At 82, Broadway 'Master Of Ceremonies' Joel Grey Says, 'Life Seems Full'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Joel Grey, originated the role of the master of ceremonies in the Broadway musical "Cabaret." He explains how he brought this decadent character to life in his new memoir "Master Of Ceremonies." The memoir is about his work on stage and screen. He was in the original Broadway productions of "Cabaret" and "Wicked" and a revival of "Chicago." As a boy, he performed with his father, Micky Katz, a clarinetist who performed Yiddish novelty versions of pop songs. The memoir is also about Joel Grey's private life. When he was a boy, he was attracted to boys. But although he did have some relationships, he thought it was too risky to be gay. He fell in love with an actress. They married and raised two children, including Jennifer Grey, then they divorced. Grey publicly came out last year at the age of 82. There's a lot to talk about, but let's start with the song he will always be associated with - "Willkommen" from "Cabaret," which is set in Germany in the 1930s. As the sleazy, lascivious master of ceremonies, Grey welcomes the audience into the cabaret, while outside the Nazis are beginning to come to power.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")
JOEL GREY: (As master of ceremonies, singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome fremde, enranger, stranger. Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante, happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay. Willkomen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.
Mein damen und herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen, guten abend, bon soir, wie geht's? Comment ca va? Do you feel good? Ich bin euer, je suis votre compere. I am your host.
(Singing) Und sage, Willkomen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret
Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing - forget it. In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.
GROSS: Joel Grey, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with "Cabaret." You write that you discovered the character of the MC, the way you wanted to play him in a dream that you had about a comic that you found really offensive. Would you...
GREY: Well, when...
GROSS: ...Describe that comic who's inspired...
GROSS: ...By a real offensive comic (laughter)...
GROSS: ...That you saw in real life.
GREY: When I was working in nightclubs, I went to a nightclub in St. Louis, Mo., and there was supposedly the hot guy in town. And he was disgusting. And he sweated and (laughter) cajoled and begged the audience for applause. And I thought to myself this is the worst thing I've ever seen. And the worst thing about that was that the audience loved him. And I thought, how can this be?
GROSS: Oh, you write that he was telling every kind of stereotypical joke - take my wife jokes, fat jokes, crude sex jokes, "[expletive] impressions with lisping and mincing" - I'm quoting you here. And, you know, you hated him and the audience loved him.
GREY: I was confused. But somewhere that always stuck in my mind. And I thought to myself when I was rehearsing and not quite getting it, I thought to myself what if I pretended - which is what actors do - what if I pretended I was this dreadful, overdone, extraordinarily horrible MC, and if I tried it on top of the "Cabaret" MC. And we had a rehearsal. And one day I did it, and I felt so horrible showing that sort of part of myself that I'd even understood when I watched it. And when I was finished, I ran to the back of the stage and hid. I was so mortified thinking everyone would think that was me. A few minutes later, I felt an arm around my shoulder, and it was Hal Prince. And he looked at me and he said Joely, that's it.
GROSS: And this is when you got the idea of being, like, leering and doing things, like, picking up the skirts of one of the Kit Kat girls in the club with your cane, you know, and being...
GREY: Yeah, and practically touching their breasts and just totally defiling and disgusting behavior.
GROSS: And that was great. That was - (laughter) - and that's what the character should've been.
GREY: I guess so. And then we started to think about how we looked, and I found a makeup that was sort of like a marionette - sort of feminine and sort of masculine. He had this lipstick and this little beard right under the lip that was so manly. So he was clearly a complicated-looking guy, but the audience thought he was swell.
GROSS: So you grew up basically in show business. You know, you started your career when you were young. But when you were a child, you'd be in the orchestra pit of vaudeville theaters because your father was performing. Your father, Micky Katz, was a clarinetist. Your father performed in pit bands. Your father performed with Spike Jones. Spike Jones was famous for his parodies of pop songs. Then your father...
GREY: He was also famous for glugs. Do you know what glugs are?
GROSS: Yeah, do one.
GREY: (Glugging) Well, you know...
GROSS: That was great.
GREY: ...He was very good at it.
GROSS: Your father did that on Spike Jones records.
GROSS: Did he teach you, or did you just pick it up?
GREY: I think it was just there.
GROSS: It was just there, OK.
GROSS: So then your father went on his own and led his own band. And instead of doing English parodies of pop songs, your father was doing, like, Yiddish parodies of pop songs that were part English, part Yiddish and had a lot of Jewish culture jokes in them. I want to play an example of that...
GREY: And they were - they were brilliant. They really had a kind of political aspect to them that I think people never gave him credit for. And there were those - people who didn't want to have Yiddish spoken on the radio or even in the theater because they were trying to assimilate. And that never stopped him because he was trying to create something like taking a pop song or an American song at "Home On The Range" in Yiddishizing it to make a sense of inclusion for the Jewish people that they could be part of a truly American song. (Singing in Yiddish). And people listened, even people who did not know any Yiddish thought, this is funny.
GROSS: So let's play a song that's not going to be exactly a direct copy of the American lyrics. This is "St. Louis Blues," and I'm choosing this for two reasons. One, it's a great Mickey Katz recording, and two, he actually played "St. Louis Blues" at a talent show in high school - played it straight (laughter). So here's Joel Grey's by father, Mickey Katz, with his band doing "St. Louis Blues" in Yiddish.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. LOUIS BLUES")
MICKEY KATZ: (Singing) I hate to see that evening sun go down. (Singing in Yiddish)That evening sun go down 'cause my St. Louis (singing in Yiddish) downtown. Now, listen (singing in Yiddish).
GREY: St. Louis maidel (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, and maidel is a girl, right?
GROSS: Yeah, so what else is he saying there? Like when he says she's caftig (ph) and zaftig - zaftig means kind of big, right?
GROSS: And what does caftig (ph) mean?
GREY: I don't know.
GROSS: You don't know, OK.
GREY: I never learned to speak Yiddish, ever. It was just something that was learned by rote and I guess my deep background.
GROSS: 'Cause you performed with your father in his show Borscht Capades...
GROSS: ...As in Ice Capades but Borscht Belt. And you had to sing...
GREY: It was not skating on borscht.
GROSS: (Laughter) frozen borscht. So you had to sing Yiddish songs in this or sing songs that had Yiddish in it. But I guess you just learned the pronunciations and learned what each word meant in context? You did at least that, right?
GREY: Yes, I learned by rote. My aunt taught me the song. And I went out and I sang these songs, and the audience believed me. They just bought it.
GROSS: So why don't we hear you singing one of the songs that you sang with your father? In fact, this is the first song, I think, that you sang with him. And early in your career before you were in "Cabaret," you recorded an album called "Songs My Father Taught Me." So this is from side one track one of a vinyl recording (laughter). The original pressing, I think, (laughter) of "Songs My Father Taught Me." This is "Roumania, Roumania." How do you even know this song?
GREY: Because it was a hit song on Second Avenue. It was made famous by a great performer called Aaron Lebedeff. And Danny Kaye imitated him, and I got to too.
GROSS: OK so this is Joel Grey circa...
GREY: Circa 1950s.
GROSS: OK, very good. So here's "Roumania, Roumania."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROUMANIA, ROUMANIA")
GREY: (Singing in Yiddish).
(Singing in Yiddish).
GROSS: So do you have any idea what you're singing in that song?
GREY: A little bit, not a lot.
GROSS: So it's about getting nostalgic for Roumania, the old country?
GREY: Yes, yes. And all the foods that they had there that they don't have here. You know, to live there is such pleasure. But that was the sad part is that it was no longer possible to live there.
GROSS: So when you were young and you were singing with your father and doing Yiddish songs like "Roumania," what did you think your future was going to be? You couldn't be your father's son in your father's show forever nor did you want to be.
GREY: That's true. I had begun my professional career when I was 9 years old at the Cleveland Play House, and it was a very specific, real theater sort of like, you know, in England and the Berliner Ensemble - very devoted people. And I thought the theater was the greatest place I had ever been, and that's what I wanted to do. And I thought I was going to be an actor in stock, you know, doing small parts one month and leads the next. So that was my whole idea. But since there was no place to act - there was no playhouse in Los Angeles - I wanted to get onstage and "Roumania" was the road. And my dad wrote an opening song for me that I would like, if it's OK with you, to sing for you.
GROSS: Oh, please.
GREY: (Singing) When I was 8 days old, they named me Yausel (ph). Oh, what a simkhe, such a celebration. (Singing in Yiddish) while I was suffering a minor operation.
GREY: (Singing) Later on I went to kindergarten. I said, teacher, Yausel is my name. She said the name of Yausel, it sounds like a shlemazl. From Yausel, my name became Joel Grey.
GROSS: (Laughter) My guest is Joel Grey. His new memoir is called "Master Of Ceremonies." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Grey. He has a new memoir called "Master Of Ceremonies." It's part about his life in theater playing in shows like "Cabaret" where he originated the role of the MC, and it's also about being closeted - being a closeted gay man for much of his life and then coming out recently. So you had an affair when you were a teenager - you had a couple, actually. And one of them was with a cantor who was 25 years old, about six years older than you. He also was closeted, but then he decided he needed to get married. So he marries a girl. Then you have a threesome (laughter) you describe in the book. And then the girl tells her - the woman tells her mother. The mother says that she needs to get an annulment now and that you would be named in the annulment as an example - you know, you'd be named in the - whatever the document is calling for the annulment as an example of why this marriage needed to be annulled. And that terrified you because you would be outed through this.
GREY: And my father would be finished. He had just started to really gain some strength in his career in Los Angeles. And if that ended up happening, it could have really hurt him.
GROSS: Right, 'cause he was a performer, you know, so the public has to like him. And if the public isn't going to like him if he has a gay son, you'd be ruining his career.
GREY: Yes, so I went home and said to my folks what had happened. And there was quiet. And then I went to my mother and she said, don't touch me. Don't touch me. You disgust me. And then my father - and she left - left the room. I was devastated. My father said, let's go for a ride. And he was sweet and generous and loving. But my mother was sort of my world. And in that moment, my world was crumbling. And that was at the time when they were taking men from gay bars to jail and entrapment. And I overheard all that stuff. And I thought, this is so dangerous and so shameful. And, you know, when I think back now - it was some kind of abuse 'cause I was 15. I didn't know better.
GROSS: I didn't realize you were that young.
GROSS: So he was like 10 years older than you?
GREY: (Laughter) Anyway, it was a nightmare that it took me a lot of hours of therapy to get over.
GROSS: Did your therapist try to convince you to go straight?
GREY: The ideas then were that you could be - you know, play around when you're a teenager. That was kind of all right - not really but it wasn't serious because it was considered developmental (laughter) then.
GROSS: You mean like you'd grow out of it?
GREY: Yes, yes. And so I didn't know quite what I was because I was very busy in high school sleeping with girls and having kind of torrid affairs with women. So I didn't know what I was. But I did get the idea that if I was queer, forget about a career. Forget about mother first, and then forget about a career.
GROSS: My guest is Joel Grey. His new memoir is called "Master Of Ceremonies." After we take a short break, we'll talk about his decision as a young man to get married in spite of his feelings for men and his decision when he was nearly 80 to publicly come out. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a box set collecting classic recordings by pianist James P. Johnson. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Joel Grey, who became famous for his role in "Cabaret" as the decadent master of ceremonies. He originated the role on Broadway and played it in the film adaptation. He's written a new memoir called "Master Of Ceremonies." He came out publicly last year. In his memoir, he writes about his early attraction to boys and his fear of the consequences he and his family would face if he was gay. You write that when you were growing up, it felt as if danger lurked around every corner of your childhood. Your mother was prone to erratic angry moods. When she got really angry, she'd beat you with a brush, push you out of the room with a broom. And in terms of danger lurking around every corner of your childhood, there was the shadow of the Holocaust. Your feelings for boys - you thought that that would make everybody hate you. And then you were very short, and you felt kind of freakish because of that. So how do you think feeling that there was danger lurking around every corner affected you psychologically when you were growing up?
GREY: I'm certain it had a very dark effect on my soul and on my whole being because I didn't understand it. I didn't understand why that word (speaking Yiddish) which is a derision - a word that was used by people to call them [expletive].
GROSS: Yeah, it's a Yiddish word. It means bird, right? So...
GREY: ...A little bird fluttering.
GROSS: Right, so...
GREY: ...You know, feminine.
GROSS: Yeah, so it was a derogative word, dismissive word, too, that Jewish people would use, a Yiddish word to put down people who were gay. Oh, he's just a (speaking Yiddish). So you were afraid you'd be called that.
GREY: Yes, and I heard the darkness when that word was used.
GROSS: So you eventually got married. How old were you when you got married?
GROSS: So you married an actress, Jo Wilder. And...
GROSS: ...Did you convince yourself that you were straight? Did you believe you were straight at that point? Like, what was going on in terms of genuine feeling and denial, and wanting to get married to woman?
GREY: Well, I had always thought that I would get married and have children. And, you know, since women were a big part of my life and men were a small part of my life I thought, as the therapists would say, I'd grow out of it. And I didn't. However, when I met Jo Wilder, I fell crazy in love and never thought about homosexuality. And I thought well, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is life. Plus, all those years, I was performing from the time I was 16. I was on "The Eddie Cantor Show," I went to London Palladium. I was really having a great success.
GROSS: So you convinced your wife to get married to you before, it seems - the way you put it in the book, she wasn't ready yet, but you wanted it so badly you got her to commit. You wanted to have a child so badly, you convinced her to have a child before might've felt already because she was pursuing her own career. And it's very sad, your first child was born prematurely and died soon after. You and your wife were heartbroken. And then she gave birth a little over a year later and, you know, you were on your way to having the family that you really wanted. At the same time, it was really hard for your wife because you were on the road and you wanted her with you. You really wanted her to not work. And there was one time you were having a bit of an emotional meltdown and you begged her to come and be with you because you were performing away from home in "The War Of The Greasepaint." In the meantime, she was the understudy for Barbara Cook - the great Barbara Cook - in the Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock musical "She Loves Me" on Broadway. She gave that up to be with you, and kind of gave up her career for you and the children. Did you understand why she didn't want to give up her career?
GREY: Of course. Of course. That was certainly a valid wish on her part, but I also knew that she was very mixed about becoming an actress and auditioning. She was very insecure, and was halfway on the stage and halfway in the house. And I really thought that her depressions from going to an audition and not getting it would hurt our family. But I did say if you need to do it, do it. But she did not seem to get much pleasure from it.
GROSS: So you thought because of that, that it was OK, that maybe she'd even be happier if she gave up her career.
GREY: That's what I thought.
GROSS: And do you think you were right?
GREY: I don't know. You never know about whether you were right in a choice, but I think she was of many minds about working and being a mom and a wife. And I thought that since there were many minds, that since we had these children and I had this career, and we were busy and it was all very exciting - and she seemed to like to share the limelight with me and be my beautiful wife. My beautiful, smart, talented wife. And she certainly could've said at the beginning, I must have a career. I need to do that. And that was a possibility, but it didn't happen.
GROSS: So after 24 years of marriage, you decided to tell your wife about your past, about how you'd had relationships with men when you were young. And I think you told her that that was in the past and things changed when you got married...
GREY: ...No, I...
GREY: Not in the past. Just not even - I didn't consider it any longer. And I thought there was something inauthentic about how I was loving her in terms of her knowing me. And that's why I decided to tell her I had no interest in men, I was not acting out, I was totally in love with her. And, you know, nothing happens that's not supposed to happen. It just moved us along in terms of separating and, you know, finding another life, which she did and which I began.
GROSS: So the marriage ended, you didn't want to end. Did you know who you were after that or what you wanted?
GREY: Not really. Not really. It took another couple of years of therapy, I would say.
GROSS: So this was, like, 1981 when the marriage ended, right?
GREY: Eighty-four, '83. And then what comes my way but "The Normal Heart."
GROSS: The Larry Kramer - this is that Larry Kramer play about men during the AIDS epidemic, gay men during the AIDS epidemic.
GREY: Right. And I went to a preview, and it was so amazing. People were crying out the audience, sobbing. And all these names were on the walls, and everybody knew someone on that wall. So it was a terrifying time, and I decided that if there was ever a possibility of my doing it, I thought as an actor, I really need to do that. And as life would have it, a few weeks later Joe Papp called me and said Brad Davis, who was playing the role of Ned, has AIDS and he's leaving the show. And can you rehearse for 10 days and go in playing Ned Weeks? And it was a powerful experience. I got to be a gay man on stage.
GROSS: Were you a gay man offstage at that time?
GREY: No. I was...
GROSS: ...And why not?
GREY: A lot of damage had been done. The whole gay movement had - in a way, I ostracized myself to stay clear and loving in my marriage with my children. That - I sort of erased that from my life. And that was deep.
GROSS: So once you'd come out on stage - in other words, once you were playing a gay man on stage, did it make it any easier to come out after that?
GREY: Not really, because I had so many years of hiding. That part of me was damaged and hiding.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Grey, and he's written a new memoir called "Master Of Ceremonies." And the title comes from the fact that he played the master of ceremonies, the MC, in the Broadway production and in the film adaptation of "Cabaret." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Grey. He's written a new memoir called "Master of Ceremonies." And it's a memoir about his life in theater in roles such as the MC in "Cabaret," George M. Cohan in "George M!," the wizard in "Wicked." He was in a recent revival of "Anything Goes." And it's also about coming to terms with being gay. I think you only publicly came out last year. Do I have that right?
GROSS: So what was the turning point for you? And had you already been out to friends by then?
GREY: I had already been out for about 10, 15 years to my close friends and my coworkers, and I was fine in that respect. And I still thought then that it was a career breaker. And only in the past couple of years has that changed.
GROSS: What changed for you that enabled you to come out publicly?
GREY: The law - that amazing, beautiful law that happened, and...
GROSS: Are you talking about marriage equality?
GREY: Yes. And the fact that people were marrying who they wanted to marry, and they were having children - I was grateful for all of that happening. And it was just one day that I was walking around thinking, life is not what it was. It's changed, and you've changed. You'd better say it out loud. And I stood there in the sunshine and said, I'm a gay man.
GROSS: How old were you then? About 80?
GREY: Maybe 79 - what - you know, what's a year or two at that point?
GROSS: Yeah. I don't know how - this might be too personal, and I'm not quite sure how to put it. But you ended up coming out at a time in life when people are typically less sexually active because of how the body ages. Did you feel bad that it was at that stage in life - it was only at that stage in life that you were able to be open?
GREY: No. Ultimately, I was enjoying my life so much. And I was doing some of the best work I had ever done. And I just thought that that was something that was not possible for me because of all the early stuff. And I came to grips with that and was happy for everybody else and happy for me in my life with my children and my friends and my career.
GROSS: Can I ask if you have a partner?
GREY: I do not.
GROSS: Would you like to?
GREY: (Laughter) I don't know why - I have great, great friends, very intimate relationships, but I've found a peace living, making photographs, acting in great shows like "Chicago" and "Wicked" and "Anything Goes," and loving the cohorts in those shows. It seems my life is pretty full.
GROSS: So just one other "Cabaret" question. You've been so identified with the role and were so extraordinary in the role of the MC. When Alan Cumming started doing the role in revivals, did you go see him?
GREY: I did.
GROSS: What was it like for you to watch somebody, you know, like, reinterpret the role - build on what you've done, but do things that you couldn't have done on stage in the 1960s that he did in the revivals in the - was in 2000s?
GREY: I wish you had seen the original production. It was shocking to people.
GROSS: Right, I'll bet. I never saw the show - I've only seen the movie. I was too young, I think, to think to see the show.
GREY: It was really, really - they'd never seen anything like it. And the girls were very scantily dressed for 1966 - 50 years in November. And I was disgusting and outrageous.
GREY: And it became a great piece of theater. And when Alan and Rob and Sam reimagined it, it was very, very - it was like a whole other show. Excellent, but not really - it was still about anti-Semitism and Berlin in the '30s, but from another viewpoint. And so many wonderful actors have been in it since. It's a classic role.
GROSS: Joel Grey, it's just been great to talk with you again. Thank you.
GROSS: Joel Grey's new memoir is called "Master of Ceremonies." After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new box set collecting recordings by James P. Johnson, one most important pianists in early jazz. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.