Joel Gray reflects on a life in the theater as he celebrates his 90th birthday

The Tony and Oscar-winning emcee talks about his most significant role and his “legend” status.

Happy birthday, Mr. Emcee, Mr. Cellophane, Mr. Wizard. Happy birthday, Joel Grey.

The legendary performer turns 90 on April 11, 2022. This year also marks the film’s 50th anniversary Cabaretfor which Gray won an Oscar, adding her to a small list of performers who have won both Oscars and Tony Awards for playing the same role.

“We’re all growing up,” Gray said when Playbill spoke to her to celebrate the two big milestones.

Gray has spent his life in the performing arts, knowing from an early age that this is the path he would take. “When I was nine, I went to the theater with my mum and said, ‘I want to do this.’ She signed me up for the Children’s Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, which luckily was run by wonderful professionals… inspiring people.As soon as I met them, I knew that was what I wanted to do. .

He first moved to Los Angeles at age 13, then to New York at age 18. “I had to grow up really fast,” he says. “I did all the stupid, dumb jobs just to make a living.” He says there were many moments along the way where he thought he might want to do something else, but he never really came close to giving up a career in the performing arts. “I’m just passing thoughts,” he said. “I love the job. I love theater so much.”

He made his Broadway debut in the 1951 revue Borscht Capadesand appeared again in the 1956 opening night cast The smallest magazine. After her early career in revues and television specials, Gray had a series of Broadway jobs in backup roles in Come blow your horn, Stop the world – I want to get downand half a sixpence.

In 1966, Gray originated what he considered the most special role of his career. The host in the musical Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and a book by Joe Masteroff).

“He was created from dreams. And nightmares. He represented 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 there. I wanted to make sure he was among them.

Gray won a Tony Award for his work as the Kit Kat Club emcee and recreated it for the 1972 film, starring Liza Minnelli in her Oscar-winning role as Sally Bowles. Gray says her fondest memory of working on the film was “going to the set every morning in Munich with Liza asleep on my shoulder. She was like my little sister.

Other Broadway credits include George Cohen in George M! and the young Dauphin of France in good times charley, both of whom received Tony nominations. He was Amos Hart in the original cast of the ongoing movie Chicago rebirth, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Bad. A stint in directing also earned a 2011 Tony nomination for Best Director of A normal heart. In 2018, he directed fiddler on the roof in Yiddish for National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene. “It was one of the great joys of my life,” he says.

Even with all of his successes, he says he’s had the usual hits throughout his career: “You’re not cut out for this. You are not made for this. You are right about that. You are wrong for that. Continue. That’s all we can say about it. There are all kinds of disappointments and setbacks, and heart-pounding excitement that keeps you on the path in the hope that you’ll find a place for yourself in the theater. And that’s the advice he gives to young artists who want to follow in his footsteps. “Make sure you can’t imagine your life without theater before you decide to do it, if you really want to. It’s a big commitment. »

Gray recently made a surprise appearance in Jonathan Larson’s Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed film tick, tick… BOOM! on the Sunday brunch scene alongside other theater legends include Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Brian Stokes Mitchell and more. “It was fun. Really, we loved it. We were all like kids in preschool. ‘Oh hi. Oh hi! Oh, what are you wearing?

Despite the label, Gray insists he doesn’t feel like a legend. “I’m still waiting,” he jokes. But… but… you are Joel Gray. “Who?” he’s laughing.

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