Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey
Flatiron Books, 2016; 256 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
With the same razzle-dazzle showmanship that has defined his career for seven decades, the consummate performer Joel Grey imbues his memoir Master of Ceremonies with an exciting narrative chronicling his life on stage and screen. The son of a vaudeville performer, Grey heard the call from the performing arts at an early age, acting in local theatrical productions and performing on the road with his father. As much as Master of Ceremonies is a backstage glimpse into some of his iconic work like Cabaret, Grey most vividly paints his work on the road in the 1940s and 1950s where he acted and danced in nightclubs, met rising stars like Harry Belefonte, and got in trouble with showgirls.
Late in his life, Grey opened up publically about his sexuality and being gay, something he hid from many people close to him, including for years his former wife. Grey knew early on that his sexuality ran against the norm of society. His frankness about how he navigated secret liaisons as a teenager and eventually opened up to his parents after a particularly tense episode with a married couple make some of the book’s most compelling moments, and often the most surprising as when they don’t play out as we’ve come to expect from gay narratives. The passing years and cultural shifts in America have given Grey the opportunity to reflect on his life through a more thoughtful lens because he eventually became who he wanted to be, but took a longer, more scenic route to get there.
Grey spends so much time on his personal life that you can forgive him for passing over much of his career. After his early years and Cabaret, more than 40 years of his professional and personal life are brushed over so quickly that you’ll wish he slowed the pace for a few more stories about a life well lived. What Joel Grey does provide is a breezy backstage narrative that reads as naturally as a conversation that readers will feel like they have the best seat in the house for a one man show.