The Flower Whisperer is Grey's fifth photo book

By Liz McNeil
July 09, 2019 03:17 PM
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Ask Joel Grey what makes flowers so sexy and the Broadway legend raves: “They are voluptuous, juicy — and hot.”

His sensual vision of flowers has resulted in a beautiful new photo book, The Flower Whisperer, with a forward written by his daughter actress Jennifer Grey.

“I went through three renditions until I found out what I wanted to say which had to do with color and sex,” says Grey who took all the photos with his iPhone. (It’s Grey’s fifth photo book.)

“I always knew it was about sexy flowers but I didn’t know how to get here. It was Georgia O’Keefe, who really wrote the book about that, and then Robert Mapplethorpe took it another step further. Whenever I bring home flowers, I’m obsessed and I can’t wait to get my camera on their face. My daughter said I’m the flower whisperer so that’s how the book got its name.”

RELATED: Broadway Legend Joel Grey Opens Up About His Sexuality

Grey, who came out publicly as a gay man in a 2015 PEOPLE interview, says life at 87 is full of delightful surprises, notably his acclaimed production of Fiddler on the Roof, now playing at Stage 42 Theater. “It’s nothing I ever expected,” he says of life in his ninth decade. “Nobody ever expected Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, let alone me directing it.”

When Grey was first asked to direct Fiddler on the Roof, he thought it would be a three month run. But over a year later, the play, which has English subtitles, is still getting rave reviews, having just won the 2019 Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical Revival. As well as such fans as Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Jake Gyllenehaal. (“His mother is Jewish and insisted that he go,” says Grey of the young actor. “I love him so much, he’s a wonderful man.”)

From The Flower Whisperer by Joel Grey, published by powerHouse Books

Grey found new meaning in the beloved 1964 musical. “I went back to the original stories of why they were written,” he says. “About the milkman Teyve with five daughters who had a hard life, who had a sense of humor and a sense of God. And I thought about what’s going on in the word, with anti-Semitism and how it’s blossomed. It’s so scary everywhere just as it was in Anatevka [the fictional Russian village where the story takes place.] And I’ve found that people of all religions and backgrounds are connecting with it.”

“It’s the notion of refugees and our ancestors — being criticized for who you are,” he says. “Scapegoated. Refugees in Mexico, immigrants. The Trump focus on putting people in cages. It’s unbelievable.”

Grey stripped the play down to its essence, emphasizing the human story of a man who loves his family and his home and is chased out of his Russian village for being who he is, a Jew.

“We’re telling a story and it’s personal,” he says. “It’s about people, family, life.”

Over fives decades since he created a sensation in the musical Cabaret (for which he won a Tony and an Oscar) Grey finds hope in his art. “It’s about the work you do to make things better and to believe it can get better.”

RELATED: Joel Grey Talks About Career and Reflects on Coming Out as Gay in New Memoir Master of Ceremonies

And he’s also impressed by Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg whom he recently met at a New York City fundraiser. “He’s excellent,” says Grey. “The fact he’s open about who he is and is married and has come this far is unusual and outstanding.”

As for what’s ahead, Grey, who just received the first Joel Grey Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, says, “Eighty seven doesn’t mean anything to me. My mom was 93, out there strutting her stuff. My father (musician Mickey Katz) died in his seventies. This play is for my father. He was proud of his heritage.  He went to the orthodox synagogue by himself on Saturday mornings. This is one way I got to thank him and memorialize him. This is for my dad.”

(Grey’s photos can also be seen in a new companion exhibit at the Staley Wise Gallery in Manhattan.