July 23, 2011

Joel Grey is Showcased in a Dual Role

Theater is such an integral a part of New York that it often overflows into other parts of city life. The windows of the big Fifth Avenue department store Lord & Taylor have recently paid tribute to How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Meanwhile, further uptown, the Museum of the City of New York is celebrating the life and work of the Broadway favorite Joel Grey.

Tourists may be unaware of these kinds of Broadway treats and those of who live here may take them for granted. But this past week—my first this year without seeing at least one show—I got my theater fix by going to the museum to see “Joel Grey/A New York Life.”  The exhibit is divided into two easily digestible parts. The first is a retrospective of Grey’s nearly 75-year acting career and the second half is a display of his art photography. Both are sensational.

Grey, who is 79, isn’t actually a Broadway baby.  He was born in Cleveland. The son of the comic Mickey Katz, he started his career as a child actor in the Cleveland Playhouse. By the time he was 10, he was enough of a pro to come to New York to audition for a spot to replace one of the kids in Broadway’s long-running Life With Father

He didn’t get the part but when he was 19, he moved here and got hired for a couple of the revues that were popular on Broadway in the ‘50s. In 1961, he caught the industry’s attention when he replaced the lead in Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon’s first play about a young innocent who moves in with his playboy older brother. Just five years later, Grey created the role of the emcee in Cabaret and won the first of his two Tonys.

Roles as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in the revival of Chicago, the Wizard of Oz in Wicked and the gangster Moonface Martin in the current hit revival of Anything Goes (plus his role in bringing the Tony-winning revival of The Normal Heart to Broadway) have all endeared him to a younger generation of theatergoers (click here to read an astute New York magazine profile of him)

Like many actors, Grey is a packrat who seems to have saved everything along the way. And that’s to the benefit of the exhibit which includes props, posters and awards from his various shows as well as more personal items such as a letter from Eddie Cantor, a telegram from Maurice Chevalier, a good luck mezuzah from Beverly Sills, a Life magazine spread on the apartment in the Hotel des Artistes that he shared with his wife the actress Jo Wilder and kids (James, now a chef, and Jennifer of “Dirty Dancing” and “Dancing With the Stars” fame) and photos galore.

But, to my surprise, the real treat are the photos Grey took. These aren’t the expected candid snapshots of famous friends or nicely posed pictures of animals, trees and interesting faces that most hobbyist gravitate towards. Instead, Grey takes close-ups of the city’s buildings, bridges and other infrastructure that through his discerning lens are transformed into powerful Rothko-like abstracts. In recent years, he’s also begun using his cell phone camera to capture images like hookers on the prowl or two young male lovers at a gay pride parade.  They’re all totally arresting. (Click here to see a few.)

You can see all of it for yourself if you get to the museum before the exhibit closes on Aug. 7.  Or you might even consider attending a discussion between Grey and the playwright Jon Robin Baitz that the museum is hosting on Monday, Aug.1.  You can find more out about that by clicking here.

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