Joel Grey’s illustrious showbiz career takes him back to Broadway for the revival of The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s drama about family, history and change. Starring as the symbolic link to the past, Joel plays the role of the butler, Firs, to Ranevskaya, played by Diane Lane. Both actors return to Chekhov material, Grey having starred as the lead in Chekhov’s first play, Platanov, and Lane coming back to material that launched her career as a child actress in The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s final play.
The new production opening September 15 at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre features a stellar cast including Chuck Cooper (The Life), Tavi Gevinson (The Crucible), John Glover (Love! Valour! Compassion!), Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie), Harold Perrineau (Oz) and more, remaining in a Russian setting but with an update from Tony winner Stephen Karam (The Humans), directed by Simon Godwin.
Joel Grey, son of the great performer Mickey Katz and father of Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey, is best known for his iconic roles of Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, for which he won an Oscar and Tony Award, The Wizard of Oz in Wicked, Amos Hart in Chicago and numerous others across film, television and stage. The Cherry Orchard was first produced in 1904 in Moscow, and Joel Grey revealed how this new production has been refreshed for an American audience. He reminisced his proudest achievements in entertainment, and he shared who has impressed him lately on stage and screen.
You are among a variety of veteran actors as well as some fresher faces in the revival of The Cherry Orchard. What are you most looking forward to with this new production?
Well, it’s really new. That’s really unusual in that it’s a very different take on the material, and a beautiful new translation by Stephen who wrote The Humans. Everybody has got the sense that it’s a minor master- piece, it’s true to Chekhov and yet it’s got a totally American thrust to it. As a result, it’s all American actors, it’s very often done with British actors. The director is very, very smart and he has a notion, and we’re doing something different and that’s always very exciting. It’s also somewhat daunting in that it’s such a departure, in that it could go south. But I doubt it. It begins at the end of an era, I think you can sort of put that in many, many timeframes in history, but I think the one that is right in front of us is this election, and things getting so bad that there must be change. And that’s what the essential piece of the play is, about change and how people respond to it, and it comes anyway.
You originated the role of Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret for which you won a Tony and later an Oscar (along with Liza Minnelli and director Bob Fosse), you originated the role of The Wizard in Wicked alongside Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, you co-directed The Normal Heart which won Best Revival of a Play, you were nominated for three other Tonys, you have also starred in Anything Goes, Chicago, you have appeared in numerous films (including Bjork’s Dancer In The Dark) and television shows, and the list goes on. What stands out to you as your most personal achievement in entertainment?
Great question. I think that being a part of Cabaret and what it changed in the theater and the political aspects of it and the fact that it is still running – somewhere – maybe in a few places, and it’s still pertinent, and that I was a part of that beginning makes me feel worthwhile. The other piece of the puzzle I think has to do with The Normal Heart, which I acted in in 1985 and then directed in Los Angeles and co-directed a stage reading at the Walter Kerr Theatre that I co-directed with George Wolfe on Broadway. The fact that that play came back and caused the stir that it did again was a source of pride.
Having so much history and success in the business of entertainment, who has caught your attention in the theater world today?
New writers that are exciting. Actors like Mark Rylance and Cate Blanchett and you know, all of our great American actors that we have. I’m always interested to see them. I rushed to see Audra McDonald in the musical Shuffle Along. I missed it at the beginning because I was busy but it was thrilling to see it on closing night, just great talent.
Beyond acting, you have a love for photography, publishing books and having your work exhibited in New York City. Having spent so much time here, what have been the most meaningful places and landmarks to photograph in town?
I am one of those people who just has his camera with him and I look and I say, what is that? And that’s what I need to photograph, and that’s really been the basis of all of them. My new book that I’m working on is about the personal and private lives of flowers. So that’s happening at the moment. Last year, I wrote a memoir called “Master of Ceremonies”, surprisingly enough. It’s very candid and people seem to like it and I’m glad I did it.
You have mastered drama, musicals, comedy. With the new Broadway season ramping up, what do you find to be so compelling about theater in 2016 and why should theater-goers come to The Cherry Orchard?
Come to understand human nature and understand history and where we come from. Somehow when you find out where you come from often you have an idea, a notion, about where you’re going. It’s his [Chekhov] last play and considered a masterpiece. And we have creative people having a very different take on it. We’re kind of out on a limb, all of us, and that’s exciting.