Happy birthday, Mr. Emcee, Mr. Cellophane, Mr. Wizard. Happy birthday, Joel Grey.
The legendary performer celebrates his 90th birthday April 11, 2022. This year also marks the 50th anniversary for the film Cabaret, for which Grey won an Oscar, adding him to a small list of performers who have won both Oscar and Tony Awards for playing the same part.
“We’re all growing up,” said Grey when Playbill spoke to him to celebrate the two big events.
Grey has spent a life in performing arts, knowing from a very young age that this is the path he would take. “When I was nine, I went to the theatre with my mother and I said ‘I want to do that.’ She enrolled me in the children’s theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, that just by great good chance was run by superb professionals…inspirational people. I knew the minute that I met them that this is what I wanted to do.”
He moved first to Los Angeles at age 13 and then to New York at 18. “I had to grow up very fast,” he says. “I did every silly stupid job just trying to make a living.” He says there were many moments along the way were he thought he might want to do something else, but he never really came close to giving up a career in the performing arts. “Just passing thoughts,” he says. “I love the work. I love the theatre so much.”
He made his Broadway debut in the 1951 revue Borscht Capades, and appeared again in the opening-night cast of 1956’s The Littlest Revue. Following his early career revue and television special appearances, Grey had a string of Broadway jobs in replacement leads in Come Blow Your Horn, Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, and Half a Sixpence.
In 1966, Grey originated the role that even he considers the most special of his career. The Emcee in the musical Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff).
“He was created out of dreams. And nightmares. He stood for something politically and dramatically for something very important and serious. He was a serious reminder of what we should never forget. There are all kinds of horrible creatures out there. I wanted to make sure he was among them.”
Grey won a Tony Award for his work as the Kit Kat Club Master of Ceremonies and recreated him for the 1972 film, with Liza Minnelli in her Oscar-winning role of Sally Bowles. Grey says his fondest memory of working on the film was “going to the set every morning in Munich with Liza sleeping on my shoulder. She was like my little sister.”
Other Broadway credits include George M. Cohan in George M! and the young Dauphin of France in Goodtime Charley, both of which received Tony nominations. He was Amos Hart in the original cast of the currently running Chicago revival, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Wicked. A move to directing also garnered a Tony nomination in 2011 for Best Director of A Normal Heart. In 2018, he directed Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish for National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. "It was one of the great joys of my life," he says.
Even with all his successes he says he had the usual knocks along the way in his career, “You’re not right for this. You’re not right for that. You’re right for this. You’re wrong for that. Keep going. That’s all there is to it. There’s all kinds of disappointments and setbacks, and thrilling excitement that keeps you on the path in the hopes that you will find a place for yourself in the theatre.” And that's the advice he gives to young artists who wish to follow in his footsteps. “Make sure that you can’t imagine your life without the theatre before you decide to do it, if you really want it. It’s a big commitment.”
Grey most recently made a surprise cameo in the Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed film of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! in the Sunday brunch scene, appearing alongside other theatre legends include Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and more. “It was fun. Really, we loved it. All of us were just like kids in nursery school. ‘Oh, hi. Oh, hi! Oh, what are you wearing?’”
Despite the label, Grey insists he doesn’t feel like a legend. “I’m still waiting,” he jokes. But…but…you’re Joel Grey. “Who?” he laughs.
See Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth, and Donna Murphy Celebrate Joel Grey in Times Square Below: