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Before 'Les Miz', 'Cabaret' Revolutionized The Film Musical


It's been 40 years since Joel Grey won an Academy Award for his role as master of ceremonies in Bob Fosse's movie musical "Cabaret." Grey visited us at NPR this past week. He was in town to deliver his famous top hat, the one he wore in the movie, to the Smithsonian museum. The award-winning actor is surprisingly down to earth. Well, Mr. Grey, thank you so much.


MARTIN: Joel. Thank you very much. Even so, he brought along a small entourage to our studio, which included a long-haired Chihuahua.

GREY: He's nice. He's a really nice little guy.

MARTIN: With his beloved Miguelito tucked snugly in his lap, Joel Grey spoke with us about his long career. Performing ran in his family.

GREY: My father was a great Klezmer clarinetist and Yiddish parodist, "Hay Muffin Range," "The Baby, the Bubby and You." (Singing) Life isn't gracious, it's so delicious, listen, you all, here's a (unintelligible). But if you're a chicken, there's nothing like chicken for the baby, the bubby and you. I think Walt Disney turns over in his grave every time I sing that.

MARTIN: Joel Grey did not become a clarinet-wielding comedian like his dad, Mickey Katz, but he did become an actor. It wasn't easy, though, and just before he landed a role in an obscure musical about Weimar, Germany, he was...

GREY: Ready to quit. I could not get a show that I would originate. I've been the understudy and the replacement for any number of actors. I had a couple of kids and I wasn't seeing them, and my whole family life was affected by the fact that I couldn't make a living. So, I was ready to quit. And the Halperins called and he said we're doing a show about Christopher Isherwood, "I Am a Camera," and there's a character of an emcee. And I thought, oh god. He says and John Kander and Fred Ebb, who were friends of mine, also wanted me for that role, and I did not audition. I think it was the very first role I ever got on the stage where I didn't audition. He said come on over. We'll play the score. We went over to John Kander's house and I heard (humming). And I thought, oh my God, that's my song. I still sort of feel that way.


MARTIN: I want to take you back to when you first encountered this character, the master of ceremonies.

GREY: I never encountered him. I would run away. That would be terrifying.

MARTIN: He was kind of a scary guy.

GREY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: When I read him on the page, what were your impressions?

GREY: There was no description at all. There was just: an MC. CDMC.

MARTIN: This is a particularly blank slate you were working with.

GREY: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I was lucky in that I had Hal Prince as the director, who gave me a lot of leeway. He told me what it was he saw in Germany when he was there, and then he let me run with it. And then I got to Germany with Fosse, and he had no choice but letting me run with it.

MARTIN: What was it like working in Germany at that time?

GREY: I got to the airport. We landed in Germany, and I had always had a kind of a icky feeling about going to Germany as a Jewish person. But I thought I'm going to do something wonderful that I've always wanted to do with great people. And so I got myself ready to get off the plane, and the minute I stepped on German ground, I collapsed sobbing.

MARTIN: Did you?

GREY: I had no idea, but I think it was probably that collective memory of people somewhere that I belong to or that belong to me. But it was intense. And then, you know, there was a resistance from the crew who did not want to be reminded of the horror that they had gone through. You know, they sort of thought, well, we've been reminded enough.

MARTIN: The German crew was hesitant. They didn't quite know how you were going to treat this narrative. But, you know, they got a lot of guilt.

Yeah. Describe for people who have not seen both the stage version and the film how the MC's character, how your character, is different in those two versions.

GREY: I don't think he is. I think he became darker and more terrifying because of the close-ups and because of the - just the movie is, it's just another experience. There's something abstract about a stage show that makes it scary too. But the seeing of all of this horror and excitement and pornography on the screen close-up is overwhelming sometimes.


MARTIN: Do you have a favorite number?

GREY: Yes. "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" is, I think, a perfect song written by Kander and Ebb. It's so beautiful and so charming and so nostalgic.



MARTIN: How was that number received? I read that some people misinterpreted what that song was about.

GREY: They did. They did. I think actually fearful Jews somehow missed the point. First of all, you know, a Nazi musical on Broadway was already something...

MARTIN: A tough sell.

GREY: deal with, and they thought that was an anti-Semitic line at the end of that song - she wouldn't look Jewish at all - when in fact it was just the opposite.

MARTIN: You have had such an incredible career. You have done some things some people might not realize. You've been in some popular television shows - "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"...

GREY: That's right.

MARTIN: ...among them.

GREY: Yes. I run into girls on the street all the time who want me to show them my tail.

MARTIN: Who may have no idea that you were in "Cabaret."

GREY: Right. But they love "Buffy."

MARTIN: Which pleases you, I'm sure.

GREY: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: And you've had all kinds of Broadway roles and theater roles on the stage. What is the common thread that links all these things for you?

GREY: I think when you want to create, when you need to create, that's the common thread. I started when I was nine years old and I had a most amazing experience with a group of actors at the Cleveland Playhouse who treated me like a regular member of the company. They called me mister. I had no respect anywhere else in my life, but there I saw that there was an important place. And I've always felt that way about the theater and about what I try to do. I try to be as good as that.

MARTIN: Joel Grey starred in "Cabaret." He joined us here in our Washington studios. Mr. Grey, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for coming in.

GREY: I had such a good time.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.