Talking to Joel Grey

Talking to Joel Grey

Our correspondent talks to the director about the Folksbiene’s reopened “Fiddler”

Joel Grey is at the first rehearsal of “Fiddler on the Roof,” back in 2018. (Victor Nechay)
Joel Grey is at the first rehearsal of “Fiddler on the Roof,” back in 2018. (Victor Nechay)

Joel Grey is the second of what so far has been a three-generation show business family.

There was his dad, the irrepressible Mickey Katz, who first gained fame as a member of the Spike Jones Orchestra. He went on as a solo act, creating the Borscht Capades and writing popular Yiddish parodies such as “Haim Aufen Range” (Home on the Range), “Barber of Schlemiel,” and “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Katzkills.”

Then there’s daughter Jennifer Grey, of “Dirty Dancing” fame, and author of a recent and revealing memoir, “Out of the Corner.”

And of course, right in the middle, multi-hyphenate Joel himself, actor (most notably for his Tony- and Oscar-Award-winning performances as the emcee of the Kit Kat Club in “Cabaret”), author (his own and equally revealing memoir, “Master of Ceremonies”) and director (notably “The Normal Heart” and the reason for our visit, the Folksbiene’s multiple-award-winning Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” As we always point out, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, lives in Teaneck.) 

That last point is the reason we’re chatting on Zoom.  Mr. Mlotek’s production, again directed by Mr. Grey, is being revived, for an eight-week run — from November 13 to January 1 — at the New World Stages theater in Manhattan.  Mr. Grey, looking decades younger than his 90 years, is wearing (an appropriate) gray shirt and a black baseball cap labeled “DIRECTOR.” 

I start the conversation by reminding him we’d spoken before, when his book was published, and politely he makes believe he remembers.

The following are edited excerpts of out talk:

Curt Schleier: From a director’s perspective, were you an easy actor to work with?

Joel Grey: I think I was lucky that the directors who chose me did so because of my particular skills and personality. So I rarely had any issue along those lines.

CS: What was the biggest transition from actor to director?

JG: I think [acting and directing] are the same.  They come from the same creative place. Having watched the ways plays were made when I was 10, 11, 12 years old, influenced choices I made as an actor and dreams I had then, that maybe I wasn’t aware of then, to be a director.

CS: Were you surprised by the show’s success?

JG: I guess so.  I just thought it was the right show for the time. And it was kind of magical that we found so many actors who didn’t speak Yiddish and weren’t even Jewish who learned the Yiddish in less than a month and were brilliant and nervous.  But they were also joyous and so proud of themselves ultimately because the show had such a profound effect on audiences nightly. It’s an amazing story for all times.

CS: There have been so many productions of Fiddler on Broadway, starting with Zero Mostel in the original up to  and including Alfred Molina (ugh) as Tevye. Were you at all concerned that the area might be Fiddlered out?

JG: I never thought about anything negative.  I just thought it was one of my favorite shows ever, and I just wanted to tell the story in a direct, honest and simple way that honors the piece itself.

CS:  Do you think the fact that you are Jewish may have helped you bring something to the show a non-Jewish director might not have?

JG: I have no idea. I’m sure it’s true.

CS: Your only prior directing gig was for “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s wrenching play about the early days of the AIDs epidemic. You’ve come out as gay, first to People magazine and then in your memoir.  So, in both the projects you’ve directed, you had personal skin in the game.  Does that matter?

JG: Maybe. I don’t know.  I don’t understand the mechanics of the heart. In other words, the thing that makes you fall in love with a piece or a song or anything is passion, and that’s the common thread for me.

CS: On a sort of related subject, are you familiar with Jew Face? Several Jewish celebrities have made the point that too often non-Jews are cast as Jews over Jewish actors.  Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir in an upcoming film is a case in point. Any thoughts?

JG: (Breaks out in laughter) I never heard such a bullshitty thing. (Laughs more.) Yes, quote me.  That’s crazy. Other than that, it’s excellent.

CS: I assume you read your daughter’s memoir.  What did you think of it?

JG: I am a very good father. It probably is one of the best things I did and still do. I love my children more than life itself.

CS: You had a very challenging life growing up.  Are you happy now?

JG:  Yes, very.  Look at me. The bad stuff is so far in the past. All the things that happen to you in your life have an impact, and how you deal with it and what happens to you after that is more important.

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