Back in early March, Broadway icon Joel Grey, 88, was finalizing his plans to visit Chicago for Porchlight Music Theatre’s silver anniversary gala. With a 60-plus year career on Broadway, Grey—one of only a handful of actors to win an Oscar and a Tony for playing the same role—was moving full throttle into spring, wandering New York to take photos for his latest book, prepping for coming projects and, as ever, creating art whenever and wherever he found it. Porchlight’s annual event, packed with live performances and a retrospective of Grey’s extraordinary career, was on track to be a blowout showstopper fueled by the presence of a genuine, megawatt musical theater legend.
And then, of course, COVID-19 shut the industry down, leaving theaters like Porchlight bereft of their fundamental raison d’etre.
These days, like most of us, Grey doesn’t get around much anymore. COVID-19 emptied out his building, leaving Grey the sole tenant who didn’t flee New York for less congested areas.
“Since COVID, everyone has departed. I’m the only one left in my building,” he said. “I don’t go out really. I Zoom with my core posse, about six people. I don’t like it. Zoom isn’t like being together in person.”
But thanks to Porchlight, Grey is getting out and putting on a show. Sort of. At least he is doing so in the that-ain’t-quite-it-kid manner that “going out” and “putting on a show” have become under the draconian fist of COVID-19.
Porchlight’s postponed gala kicks off on Friday, August 21, albeit online. The three-night PorchlightPalooza culminates Sunday, August 23, when Grey—who won the 1967 Tony for creating the role of the Emcee in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret and the 1973 Oscar for playing the Emcee in Bob Fosse’s movie version—will collect Porchlight’s Icon Award. It’s all free. Raffle prizes (tickets are $50 each, three for $100) include a meal with superstar chef and gala cochair Rick Bayless and his restaurateur wife Deann, as well as a visit to cochair Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra’s Mettawa Manor.
Grey has shaped the course of Broadway over the past six or so decades, his resume offering bullet points of the industry’s history beyond Cabaret—George M. Cohan in George M!, Amos in Chicago, the Wizard of Oz in Wicked, Moonface Martin in Anything Goes, codirector (with George C. Wolfe) of the 2011 Broadway production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s 2018 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. But while Grey’s resume is expansive, his advice is not.
“Really, I have no advice for the kids. Like everybody else, I don’t know when we’ll be back or how we can survive being out indefinitely. I myself am totally flummoxed and worried. Like everyone else. Because what we’re walking through, what we’re walking into—it’s the unknown,” he said from his home in New York.
PorchlightPalooza is a musical attempt to defy the unknown by celebrating a business that’s been cataclysmically damaged by the one-two punch of COVID and the federal government’s long-standing apathy toward providing any kind of serious, foundational support for theater.
Some 50 artists are working on the gala, said Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber. There will be performances from past Porchlight shows as well as medleys celebrating Grey’s work, and segments showcasing Chicago’s emerging musical theater talents.
Friday, August 21, is devoted to a retrospective of Porchlight’s quarter-century in Chicago. Saturday, August 22, will showcase new talent and honor longtime theater benefactors Elaine Cohen and Arlen D. Rubin. Grey will take center stage (from his home) Sunday, August 23, for a Q and A with “legendary anchorman” (per his tongue-in-cheek intro on WBEZ’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me) Bill Kurtis. Among those who wrote or called in to honor Grey via the benefit: Tonya Pinkins, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Raúl Esparza, Susan Stroman—like Grey’s resume, the list is impressive.
Grey’s history in Chicago goes back more than 70 years. In the early 1950s, he joined his father Mickey Katz for The Borscht Capades, which played at the old Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Reskin Theatre of DePaul University). The show was in the storied tradition of Yiddish vaudeville, or, per Grey, “like the Ice Capades but with Borscht.” Later, he came to Chicago with touring productions, living here for months at a time during “sit-down” tour stops. Grey lists the usual attractions that stay with visitors: “The architecture was amazing. The food. The lakefront. The museums and all the theater. I always thought of Chicago—like San Francisco—as being my second home.”
On screen, Grey cut his showbiz teeth in the hyper-macho world of TV cowboys, doing guest spots on Maverick, Lawman, and Bronco before escalating up the rungs of Broadway, eventually landing the Emcee role in Cabaret, and cementing his status as a star in his own right.
The role was a ground-demolishing departure from the heteronormative land of primetime, and from anything Broadway had seen before: Grey’s Emcee was neither male nor female, gay nor straight. The character was rather an omnisexual, otherworldly trickster that hovered on an invisible razor wire between memory and reality, good and evil. It was also a massive risk in an industry that counts on mainstream tourist dollars to sustain it.
“Whenever you confront the public with something different and maybe dangerous, you have to walk a fine line,” he said.
He walked a fine line IRL as well. Grey came out publicly as gay in his memoir, Master of Ceremonies, which he released in 2016. He spoke on book tours and promotions about figuring out as a preteen that being outwardly attracted to men was dangerous, an invitation to shunning and violence as well as possible career suicide. As he told Playbill, "Being gay was not an option,” not if you wanted a career. He and fellow actor Jo Wilder were married for 24 years, raising Jennifer (of Dirty Dancing fame) and James Grey and divorcing in 1982.
Grey has a few words for his younger self, and by extension, to anyone grappling with issues of gender and sexuality.
“I’d tell my kid self it’s going to get better. But it’s going to be hard,” he said.
For now, Grey is working on another book of photography, this one examining things in his loft. He was working on directing a benefit staged reading of Paul Osborn’s 1938 play On Borrowed Time, which Grey starred in as a nine-year-old at the Cleveland Playhouse. Two River Theater’s streaming benefit for the Actors Fund was canceled last week after an outcry on social media about the cast’s lack of diversity.
Porchlight’s benefit will offer Grey a chance to offer his thoughts on the cancellation as well as his extraordinary career. It will also, hopefully, generate some coin for the last remaining Equity musical theater in Chicago that produces its own shows.
“My mood is concerned and I’m trying not to push it into scared,” Weber said. “But we don’t see yet when we’re going to be able to come back and there’s no money coming in, except from the support of people who like what you do and are willing to help keep you floating until you can do it again. Everyone at Porchlight has taken a pay cut. We’ve lost staff to other industries. We’re not replacing them now. What we’re trying to do is keep engaging, as best we can,” Weber said.
Roughly 50 people are working on the Porchlight benefit, and of those, about 30 are getting some kind of payment, Weber said. Others—including Kurtis and Rick and Deann Bayless—are donating their time as well as opening their homes to winners of the fundraising raffle. Weber said pretaped musical numbers are choreographed, rehearsed, and performed with masks, face shields, and social distancing.
“From the time I was nine, I only wanted to be in theater. That was it,” Grey said. “What do I miss most now? Well, people. Like everybody else. But we’re all trying to do what we can.” v