Ben Vereen began letting the sun shine in the minute he hit Broadway (actually a tad before that, having started his Hud role in L.A.'s Hair before coming east to replace Lamont Washington, who died at 24 in a fire four months into the Main Stem run), so he contends that his newest Hair debut — that of regional theatre director — completes a circle of sorts. Freshly turned 69, he still has wattage to spare, and who better to show how to spread it around than one who has been doing it for 50 years?
Currently, he's conducting a rise-and-shine course in reviving Hair for the Venice Theatre in Venice, FL, handiwork that runs through Dec. 13. Call it a case of Ben Hair — Done That, if you must, but Vereen has a special perspective on the show.
"It's a different approach to Hair," promised the man who has seen (and played) a fair share of Hairs. "I had to ask myself two things: 'What did we do?' and 'What can we do?' I want both tenses in this version, so I'll use videos that show what it was like then and what it is like now. I'm making it more present by holding onto the past."
The American Tribal Love Rock Musical, as Hair was subtitled, has for him a tragically timeless quality like no other show. It was written in response to a nationwide, in-your-face broadside at U.S. complacency and militarism, launched in the late '60s by the under-30 set, a hippie counterculture knee-deep into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
"It was my generation who promised this generation that we would make it a better world, a brighter world," Vereen recalled. "There'd be equal rights for everybody, there'd be no prejudice, there'd be peace, all that — and, of course, look where we are today. Somewhere, we dropped the ball. Nothing has changed really, except some names. Instead of protesting the Vietnam War, we're now protesting the Iraq War."
As landmark musicals go, Hair was the Hamilton of its day — especially, he said, "in the context of moving the younger minds into that place that affects change. I love Hamilton. I think every student should see it. What Lin-Manuel Miranda did was take rap and pack it into a period-piece where you'd say, 'Yeah, they would rap.'"
Hair, much like Hamilton, also revolutionized the sound of the Broadway musical and sent stars flying in all directions. James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who wrote the book and lyrics to Galt MacDermot's music, didn't stop at mere wordsmithing. They shrewdly saved back the best lead parts — Claude and Berger — for themselves.
That still left enough material for the rest to mine and make their mark. The original cast included two Oscar-winning songwriters (Keith Carradine, who wrote "I'm Easy" for "Nashville," and Paul Jabara, who wrote "Last Dance" for "Thank God It's Friday"), three Rockabye Hamlet alums (Larry Marshall, Meat Loaf and Kim Milford), two Tony-winning actresses (Delores Hall for Your Arms Too Short to Box With God and Melba Moore for Purlie) and the Oscar-winning "Annie Hall" (Diane Keaton).
Then, there were various other Hair graduates who went on to Robert Altman's "Nashville" (Allan Nicholls), the Tony-winning Sticks and Bones (Cliff De Young), Shows for Days and Hands on a Hardbody (Dale Soules), stealing Kristofferson from Streisand — fleetingly — in "A Star Is Born" (Marta Heflin), Bobby the Middle-Aged Celebrity (Robert I. Rubinsky), directing Bobby the Middle-Aged Celebrity (Natalie Mosco), The Tap Dance Kid and The Me Nobody Knows (Hattie Winston), a cinematic Adam and Eve named "Glen and Randa" (Steve Curry and Shelley Plimpton), prize-winning television casting (Eugene Blythe), Falsettos and A Catered Affair (Heather MacRae) and the forgotten Fluffer Hirsch, who was named after a pussycat.
No pressure, but Vereen gingerly picked his players to follow those acts, assisted by Gina Harding, who appeared with him in that first Hair in L.A. a half-century ago. There was something about Aaron Vereen that suggested Hud to them, so the son also rises. Others cast: Patrick Mounce as Claude, Charlie Logan as Berger, Joseph Visaggi as Woof, Nancy Pasternack as Margaret Mead and Vera Samuels as Sheila.
"Gina's my spiritual sister, and she's down here to help me with the casting," he explained. He himself conducted the auditions wearing a baseball cap that said Spiritual Enforcer. "Spiritual enforcers reinforce love through the arts.
"It's part of an initiative that I've started for kids in inner-city schools called Wellness Through the Arts [WTA]," Vereen continued. "It uses the performing arts as a foundation for a healthier lifestyle. Students are asked to write a two-page essay that focuses on one of four key topics — diabetes, obesity, bullying and self-esteem — and submit it. The five winners are then put with a composer and a dramaturge, and they all come up with a five-to-ten-minute show. They get $500 apiece, and their schools get $1,000. Right now, we have this program going in San Diego, Sacramento and Tucson."
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Vereen's name in tandem with Hair has set a 66-year sales record for the Venice Theatre, according to its artistic director, Murray Chase. This isn't Vereen's first time on the other side of the audition table as a director — his white-gloved "jazz hands" put Pippin on the road — but, having seen it from both sides, he has empathy for the applicants. "You feel for the actor. It's always hard because there's so much talent out there. Sometimes, the talent is obvious. Other times, you see someone with a potential that can be shaped into what you need."
One interesting sign-of-the-times about Hair is that the full-frontal nudity that gave the show such a big box-office shove in the '60s barely produces a shrug these days.
"When I asked the cast if anybody had a problem with the nude scene that ended the first act, not one of them batted an eye," Vereen admitted with a laugh. "Isn't that wild? As a matter of fact, I had so many people wanting to do the nude scene I had to keep it way down. 'No, no, you can't do the nude scene. I have too many already.'"
Of course, he added, "nudity was never the issue. It was about the beauty of the human body. It was about, 'How can you continue to do these horrific things to something God has created? How can you do that to one another?' What ISIS is doing right now, for example — or that man who went into a church and shot up a bunch of black people — or the one who walked up to an officer pumping gas and shot him in the head. Baltimore, Ferguson — these are things that Hair is trying to address."
In the four roles Vereen has originated on Broadway, he had ace directors helping him: Tom O'Horgan, who had hired him for Hair, tapped him to be Jesus Christ Superstar's Tony-nominated Judas Iscariot; Bob Fosse helped him (and himself) to Tonys for Pippin; Harold Prince got nominated for directing him in Grind; and I'm Not Rappaport returned him to Daniel Sullivan, his assistant director on Hair.
Hair's "herr direktor" is fond of calling his new Hair do a "re-imagining." (His billing reads: "Re-imagined and Directed by Ben Vereen.") It's a word generally applied to director Diane Paulus for radically revising and, indeed, rewriting Vereen's two biggest hits — winning a Tony nomination for Hair and the Tony itself for Pippin.
"All praises to Diane Paulus for giving all those actors work and bringing Hair and Pippin to the forefront of our consciousness again," he trilled. "Her Hair inspired my production. It prompted me to say, 'I've got to redo Hair. I have more to say with it.'" And, with luck, this message might go well beyond Venice. "I call this production my laboratory. My hope is to put it on tour and call it 'From Venice, With Love.' We're talking about putting it in colleges or reimagining it under a big-top tent."
Also in development: the story of his life. A work-in-progress, he's re-jiggering the results so far into a one-man Broadway show covering (and called) From Brooklyn to Broadway. Joe Calarco is doing the book, and Pippin composer Stephen Schwartz is one of several who is contributing songs. "It talks about my career, but, more than that, it's about the times. The idea is not to talk about me but what I lived."
More immediate and less epic is his cabaret act, Steppin' Out With Ben Vereen. It'll be back Jan. 25, 2016, for a third round at Feinstein's/54 Below. While here, he said, he might stick around to play Ben Franklin. Encores! is planning a spring run of 1776 — which won that 1969 Tony over Hair — and they'll be casting it multi-racial a la Hamilton.