When asked to do a retrospective look at his career, theatrical icon Ben Vereen laughs: “How many weeks you got?”
The man who made his Broadway debut in the original production of Hair—only after appearing in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity film with Shirley MacLaine and Sammy Davis, Jr. and going to London with Davis, Jr.’s Golden Boy—also created the landmark roles of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and Leading Player in Pippin. He originated roles in Grind and I’m Not Rappaport and brought his own flavor to pivotal turns in Jelly’s Last Jam and Wicked. Vereen is a decorated member of the old guard.
The master got his start in junior high as part of an all African-American production of The King & I. And though immediately enamored with the theatre, the young talent didn’t think of pursuing the art as a career. Fortunately for audiences, his teachers urged him to attend the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City. A street dancer, Vereen entered through the dance department. “David Wood would give us classes in the dance department and he said, ‘In order to do a dance, you must be able to express yourself in what story you are telling the audience,’” Vereen recalls. “I think that was the key that unlocked the door to acting for me.
“I wanted to work. I wanted to do what I loved doing for the people. I was about the growth—and I’m still about the growth and what I can learn.”
Steppin' Out, his cabaret show playing November 21–25 at Feinstein’s/54 Below, explores that personal journey and his remarkable career in an ode to the art form. “We must draw the line and hold the line for the arts, ’cause the arts are in trouble right now,” he says. “There’s not time for hoping. It’s claiming time.”
Prodigal Son, performer
Directed by Vinnette Carroll, this Off-Broadway production marked Vereen’s first professional job post-high school. “That’s when I met Langston Hughes for the first time,” he remembers. Exposed to a world of provocative thought, Vereen took with him the lessons of “professionalism and the dedication.”
Sweet Charity (film), dancer
The movie marked Vereen’s introduction to Bob Fosse; he would never be the same. “Watching this man walk down the aisle of the Palace Theatre was…charismatic. He was simply dressed in this khaki jacket and this shirt and these pants and some Hush Puppy shoes, smoking a cigarette, hanging out the side of his mouth,” Vereen describes. “We were packed trying out for this show called Sweet Charity. I got through the dance audition, which amazed me, and then I got to do this singing audition. I had never sang on a Broadway stage and there I was, singing, on the Palace Theatre stage and I got the show.”
Golden Boy, understudy
Vereen caught the eye of Sammy Davis, Jr. while working on Sweet Charity and Davis wanted Vereen to be his understudy in the London production of the musical adaptation of Golden Boy. The producers had already hired someone, but Davis insisted—so Vereen understudied Billy Daniels as Eddie Satin and Davis. “I was in the wings every night watching this man, and then one night I had to go on for the Billy Daniels role,” says Vereen. “I’ll never forget Sammy sitting in the wings, watching my performance. After it was over, he looked at me and said, ‘I knew it,’ and he walked away.”
Hair, replacement Hud/replacement Claude
Aside from marking his Broadway debut, Hair also marked the start of Vereen’s relationship with director Tom O’Horgan. “You gotta understand something about Tom O’Horgan,” says Vereen. “He was really the renaissance for theatre, in my opinion. He broke the fourth wall. He did things that were unconventional—as theatre allows us to do because theatre is an open platform for expression of the arts.”
Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas
After Hair on Broadway, Vereen took the ’60s anti-war musical to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre and then did a play called No Place to be Somebody by Charles Gordone, when he got a call from O’Horgan. His director told him to get out to New York to audition for Jesus Christ Superstar. Though Vereen earned his first Tony nomination with the show, he struggled personally to find his way in to Judas. “I was raised Christian,” he explains. “I had to come up with a story of why this man who loved Jesus would betray him for gold. [I was] trying to justify my understanding of someone whom I had grown up believing had betrayed the savior of the planet.”
Pippin, Leading Player
When Vereen auditioned for Pippin, he wasn’t looking to book the show. “I didn’t go to the audition to get Pippin; I went to the audition to show Fosse what I had learned [since Charity],” he says. But book it he did, and the role built by him and Fosse (one that was not at all robust at the first table read) won Vereen his Tony Award.
The original musical marked Vereen’s first collaboration with director Hal Prince. But the most special moment in this production for the actor? “Fosse came in and did a number on me for that show and that was special.”
Jelly’s Last Jam, replacement Chimney Man
“Jelly’s Last Jam was my comeback show,” says Vereen. Having injured himself, doctors thought the dancer would never walk again. “That’s my comeback show thanks to Gregory Hines, ’cause he said ‘Come this way. Don’t you lay down, don’t you give up.’ It was magical.”
Vereen reveres Fosse, so to pay homage to his stamp on theatre sticks as a high point in his career. “His dedication and his persistence to perfection” set Fosse apart, according to Vereen. “He was one who would not let you sit back on your laurels and phone in your performance. We would practice one step all morning until it was perfect, and this went on for days. His dedication and personal contact with his dancers, that’s what radiated. There’ll never be another.”
I’m Not Rappaport, Midge
Nearly 40 years into his career, Vereen bowed in his first Broadway play. “It was just taking the music way and using the words, [but] see everything’s musical,” he says. “It’s called rhythm.”
Wicked, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Following in the footsteps of Joel Grey, Vereen put his take on Stephen Schwartz’s fantastical inventor. “My good buddy [Stephen] called me and said, ‘I want you to do this for me,’” says Vereen. “That show has a life of its own.” More than a favor to the Tony-winning composer, Vereen relished inhabiting the “magic of the man.”
For tickets and information about Steppin’ Out With Ben Vereen at Feinstein’s/54 Below, click here.