If anyone has mastered the art of aging, it’s Joel Grey.
The stage and screen star whose portrayal of the enigmatic, slightly degenerate emcee in “Cabaret” defined not only the role, but set the tone for the show itself, is still going strong at the age of 85. Though he claims to be “slowing down,” the man is continuing to take on new projects and new challenges.
Grey will be in Pittsburgh on May 15 at the Heinz History Center, featured at the Jewish Association on Aging’s fundraiser, “The Art of Aging: An Evening with Joel Grey.”
Grey is the winner of an Academy Award, a Tony Award and a Golden Globe Award. He originated the role of George M. Cohan in “George M!” and performed the role of the wizard in “Wicked.” He has starred in the revivals of “Anything Goes” and “Chicago,” and appeared in 2016’s “The Cherry Orchard” on Broadway.
He is also a gifted photographer. Two of his works hang in New York’s Whitney Museum, and he recently published a photography book, as well as a personal memoir, “Master of Ceremonies.”
Grey, who was born in Cleveland and has been performing since the age of 9, got his start at the Cleveland Playhouse. His father was the famed musician Mickey Katz, who wrote and performed Yiddish novelty versions of pop songs, like “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Katzkills When She Comes.” As a young man, Grey joined his father’s revue “The Borscht Capades,” traveling and performing in night clubs.
He looks back on those days as “exhausting.” “It was very pressured, but also, at that age it had an element of fun and adventure,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in New York City. “My dad was a Jewish icon. He emboldened the Jewish communities in America to sort of connect and be themselves in a new country through his parodies and his orchestra.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was fun,” he continued. “I never spoke a word of Yiddish in my life. My dad was fluent, of course.”
Performing vaudeville in clubs eventually led to Grey being cast in stage productions. Around 1964, he played Pittsburgh in “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off.”
“That was right before ‘Cabaret,’” he said. “I think that was the role that led Hal Prince [the director of ‘Cabaret’] to knowing that there was something about me that could do that role.”
While others have made the role of the Emcee their own — notably Alan Cumming, who also won a Tony award for his portrayal of the character in “Cabaret’s” 1998 revival — it is Grey who originated the role as the very heart of the show, a metaphor and ominous embodiment of Weimer-era Berlin.
In turn it was the part of the Emcee that launched Grey’s career in a life-defining way, leading to other iconic roles.
In 2003, Grey took to the Broadway stage as the Wizard in “Wicked,” which remains a wildly popular musical with uniquely dedicated fans.
“It was fascinating because it was the first time that being in a Broadway show was like being in a rock concert,” Grey said of performing in “Wicked.” “The audience was so crazy, and they were so interactive that they were practically talking to the actors on the stage. It was different.”
Although the man wears many different artistic hats, there seems to be a special place in his heart for Broadway.
“There’s nothing harder and nothing more rewarding in terms of doing something that can change people’s lives, and being a part of that and being a part of something that is extremely rigorous,” Grey said.
No wonder he still has his eyes on the Great White Way.
“I just recently did a reading of the first play that I ever performed in when I was 9,” he said. “It was called ‘On Borrowed Time.’ I did a reading at the Roundabout the other night as a possibility of something they might do on Broadway. I would direct it.”
The JAA event, Grey said, will combine stories of his life as well as performing.
“I’m going to do the gamut, if we can,” he said.
When asked about his secret to aging well, the iconic actor demurred.
“If I could tell you that, I could make a million, right?” he said. “A lot of good luck and a belief that I’m supposed to be doing something good.”
The JAA will be honoring Joel Smalley at the event with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
All donations to “The Art of Aging” will benefit the JAA’s For the Love of Seniors Fund, which supports intergenerational programs, meal delivery to homebound seniors, art and music classes and charity care.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-521-1975.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.