Friday Night Is Music Night: Joel Grey on John Kander & Fred Ebb
John Kander and Fred Ebb have been more than collaborators, more than friends. They are family. I knew them both individually before they began their now legendary partnership. I first met Fred (known to all his friends as Freddie) early in both of our careers when I was doing nightclubs and he was writing nightclub material. I first met John when he was a rehearsal pianist during the original Gypsy with Ethel Merman. Later, he was the accompanist for my audition for Irma La Douce – a role I didn’t get. I remained good friends with each of them, and was thrilled when they eventually teamed up and began writing together. It was a partnership that would end up putting my career in high gear.
I spent the summer of 1965 performing in Mardi Gras with Louis Armstrong at the Jones Beach Marine Theater. The show was about a pirate ship, and it featured swimming and boats. It was awful. Really awful. We performed every single night for 8 weeks without a day off. Each day we’d get on a bus at the NYC bus terminal at 4:00 p.m., head to Jones Beach, and return to New York at 3:00 a.m. I never saw my wife or children, and I found the entire experience so dispiriting that I was ready to give it all up. I’ve always referred to that time as “The Summer of My Discontent.” When this summer finally came to an end, I decided to quit the business once and for all. I was done! The day after I made my decision, I got a phone call from my friend Hal Prince. I got to know Hal and his, at the time, girlfriend (soon to be his wife) Judy years earlier through a mutual friend in LA. He was calling to offer me what turned out to be the role of a lifetime: the Emcee in Cabaret. This was the first time I had ever gotten a part without having to audition. It was also the first time I was given the chance to originate a role on Broadway. Up until this point, my Broadway experience was limited to replacement parts. I had replaced Hal March in Come Blow Your Horn, Anthony Newley in Stop the World I Want to Get Off, Anthony Newley (again) in Roar of the Greasepaint, and Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence. Finally I was getting a chance to create my own character. How could I refuse? So, just like that, I was back in show business.
Later that week, John and Freddie played the score for me and I thought to myself, “These are genius musical numbers.” I couldn’t wait to find the character and make it live.
There was a controversy surrounding one of my favorite numbers in the show: “If You Could See Her.” The final lyric of the song is “… But if you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Many audience members perceived this as anti-Semitism (of course, the opposite was true: it was written as a statement about anti-Semitism). Hal was so hounded by the furor that he decided to change the lyric to “…But if you could see her through my eyes, she isn’t a meeskite at all.” Being the sort of trouble maker I am, I would slip in the original lyric from time to time. Later, when we were making the film version, I fought hard to get this line back in the movie and now it’s forever captured on celluloid.
Through the experience of performing Cabaret, my relationships with John Kander and Fred Ebb deepened profoundly. When you have the opportunity to interpret such powerful material by other artists, a very unique kind of bond forms. Liza Minnelli’s legendary, longtime relationship with Freddie is a prime example of this special bond. She has always referred to him as her mentor – he was a major guiding force in her career.
I went to see Chicago when it first opened (with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach) and thought the material was fantastic. The part of Amos was played by a very tall (and wonderful) actor by the name of Barney Martin. He played the role as it was written: a dumb mechanic. When they were about to revive the show in 1996 at Encores!, they called me to do it. I said, “I can’t play that role! I’m 5’5” … and I’m not that dumb.” I collaborated with Ann Reinking and Walter Bobbie, who were directing, to find another point of view for the character: that Amos loved Roxy so much that he would let her do anything. Long story short, I had the honor of performing in another Kander and Ebb masterpiece on Broadway in which I got to sing another fantastic number: “Mr. Cellophane” (“Mister cellophane / Should have been my name / Mister cellophane / 'cause you can look right through me / Walk right by me / And never know I'm there!”)
Clearly my career (and therefore my life) has been incredibly influenced by these two remarkable artists. Working with them has been pure joy. Knowing them, even more so. I was thrilled to have been able to participate in BBC Radio 2’s “Friday Night Is Music Night” tribute to them and to have had the chance to, once again, perform their magical music in London.
Academy and Tony Award winning star of Cabaret Joel Grey appears on Friday Night Is Music Night's Tribute to John Kander & Fred Ebb at 8pm, this Friday, 19 November on Radio 2.