers.
Tell me about your event here at the Garden Theatre March 3.
Someone there reached out. Someone at the theater must like us [laughing]. It will be my first time to the Garden Theatre, and I am excited because I am told it is a wonderful theater. The event will be myself and a conversation with a local television personality, a few songs. It will be very informal, and then a Q&A with the audience. I think it will be fun.
After 70-plus years in the business what’s the best advice you have for those who, like you, saw a play and fell in love with theater and want to get into the game?
Be prepared for a tough fight. It’s very demanding and it’s getting harder to break in all the time. However, if you’ve got the stuff it’s worth it. If you have that spark you have a chance.
You keep quite a busy schedule for a person of any age, but you will be turning 86 this April. What’s your secret to being able to keep going at the rate you do?
No secrets. I love what I do and I’m interested in life. I always wake up thinking what am I going to learn today?