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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Joel Grey, the Ultimate Emcee, Comes to the Curran Next Week

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2016 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Joel Grey - HENRY LEUTWYLER
  • Henry Leutwyler
  • Joel Grey

Fifty years after he first took on the role of the emcee of the Kit Kat Club in the original Broadway production of CabaretJoel Grey has a new book out. While Leonard Nimoy's famous discomfort with his most famous character spurred him to write an autiobiography called I Am Not Spock, Grey is comfortable enough with the sexually ambiguous demimonde figure to title his memoir Master of Ceremonies.

The 83-year-old Grey is one of only eight people ever to win a Tony and later an Oscar for the same role, a feat that has not been repeated in the four decades since. While Cabaret — with costars Michael York and Liza Minelli — remains his best-known performance, Grey's work includes parts in Wicked, Chicago, George M!, and dozens of other plays. He's been on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dallas — and when I tell him that my first encounter with him was through his voiceover work as naive clockmaker Joshua Trundle in the now-obscure 1974 Rankin-Bass animated holiday special 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, he bursts out laughing.

"That's excellent," he says.

click to enlarge JOEL GREY
  • Joel Grey
Grey will appear at the Curran Theatre in conversation with Editor at Large Kevin Sessums next Tuesday, March 8 for an evening of showbiz gossip and to discuss tidbits in Master of Ceremonies, from Grey's encounter with Lana Turner as a young man to his coming out later in life. Unlike other prodigious thespians of his generation who publicly disclosed their sexual orientation — George Takei, Tab Hunter, Sir Ian McKellen — Grey has no desire to become a gay icon or make a big fuss about it. He did, however, compare himself with someone almost 70 years his junior when discussing the writing process.

"I’ve had a lot of fun, a lot of drama, a lot of comedy, a lot of rich experiences with a lot of gifted people," Grey says. "It was fun to finally put it all into a package, with a lot of years of acting and performing. starting when I was nine. I was like Jacob Tremblay — that little boy in Room who was stood on the Oscar stage with his hands in his pockets — knowing how he felt."

As most memoirists do, he choked up at moments while working on the book. Writing about the loss of his first child proved difficult. ("I was so busy trying to keep the bubble up that I didn’t sit with it and realize how deeply upsetting" it was.) But for the most part, the book consists of fond memories.

"I'm just living my life, joyously," Gray says.

Looking back, what was his favorite production?

"Anything Goes," he says. "It was just funny and crazy and theatrical and musical. It was excellent. It was just fun to do — it was not about anything dire."

Fascism has been in the news a lot lately, and Cabaret ends with the unfurling of Nazi flags in the Kit Kat Club. Prudently perhaps, Grey is reluctant to draw parallels between the climate of Weimar Germany and the current American political landscape. "You can always squeeze something out," he says, referring to historical analogies. "But there's no plan."

But for Joel Grey, there is. Now that Master of Ceremonies is complete, he's looking forward to getting back into the director's chair, but not before putting out another book about photography. The subject this time is "sexy flowers."

Flowers of New York or from the world over?

"Anywhere you like. All you have to do is come and visit me in my living room and you’re in the book."

Joel Grey: Drawing Back the Curtain, Tuesday, March 8, 7 p.m., $25, at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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