The last 24 hours, Joel Grey says, have been the most fulfilling of his life. “Yesterday morning, we had a terrific first rehearsal of The Normal Heart”—Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the early days of AIDS, opening April 27 on Broadway in a production Grey has shepherded for more than a year. “Then a great matinee of Anything Goes”—the Cole Porter musical in which he finds himself, somewhat to his surprise, co-starring at 79. “And now this!” he exclaims, surveying a gallery at the Museum of the City of New York where a show called “Joel Grey/A New York Life” is being installed. (Consisting of photographs both by him and of him, plus memorabilia including his Cabaret suit, it runs through August 7.) “Incredible,” he crows, bubbling with an unseemly energy for 10 a.m. on a Monday, his one day off. “But don’t you think this gray is too blue?”
He is speaking of the wall color. Not that he complains to anyone directly; rather, he noodges by proxy, or masks his concerns behind an ain’t-I-cute twinkle. Perhaps because he is so small, he still manages a convincing boyishness, as if he were just arriving in New York in 1951 with a valise full of personality swatches to be winnowed. In fact, he is a hard-core aesthete. His West Village loft is filled with works by Arbus, Rauschenberg, Oldenberg, Hockney; fifteen Miró prints hang just so in a grid in the powder room. For a boy born Joel David Katz in Cleveland, who got his start singing “Romania, Romania” in his father’s Borscht Capades, he has come pretty far.
And yet not far enough, it seems. The Tony and Academy awards for Cabaret, the years of Broadway stardom that followed, the late efflorescence of character roles on TV—they are all more than 24 hours old and thus intangible. About his life, no less than home décor, he has a restless meddler’s urgency. He says he has always been a “looker,” incapable of not noticing things and not great at prioritizing them either. “It can take me forever to choose the right coffee cup in the morning. And it does make a difference! What is the line from that Mark Doty poem?” But he can’t remember it.
Wearing too many hats has been wearying, he admits. And so, although he directed a benefit reading of The Normal Heartthis past May in Los Angeles and another in November in New York, for Broadway he has turned over day-to-day duties to George C. Wolfe, while retaining a co-directing credit. Still, the play looms large for Grey: not just for its content but for its role in his lifelong project of escaping the curse of the song-and-dance man. (He says he turned down Wicked three times before agreeing to play the Wizard.) Taking over the part of Ned Weeks in the original production when Brad Davis got sick was part of that escape, and something else, too; he had recently been divorced from Jo Wilder, his wife of 24 years, and his children—Jennifer, the actress, and James, a chef—were by then in their twenties. He was unencumbered, but it terrified him. Many of his friends were dying, fans who knew him from George M! walked out when he got naked, and a prominent AIDS doctor who had treated his friend Rock Hudson told him that the scene involving a “lusty kiss” might put him at risk.
“There’s risk in everything,” Grey says now with a shrug. “Maybe there’s a sensibility in me that makes me want to do it all the more if someone says no.”
It must have been that sensibility that allowed him to put himself forward as an art photographer after years of taking snapshots. Three collections of his work—represented by the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea—have been published, to good notices, since 2003. The photos, which Grey says are simply what he sees, mostly depict ruin: details of building demolition, trannies tottering home over cobblestones at dawn. Even the abstract compositions, though gorgeous, are somehow sordid. It’s no accident that Grey’s most famous creation, the Emcee in Cabaret, remains a definitive portrait of epicene decadence: Cupid’s bow lips, shaved armpits, fat cigar.
That performance, with its outrageous vulgarity, was in some ways a rebuke to his mother, whose “rampant narcissism” made his childhood “brutal.” His father, the comic musician Mickey Katz, was too besotted with her, Grey says, to offer much protection. The stage, that louche alma mater, provided a refuge. “I felt a power there I did not have otherwise,” he says. “It was a place where I could be my own person, not an extension of my mother or father”—even though it was they who led him to it, his mother traipsing him, Momma Rose–like, from Cleveland to New York to audition, his father convincing him to turn down UCLA for a sure-thing gig. In his first television appearance—a 1951 Colgate Comedy Hour that’s available on YouTube—the contrast between the terrified 18-year-old being interviewed before his number by host Eddie Cantor and the fantastically expressive dancer flying through his routine is almost unbearable.
“I can’t move as easily as I once did, but I’m in pretty good shape,” he says now. “I’ve recovered from an operation I had a few years ago, and I learned to take better care of myself and be more positive. Or to acknowledge the possibility of seeing things more positively. That’s work. But as a result, I find that the feeling of power I get onstage is, well, less powerful.”
Perhaps for him. For the audience, he still offers something complicated and potently weird that’s simply not part of the contemporary style. Within the bounds of musical-comedy convention, his Moonface Martin, a low-grade gangster, is about as creepy as you can get. The expressionist black eye makeup he wears makes it look as if he’s been beaten up so much that the bruises became permanent. In the second act, after singing Cole Porter’s “Be Like the Bluebird,” he does a quiet dance that owes something to Bobby Clark and something to Charlie Chaplin but that is still recognizably a Joel Grey performance—which is to say, ambivalent, precisely detailed, and alone.
In person, he is both more and less opaque. He struggles with how to present himself, as if he were still a collection of attributes he could sift and rearrange. When I ask if I can describe him as single, he says, “Yes, single,” then mischievously amends it to “Somewhat single.”
But that night, I get an urgent e-mail message, asking me, with four exclamation points, to call. When I do, it turns out he has merely found the Doty poem, called “30 Delft Tiles.” He races through it for the line he wants: “God, my dear,” he recites, editing as he goes, “is in the damages.”