One of nine actors to win both a Tony and an Oscar for the same role, the multitalented Joel Grey will make a Page From the Book Festival appearance at the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Thursday, Feb. 18, to discuss his life and career as revealed in his new memoir, “Master of Ceremonies.”
Best known as the enigmatic Master of Ceremonies in the 1966 Broadway musical “Cabaret,” Grey can be credited with parlaying a character with “no words, no lines, no role” into a stage presence for which he, and the musical, received huge audience and critical acclaim. “Cabaret” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 1967 and won eight, including a best actor award for Grey.
After starring in the Broadway run and national tour of “George M!” — based on the life of Georg M. Cohan — Grey re-created his “Cabaret” role in the 1972 screen version alongside Liza Minelli under the exacting direction of Bob Fosse.
“Master of Ceremonies” describes in great detail the evolution of Joel David Katz, born in Cleveland in 1932, from the time he was bitten by the theater bug at the Cleveland Playhouse at age 9, through “The Borscht Capades” with his father and nightclub performances as a teenager, to life on the East and the West coasts, all in relentless pursuit of a career on Broadway.
The book follows Grey as a performer, husband and father through a period of self-actualization and personal growth after his divorce. As he writes: “I never imagined that would mean living as a gay man. Having spent so many years pushing those feelings down, I didn’t know how to be ‘gay.’ ”
All is set against the backdrop of evolving social attitudes in America — from post-World War II conservatism, through the 1980s AIDS panic, to the eventual relaxation of societal boundaries.
Grey brings us to present day, where he has happily come to live his intended life. “If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, life is a ridiculous exercise,” he writes. “I’m still singing (in the same key), still dancing (but slower), and, finally, getting a lot of my heart’s desire.”
In a phone interview this month, after expressing how excited he is to be coming “down to Atlanta,” Grey answered a few questions about his life and career and about what might be next for him.
AJT: Your book tells of your great love of acting, but many see you as a song-and-dance man. How do you perceive yourself?
Grey: When I was 9 years old … I was hungry, hungry for an identity. I went to see a show at the Cleveland Playhouse, and I looked at the stage (it was a children’s performance — my mother took me), and I knew in that moment what I was going to do, and I said to my mother, “I want to do that.” … From then on, that’s all I ever wanted, was to be a good actor. And all the other things that I’ve done are secondary to that.
AJT: The role of emcee in “Cabaret” was pivotal for you. Can you explain what set that apart?
Grey: Well, I had an idea about a character that had never really been seen before. It was a kind of a dark vision … not the usual musical comedy thing. I saw the emcee as a sort of a Hitler figure in the way that he pushed everybody around and lied and cheated — and entertained at the same time. He fooled the people. He fooled the audience, and I always thought that was what Hitler did. He said, “Follow me, and there’ll be bread on every table,” and the people did, and you know what ensued.
AJT: That was your own interpretation, correct? Do you think someone else might have read it differently?
Grey: I think someone who didn’t want to see it would come up to me after the show and say, “Oh, you were so funny!” And I would think to myself, “What show did you see?” … The darker aspects were necessary.
AJT: Do you think that made all the difference — in the trajectory of your life and your career?
Grey: It’s going that extra mile of delving and revealing … and probably my attention to difficult themes in “Cabaret” or whatever I took on. There were usually easy ways to do things, and I never wanted to do that. I always wanted it to be dimensional and complex, and that was very much achieved for me in performing in “The Normal Heart” and then years later directing it.
Grey: An actor. A photographer. A father. A husband. And an author! And that’s pretty exciting, to have something like that in my 80s.
AJT: And personally?
Grey: Happy. Satisfied. Full of gratitude. And also very, very interested in tomorrow.
AJT: What compelled you to write the book?
Grey: I’ve always wanted to do it. I always thought I would do it, and I think the “Master” part of the title is about overcoming challenges, mastering.
AJT: Looking back, what would you say is the biggest thrill of your life?
Grey: Probably, professionally, winning the Tony, since the theater was my dream. … That meant a great deal to me.
AJT: What’s still out there?
Grey: I’m at the right place for a man of my age, and I’m so full of excitement about new things and learning things and accomplishing and appreciating. I know I want to direct again, soon, and I’m working on my fifth photography book (you can see them at joelgreyphotographer.com), and being ready for whatever comes. … There’s a lot of interest in what’s out there in this life that we get to live once, and I’m excited about that.
Who: Author and Oscar winner Joel Grey
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18
Where: Marcus Jewish Community Center, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
Tickets: $10 for members, $15 for nonmembers; www.atlantajcc.org or 678-812-4002
Master of Ceremonies
By Joel Grey
Flatiron Books, 256 pages, $27.99