Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen, Joel Grey is back again in his best-known role - master of ceremonies - and he thinks he is probably happy about it.
He will be doing his announcements and interviews (in only one language) not from the Kit Kat Klub, the decadent Berlin bistro at the dawn of the Hitler era that he inhabited in "Cabaret," but from the healthy, outdoorsy atmosphere of Wolf Trap Farm Park, where he will emcee five "Live From Wolf Trap" programs on public television during the next week.
Ordinarily, he doesn't like television or being a master of ceremonies, but this series promises to be different.
Over lunch at the Watergate (shrimp salad, no liquor - "I eat health food but I'm not a fanatic; I try to be careful about not eating things that are bad for me, but I won't limit my diet to things that are good for me"), Grey muses about how to approach the role of television master of ceremonies without singing and dancing.
"I listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts whenever I can, and Milton Cross used to make me smile a lot," he says. The mobile features stiffen for a moment, the voice becomes low and ponderous in a Milton Cross imitation: "Jose is enchanted by Carmen's seguidilla . . . "
"I think I'll be a combination of Milton Cross and Dick Cavett . . . Milton Cavett."
Grey will not appear on stage during the five performances, but will do intermission interviews and talk to the television audience from offstage. The live audiences at Wolf Trap will have to be satisfied with the featured performers, who are a variously impressive lineup: Sarah Vaughan and the National Symphony tonight; Tex Beneke with Helen O'Connell and Bob Eberly, Aug. 21; Pete Seger and Arlo Guthrie, Aug 22; Chuck Mangione, Aug. 24; Rostropovich and the NSO in a birthday tribute to Leonard Benstein, Aug. 25.
"A woman recognized me on the plane coming down," Grey recalls, "and she said 'I'll be seeing you tomorrow night,' and I didn't have the heart to tell her she wouldn't." Someone suggests that she should be brought onstage during the shows and he shakes his head: "I think I like being behind the scenes."
Grey is physically a small man, lithe and quick in his movements, bothered somewhat because "they don't make men's clothes in my size and going to the boys' department is just too embarrassing."
He also finds it embarrassing that people automatically think of him when they want a master of ceremonies - the five-show stint at Wolf Trap, which will be telecast locally on WETA-TV, Channel 26, is one of many he has been offered and few he has accepted.
"One-liners and ad-libs are not my style," he says. "I turn down most invitations to be a master of ceremonies."
He also hates being type-cast - as emcee, as song-and-dance man (although he does it superbly), or as the decadent embodiment of flippant evil that he was in "Cabaret."
In his perosnal life, he says, he insists on moderation. But he is enthusiastic about music of all kinds - particularly theatrical and classical music - and his eyes brighten when he talks about hearing pianist Alicia de Larrocha at a "Mostly Mozart" concert or about a recent concert conducted by Sarah Caldwell in Central Park:
"There were 150,000 New Yorkers on the grass there, all being quiet and polite to one one another, having candlelight picnics and being specially careful not to jostle one another or step on other people's blankets. The music was great - music is such a peaceful and unifying experience - but it was the total scene that I will remember."
He says he is fanatic about only two things - principles and children. His own, a girl 18 and a boy 14, are beginning to spend more time away from home, and he is feeling the double-edged middle-age pangs of the emptying nest.
"They have been both away this summer," he said, "and a few weeks ago my wife noticed something. 'You know what we're doing? We're beginning to treat our pets three cats and a dog - like babies,' she told me.
Grey had been in show business for 24 years before "Cabaret." He is the eldest son of Mickey Katz, a musician and Yiddish comedian who organized a group called "Mickey Katz and His Kittens," which has been described as a "Yiddish-style Spike Jones ensemble." In his native Cleveland, Grey was a member of The Curtain Pullers, a youth group associated with the local playhouse, and he appeared in an adult drama when he was only 10.
In 1951, when he was 19, he was discovered by Eddie Cantor and began appearing on television. That led to a nightclub career which made it hard to get people to take seriously his claim that he was really an actor.
It has been 12 years since his appearance in "Cabaret" won him a Tony for the Broadway production and an Oscar for the film. In 1966, before "Cabaret" was first produced and Grey demonstrated that the supporting role of master of ceremonies could be escalated into the atmospheric key to the show, Grey was a struggling actor, good at song-and-dance routines, still looking for the role that would get him out in front of the scenes.
"The first time I read the script of 'Cabaret,' I got very depressed," he recalls. "It didn't have a scene for me, no dialogue, just five songs. I thought: This is the first role I will create on Broadway, and if I just sing and dance I will never again be able to do anything else.
"So I began to work hard on developing a real character out of the material available - it was good material, and I respected it. When the reviews began to come in, hardly anyone mentioned that I sang and danced, and I knew it was going to be all right."
His worries began all over again with the film version of "Cabaret," first because (strange as it seems in retrospect) nobody was sure for a long time that there would be a film version - then because he was not sure he would be in it.
"Musical films had not been doing very well at the box office in the late '60s and early '70s, and we didn't know this one would be a winner," he recalls. "We had a lot of trouble getting it made - big budget problems. Gwen Verdon would go out and get costumes for less money.We'd work on one another's makeup. It was a little bit like doing summer stock in a barn.
"When we did get an agreement to make it a film, there was a general intention to make the film brand new. I like that idea in a lot of ways - it had many good aspects - but for a long time it looked like my part would be eliminated entirely or cut down to a few snippets. I was the only vestige from the Broadway show in the film, and I'm glad I didn't get thrown out."
He has two more films "in a holding pattern" while he tends to more immediate concerns. One of these is a touring one-man show (chiefly songs, ranging from Cohan to Charles Ives) which he has done in various cities, including a memorable appearance with the Dallas Symphony ("It was great with a symphony orchestra - you get the music played just right.")
That show has been delayed temporarily for another project: "The Grand Tour," a musical version of "Jacobowsky and the Colonel," a play about a Jewish refugee and an anti-Semitic Prussian military officer, which will open on Broadway in the fall.
IN his spare time, he and his wife are busy reading books which possibly can be made into future movies.
"I'm lucky," he muses. "In the past few years, I haven't had to do anything that I didn't like, that I didn't feel good about - no bad television, no movies that are exploitative."
Not bad for a man who got where he is by appearing attractively, evil.