Twenty-two Shades of (Joel) Grey
Forty-seven years ago this week, Cabaret opened in Boston, where the show would have its sole pre-Broadway tryout. Although Tony-winner Lotte Lenya and Tony-nominee Jack Gilford were “only” supporting characters, most everyone had greater interest in them than the leads.
Oh, many were interested in Jill Haworth, who’d play Sally Bowles, and Bert Convy, who’d portray her sudden boyfriend Clifford Bradshaw. After all, Haworth had been stunning as a child actress in the film of Exodus and Convy had made a nice impression as Perchik in a previous Hal Prince smash Fiddler on the Roof.
But during the show, many theatergoers were soon yanking out their programs to learn the name of the performer they didn’t know before: Joel Grey. Oh, aficionados had known that Grey had been around for more than a decade, making TV and club appearances, doing an off-Broadway musical, replacing stars in some Broadway hits and touring in others. Now, finally, after years of waiting, he had the role of a lifetime: The Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club who “Willkommened” us “im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.”
Fewer than six months later, Grey picked up a Tony for his performance, which still sounds dynamic on Cabaret’s original cast album. It led to plenty of other shows and recordings, such as Chicago, The Grand Tour, Goodtime Charley and George M!
Columbia Records also said “willkommen” to Joel Grey in another way: by sponsoring two pop albums, the first of which centered on Broadway and the second which certainly didn’t.
Only the Beginning, released in 1967, has a nice ‘n’ easy arrangement of Rodgers and Hart’s “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” It starts with a sole piano, but as Grey builds it, the orchestra comes in en route to a long-held note for a terrific rideout. As my buddy Jon Maas told me, Grey eventually did get a chance to do Pal Joey with Alexis Smith in stock; this recording would suggest that he was very good.
No one would dispute that the biggest hit that Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg ever had was The Wizard of Oz, but if we’re only counting their Broadway work, it was Bloomer Girl in 1944. When it closed in 1946, only five book musicals had ever run longer than its 655 performances. One of its more charming songs was “Evelina,” which Grey brought into the ‘60s with a little help from some Bacharachian trumpets.
Grey might well have been the first man to sing “Who Are You Now?” Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s much-underrated song from Funny Girl. It’ll be new to those who only know the soundtrack or the film itself, from which it was mistakenly dropped. Grey here takes on the persona of a man who has loved deeply, but must face the reality that the object of his affection may not be “someone better for my love.” His sad realization permeates the performance.
Conventional musical theater wisdom says that you don’t put two ballads in a row, but Funny Girl did just that, placing “The Music That Makes Me Dance” after “Who Are You Now?” Grey takes no such chances. He instead opts for an insouciant and often syncopated “You Oughta Be in Pictures” starting with the little-known verse you’ve probably never heard. Soon entering the orchestration is a violin worth of a gypsy playing at a restaurant table.
Lyricist Edward Heyman probably didn’t mind that Grey came up with a few lines of his own, one of which references the Funny Girl star. Another deals with a certain Ms. Hepburn’s sex life; Grey leaves it up to the listener if Audrey or Katharine is the Hepburn in question. And don’t miss the Chinese gong.
Grey makes his voice both appealing and gravelly (yes, it can be done) in Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” He returns to Broadway via George White’s Scandals of 1922 with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” which he makes sound like a genuine plan. You can almost hear him climb the stairs in the way that he climbs the scale.
In those days when adults would still buy a 45 rpm record or two, an occasional artist from a Broadway show would take his or her big number and make a single with a different orchestration. Streisand did it with “People,” Karen Morrow did it with “I Had a Ball,” and Grey did it with “Willkommen.” A slightly different vamp brings us into a slightly more different rendition; Grey had done the song enough times by now to know just how much latitude he could take with it.
The next one is a true musical theater rarity: Norman (Whoop-Up) Gimbel’s “It Was My Father’s Fashion.” Even those cast album collectors who have Ben Bagley’s Shoestring ’57 may not know this song, for it didn’t make the recording. Be prepared for a lazy but lovely waltz that you may play more than any other song. And may we infer that Grey is referencing his own father, Yiddish favorite Mickey Katz?
“Ace in the Hole” sounds as if George M. Cohan wrote it and that Grey is auditioning for his next big role. No on both counts, but the song is of Cohan’s era; James Dempsey and George Mitchell wrote this big hit of 1909. Despite the presence of a sanctimonious organ, Grey gives the feeling that he’s taking us to the Bowery. You’ll be glad you got the visa.
After doing “In My Life,” one of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s most beautiful songs, Grey returns to Broadway with a little-known song that should be much better-known: “Sweet Beginning,” written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (when the latter still cared about producing quality work). It’s from their convolutedly titled The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Notice the eight orchestral notes that end the album; they make a statement in themselves.
Onto Black Sheep Boy, the second disc released in 1969. It shows Grey’s ease with songs that were then very much in fashion. Some still are.
“If I Were a Carpenter” is Tim Hardin’s song that has some observations on social-climbing women. Harry Nilsson’s “1941” mercifully has nothing to do with the Steven Spielberg misfire, but asks a question that is still unanswered after all these years.
Grey finds a new time signature to give “Scarborough Fair,” and his deliberate rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel hit make the lyrics land and resonate.
By the time that Grey got around to singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” the song had already been recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, Leonard Nimoy and Claudine Longet. And yet, Grey’s rendition stands out because the way he stresses “I really don’t know love at all” convinces that he’s as baffled by it as the rest of us.
In a Playboy interview, Donovan Leitch – better known as Donovan – praised Grey’s singing of his “Lalena.” He also liked the arrangement, in which a harpsichord melded with the pop rock sensibility. Chances are you’ll agree.
Lennon and McCartney had two voices to do their “She’s Leaving Home,” so Grey had to overdub. Thus, he not only plays the observer who comments on the young miss who abruptly heads out the door to find a new life, but also her devastated parents. It’s a sensitive rendition.
Did Grey choose Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” in honor of his then-nine-year-old daughter Jennifer Grey, the future leading lady of Dirty Dancing? By the way, on the same day that he won his Cabaret Tony, she was marking her fourth birthday. To paraphrase the type of ad you usually hear about department stores, it was her birthday, but he got the present.
The title song — “Black Sheep Boy” – is a folk rock gem. Ditto an expressive “White Room” and a haunting “Don’t Remind Me Now of Time.” The recording finishes with “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” McCartney and Lennon’s standard that reminds us that “life goes on.” And aren’t we glad that Joel Grey has?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.