Jon Robin Baitz on Joel Grey: A Close-up Magician

Jon Robin Baitz |

Joel Grey is the Oscar, Tony and Golden Globe-winning performer, and a New York City icon who came to prominence as the emcee in “Cabaret” (1966).

On Aug. 1, he sat down in front of a live audience with award-winning writer and producer Jon Robin Baitz for a discussion about life on stage and the exhibit “Joel Grey / A New York Life,” on display at the Museum of the City of New York through Aug. 7.

To introduce the audience to Grey’s work, Baitz wrote this reflection on Grey and New York City.

Joel Grey is at his core, a very close observer. And in New York, there is a great deal to observe. It could drive you mad to always clock everything in this city. Who looks so relentlessly at the endless panoply of Gotham? On the subway — me — I hide in a book, I lose myself in reading, in being transported somewhere else. But Mr. Grey, he is a miniaturist of the first order, alert to every detail of the parade.


Joel Grey and Jon Robin Baitz in conversation at the Museum of the City of New York, Aug. 1. MetroFocus/Bijan Rezvani and Daniel Ross

He lives downtown, near the Hudson, in the far West Village, and one pictures him walking out of his building on a cold day, a flash of color at the ankles and around the neck, seeing, noticing, looking. He stops. Here is a manhole cover, with its patina of rust, the pentimento of old messages on older walls; there, is a plastered sign, torn and long since expired, but somehow integral to the disjointed quilt that is the lingua franca of an old and very frantic city. Joel stops again. Joel takes a picture, using perhaps his phone. In his late seventies now, he has accepted the ubiquity of the digital age — and turned it to his advantage wielding his camera/phone, which he seems to have turned into an instrument as sophisticated as a Hasselblad, and as expressive as an oboe.

There is a kind of New Yorker who could not live comfortable anywhere else. This applies to Mr. Grey without any doubt.

At dusk, he catches colored light bulbs hanging on a string, the odd swirling detritus on the street, and he stops and clicks. He finds quietude and grace in the close-up of a bit of skater graffiti, the pinkish plaster under the surface of the wall revealed in cracks and chips, explaining the underlying impermanence of our markings and glyphs. He wanders out to a pier — perhaps at Christopher Street — and sees two shirtless boys, exquisitely skinny, pale, barely adults yet, arms casually wrapped around each other’s back — linked — yes, two living boys captured from behind in a moment of silly summer bliss, but also, a wonderment. Click. You wonder how this image plays into his current production of Larry Kramer’s masterpiece “The Normal Heart,” which tells of how the old world powers-that-be ignored the signs at the beginning of the AIDS years, which led to the deaths of so many thousands of young boys like the ones he has just captured from behind.

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Images from Joel Grey / A New York Life, an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York through August 7.

The life he lives is steeped in art both high and low, which means that he is a perfect son of New York, because only in New York do high and low live together so comfortably. All is noise in this city. If it’s silence and placidity you want, move to the Delaware Water Gap. There is a kind of New Yorker who could not live comfortable anywhere else. This applies to Mr. Grey without any doubt. He is the child of a comedian, a trickster, a performer; the great entertainer Micky Katz, who turned his Jewishness into a magically successful vaudeville-cum-Borscht Belt shtick, and in so doing, found mainstream success. Joel grew up around The Act, and went into the family business early. In some respects, the family business — putting on a show — is all about magic, sleight of hand, and timing: When to move, when to deliver the button to a joke, when to show your hand, and when to hold back. In other words — to present to the world — is to edit. As an actor, and as a photographer, he meticulously arranges that which is being presented. When do you take the shot? When it’s right. How do you know when it’s right? You know when you know. How do you know when to wait for the laugh? You know when you know. That’s what it is to be an artist.

In studying the timeline for this exhibition, what I am struck by is the access he has had. A random glance includes working with Fosse, Eddie Cantor, Lars von Trier, stints at The El Rancho in Vegas, at Ciro’s in L.A. when L.A. was still L.A. Directed by Bob Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Hal Prince. So much work, so many years on the boards, on sets, so much time gone by. And rather than photograph the people, Joel seems most comfortable photographing the abstract, the inchoate, the mood of a place. I think that photography has become more important for Joel as he approaches his eighth decade because photography can be a way of controlling that which is seen, controlling the amount and flow of truth and beauty that you render, whereas acting, as one ages, becomes harder — if you’re a dancer, it’s harder, if you sing, it’s harder, but when you take a picture, you are in complete control, and you are still performing in a sense.

New York is a city of signs and wonders on a giant scale. But Mr. Grey is a kind of close-up magician, both as performer and photographer. Close-up magic is performed on a small scale, intimately. In French it is called leger de main, which translates as “lightness of hand,” which describes Joel perfectly.

Jon Robin Baitz is a writer whose many stage and screen productions include “Other Desert Cities” and the ABC series “Brothers and Sisters,” which he created He is a Guggenheim, NEA, Humanitas prize-winner, and American Academy of Arts & Letters fellow, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “A Fair Country”.


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