Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shades of Grey: Joel Grey and Family

On my recent trip to New York City, I indulged my passion for Broadway musicals by taking in Anything Goes, a show that was fresh and new in 1934. Back then, the songs Cole Porter wrote for the leading lady were belted out by Ethel Merman, she of the cast-iron lungs. For this Tony-winning revival, the adorable Sutton Foster got Merman’s Reno Sweeney role, but by the time I saw the show she had departed. Still, the cast was filled with veteran stage performers who sang and tapdanced up a storm. One of the cutest -- and certainly the oldest -- was Joel Grey, who’s still cavorting on Broadway at age 80.

In this romp set aboard a transatlantic luxury liner, Grey plays Moonface Martin, aka Public Enemy #13. Frankly, he seems too nice to be entirely convincing as a dangerous (though lovable) gangster. But the audience adores him, and you’ve got to give him credit for stamina. I also salute Joel Grey for his part in a show biz dynasty. His father, Mickey Katz, was a clarinetist and band leader with a distinctly Jewish appeal. Back in the days when Yiddishisms were understandable only to one small ethnic community, Katz amused his chosen people by recording parodies of familiar Fifties pop tunes. In his repertoire, the Kay Starr hit song “Wheel of Fortune” became “Schlemiel of Fortune,” and “Shrimp Boats Is A-Comin’, There’s Dancin’ Tonight” turned into “Herring Boats Is A-Comin’, With Bagels and Lox.”

When Katz’s son Joel came of age, he shed his obviously ethnic surname, and struck out on his own as a song-and-dance man. There’s an invaluable Youtube clip of Joel Grey at age 18, tripping the light fantastic on Eddie Cantor‘s TV show in 1954. He was performing on Broadway as early as 1951, first in his father’s musical revue, Borscht Capades, but later in plays and book musicals. His real break came in 1966 with Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Grey’s iconic performance as the grotesque Master of Ceremonies who holds court at Berlin’s Kit Kat Club as the Nazis rise to power won him a Tony award. When the play was brilliantly translated to the screen by Bob Fosse, Grey added a best supporting actor Oscar to his mantel. He’s since made plenty of film and TV appearances, but Hollywood has never known quite what to do with this tiny, talented man. Though he was once touted as Hollywood’s next Danny Kaye, the decline of movie musicals sent him back to Broadway, and he's never left.

Then there’s Grey’s daughter, Jennifer. Lithe and lovely, she started out strong with two 1980s hit films, playing the sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Baby (the one who shouldn’t be put in the corner) in Dirty Dancing. In the latter film, her romantic duets with Patrick Swayze heated up the screen, and sent millions of young girls off in search of their own sexy dance instructors. But Jennifer’s path turned out to be star-crossed, plagued by injuries, soured relationships, and roles of only middling interest. Her life improved considerably in 2010, when she competed on Dancing With the Stars. At age 50, she overcame stress and serious spine issues to perform challenging routines with the exuberance of a much younger woman. When she and her partner emerged triumphant, her dad was in the audience cheering her on.

This weekend Broadway will be handing out its Tony Awards. One will probably go to the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s great show, Follies. There’s a song in Follies that probably has special meaning for Joel Grey and family: “I’m Still Here.”


  1. He's a wonderfully talented man. Of course, I'm going to pick one of his goofiest roles as my favorite - but how could you not love Joel Grey cast as a Korean martial arts master named Chiun, in full latex Asian makeup - from Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins? I know, it's not PC - but really - he's quite amazing in it!

  2. I've never seen that, Mr. Craig. Perhaps YouTube has a snippet.

  3. Here's tge trailer - with a good dose of Chiun :

  4. What fun! Seems like there's a small dose of The Matrix, sans the mysticism.