Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir
Joel Grey, with Rebecca Paley
New York, NY: Flatiron Books, 2016
In this outstanding autobiography, the Tony- and Academy Award-winning actor shares his eventful life on the stage and beyond. His slow but steady road to stardom is engagingly described, including candid discussion of his equally significant personal journey through decades of hiding his sexual orientation, even while achieving long-hoped-for professional success.
Born in 1932 Cleveland, Joel Katz learned about show business at the feet of father Mickey, an actor/comedian/musician popular on the “Borscht” club circuit. Mickey was frequently accompanied in his act by eager-to-perform young Joel, who began his own career in the 1940s with the Cleveland Play House’s children’s theatre program. As an adult, Grey became a reasonably successful nightclub song-and-dance performer, though he longed for stage stardom, particularly on Broadway.
In 1966, Grey won the role of his lifetime—the notorious “Emcee” in the original Hal Prince-directed production of Cabaret. As Grey describes, his singing-only character was not initially scripted to be quite so noxious, but at one rehearsal, he spontaneously added some coarse “business” to his paces, to Prince’s surprise and approval. For his portrayal, Grey would win both a Tony Award and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cabaret’s 1972 film version. (His memories of working with director Bob Fosse are less than positive.) Grey’s subsequent musical stage work would include the title role in George M!, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and 2003’s Wicked, plus numerous television appearances. In 1984, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
As Grey worked his way to success, however, he also lived covertly with his sexual orientation. He became aware of his gayness, or perhaps bisexuality, at an early age, and had affairs with both men and women as a teenager and into adulthood. But the 1950s and subsequent eras demanded concealment. Having always wanted a family of his own, he married actress Jo Wilder in 1958, and he describes her in this book as “the true love of my life”.
Their marriage lasted nearly 25 years and produced two children (including actress Jennifer Grey), but, in the early 1980s, fully revealing his sexual past to Wilder led to a difficult divorce. Eventually, however, Grey felt able to explore new LGBT-related artistic possibilities, including a starring role in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on Broadway in 1985. Today, at age 83, after publicly revealing his orientation in 2015, Grey concludes, “I’m still singing (in the same key), still dancing (but slower), and, finally, getting a bit of my heart’s desire.”
Master of Ceremonies will likely be one of the finest memoirs I read this year. Grey’s prose is keenly descriptive, witty, and poignant, with deep quality matching its author’s other remarkable talents. It is highly recommended for all general biography and performing arts collections.
Dallas (TX) Public Library