Friday, February 6, 2015

Friday Dance Party: Joel and Me

He has a few years on me (about 25) and I have a few inches on him (about 7), but still, it must be said: Joel Grey and I are practically twins. 
Joel Grey has always been on my radar, but the rest of the world sort of forgot him until last week when, at the age of 82, he came out. His popularity is unlikely to diminish due to this non-news, though I have read the obligatory whining from a few cranks who complain that he should have revealed his sexuality decades ago, at the height of his fame. My feeling is that, as long as his being closeted hurts no one, he should remain there until he feels secure enough to throw open the door.
Like most of the world, I first became aware of Grey from his Tony/Oscar winning turn(s) as the Emcee in Cabaret.  I've written several times about my fascination with this musical, and with this character, which was on my bucket list before they invented that term.  I was lucky to scratch the role off that list around 1990.
Joel Grey's Emcee, with his "Two Ladies"

My Emcee, with my "Two Ladies."  One can hardly tell us apart.
Here's Grey in the drag which opens the
second act of Cabaret.
But I had already seen Grey live onstage twice before I played the role he created.  I wrote a long while ago about seeing Joel play John Adams in 1776 in summer stock, a performance which placed that role on my bucket list as well.   

As specified in the script, my Emcee also
opened act 2 in drag. Twins, right?
After Grey's success in Cabaret, he headlined a couple of musicals which were not big hits. His 1975 flop Goodtime Charley attempted to musicalize (get this) the story of Joan of Arc, as seen through the eyes of the dauphin of France who later becomes Charles VII. Maybe this would have made an effective opera, but as a musical comedy, not so much.

Goodtime Charley must have been a
hoot. The opening number is sung by
warrior king Henry V of England and
Queen Isabella of Bavaria. And Ann
Reinking as Joan of Arc? Wow. The
production folded after a few months
when Grey left to make a movie.
Just like everybody else, I missed Grey in Goodtime Charley, but I did catch his next stinker. 

The Grand Tour concerned a Polish Jew escaping Nazi occupied France and had the bad luck to open the same season as Sweeney Todd, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and They're Playing Our Song. Hard to believe I chose to see Grand Tour instead of those other shows, but I was so enamored of Joel Grey back then, I did (you guessed it, I wrote a bit about seeing it here).    
At least once, I played a role before Joel did. In grad school, I played Moonface Martin in Anything Goes. Sadly, I have no pictures of that show, you'll have to take my word for it that I stole the thing. Only a few years ago, Grey played the same part in the Broadway revival starring Sutton Foster. He turned 80 years old during the run.
Joel Grey's several flops following Cabaret suggests a point I realized a while ago.  Though he certainly has the talent and the charisma to headline a show, he is most successful "in support."  Over the years he has succeeded in roles such as the Wizard in Wicked, Amos in Chicago, and the aforementioned Moonface in Anything Goes.  But when he is handed a starring role, such as in Goodtime Charley or The Grand Tour, he's less effective. This is another area in which he and I are similar.  I'm much better in support, too.
These days, the Emcee is considered the leading male role in Cabaret, but when Joel won the Tony (and then the Oscar) for it, the part was considered supporting.
This week's Dance Party illustrates the point.  We both played the title role in  George M!, which attempted to musicalize the life of showman George M. Cohan.  (Beware of any show title with an exclamation point, it usually means it's trying too hard.)  George M! was another attempt to place Joel Grey in a leading musical role, with minimal success.  It SHOULD have worked like gangbusters, as Grey was at the height of his hoofing and belting powers and was a great choice to play Cohan. But the character himself was a selfish megalomaniac who trashed his marriage while bullying his way to Broadway.  In the 1910s, he did all he could to squelch the formation of a stage actors union (the union which became Actors Equity).  Joel did his best to give this bulldozer some charm, but to little avail.  
ABC produced a 1-hour
version of George M!, which
only proved that the role was
chilly and unlikeable. Here are
Nanette Fabray and Jack
Cassidy as Cohan's parents.

And I didn't do any better.  Back in 1983, I played George M! in dinner theatre.  I could act the part fairly well, being chilly and unlikeable myself, but my singing was suspicious and my dancing was downright dreadful. Ah, well, Joel recovered from the failure of George M!, and I suppose I did too. See how we're practically twins?
Here is my George M! with my stage parents. I don't remember their names, which surely protects their reputations. My performance had nothing going for it other than a rather generalized enthusiasm.
Our Dance Party comes from the Tony Awards, as so many of them do.  The clip includes a medley of a few of the songs from George M!, which is appropriate I suppose.  The show's score contains about a dozen medleys, as the writers attempted to include about a thousand of Cohan's songs (he was nothing if not prolific).  We may roll our eyes at the Over-The-Top presentational style which Joel brings to this clip, but it demonstrates the ultimate song-and-dance man which Grey has always been.  Again, practically twins.

No comments: