PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ben Vereen

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ben Vereen
 
Ben Vereen, the man who sang "Magic to Do" as the Leading Player of Bob Fosse and Stephen Schwartz's musical Pippin, has more magic up his sleeve, after all these years.

Ben Vereen
Ben Vereen

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The veteran of Broadway's Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Wicked, Jelly's Last Jam, Grind, Fosse, the revival of I'm Not Rappaport and Pippin, is busy: he's performing his one-man concert at Town Hall in Manhattan on Feb. 18, celebrating the Sh-K-Boom live-recording release of that act, shooting episodes of TV's "How I Met Your Mother" (he's got a recurring role) and developing a new Broadway-aimed musical Be to Be, From Brooklyn to Broadway, about the life and times in which he grew up.

Vereen, who won the Best Actor Tony for Pippin and starred in TV's popular miniseries "Roots," is also hoping for a wider life for Fetch Clay, Make Man, the play about the meeting of boxer Muhammad Ali and entertainer Stepin Fetchit, which he starred in under the direction of Des McAnuff at McCarter Theatre. The actor also remains a spiritual creature, working to make the world better through his public appearances and association with humanitarian organizations. We talked to him by phone from Los Angeles, where he lives.

Your Feb. 18 Town Hall concert, An Evening With Ben Vereen, is a show that you've done around the country. You did it at Hartford Stage last year, right?
Ben Vereen: Yes, I did. We recorded it, so there's a CD release on the 15th. [The CD] is excerpts from the show.

Can you give us a sense of what the evening is like?
BV:: Well, it starts off with something from From Brooklyn to Broadway, which talks a little bit about the show that we're writing — a one-man show for Broadway or a new tour. That show is going to be multimedia, but we'll give you a little excerpt of it. And then we're going to go into a section I call "My Heroes," which is legends, which talks about Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and those people. It'll cover the theatre of [Bob] Fosse and [Jesus Christ Superstar director] Tom O'Horgan, who nobody talks about anymore. You know, Tom O'Horgan had four hit shows on Broadway at the same time!. Unheard of! But nobody talks about him. I have some fabulous musicians [who] will be playing with me… I thought it was a piano-and-voice evening. You've got a band?
BV: Oh, yeah. I have four pieces with me. I have a drummer, Marc Dicciani. I have a bass player named Thomas Kennedy, who's amazing. All my musicians are amazing. I have Nelson Kole playing keyboards, and I have Aaron Vereen, who's playing percussion.

 

Tell me more about the larger show that you would like to do on Broadway.
BV: The working title is called From Brooklyn to Broadway. It'll change over time. It has to get more elements in it, and it's going to be multimedia. It's not so much about me as much as it is about our times that we all grew up in during the '60s and the '70s and the '80s and the '90s. It's about all of that — what was going on in society, which affected my life, and also what was going on in theatre. I'm using my life as the catalyst that takes us on the journey.

It looks at a larger cultural picture, not just personal.
BV: Right, exactly.

Whenever I think about you, I think about you as an actor, but I often use the term "song-and-dance man." Some people find that term disparaging, but Bob Fosse and Sammy Davis, Jr. both embraced it. Is "song-and-dance man" O.K. for you?
BV: "Song-and-dance man" [is] fine. That's how I started out. Those are my foundations. In '92, I had this terrible accident, which really scared me. I was all broken up — I had a broken leg, they'd taken my spleen, I had a tracheotomy — I was in bad shape in '92. And so what you see on stage is truly a neon sign for how we all can have possibilities. I called Chita [Rivera], and I said, "Chita, how am I going to dance again?" She said, "You'll dance, but you'll dance differently, and viva la difference!" And so, I'm moving in that light, and feeling very good about it.

Chita moves brilliantly still, and I know she survived a cab accident….
BV: Exactly right. [She's] a very good friend of mine.

Did you know that you were a survivor before that accident? Does the word "survivor" ring in your imagination?
BV: I believe, yes, we all are. No matter what life may throw at us, we don't make it a career move by sitting there. We get up and we move on. We get up and we stretch up and we show up.

Would you say you're a more spiritual person since '92?
BV: Yes, I am more spiritual since '92. I've always been interested in the divine powers that everyone worships and builds churches and synagogues and mosques to. I've always been interested in what that energy is all about, and finally, I came to a place where I'm asking more of it for my life. It is the energy that is inside all of us. This one fantastic, amazing — there's hardly even words to it, but it exists, so I guess you'd call it spiritual, yes. I am a spiritual seeker. I am looking more to live in that consciousness, because I think that's what's going to save the planet. My want is that we all wake up to it, but each individual has their own journey, as I do mine.

All these people have come to teach us the way. There are certain people who decided to build a clique or a gang around that, but it's all about one thing. It's all about the spirit, the power within. … Call it by different names. My quote is this: "There are many trails to the top of the mountain, but there's only one mountaintop." Get there; just don't hurt anybody on the way. Stop these wars about something divine that is equally given to all of us.

Do you dwell on the randomness of the world? Ever ask yourself who you would be if you had never met Bob Fosse…?
BV: No. I've come to the conclusion that my journey has been my journey, like your journey is your journey. And people come into our lives. You know, Stephen Schwartz [wrote] a wonderful song, and I'm going to do it in the show. It's called "For Good," and one of the lines is — he says, "I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something you must learn, and if we let them, then we help them in return." I believe that all of us have people that come into our lives that teach us certain things, and then we help them by learning it, and then we take the message on to the next one. It's part of the journey of life, you see?

So you don't dwell on the "What ifs?"?
BV: No, no. I did for a long time, and I found out the "What ifs?" [were] what was holding me back from the "What is" and "What can be." You crowd yourself with "What ifs, what ifs, what ifs?," and nothing else can get in there. "What if I did this? What if I did that? What if I did the other?" And all that is dealing with the past. That's luggage from the past, but "What is" is what's happening right now, in the present. And I believe that "in the present" is where Spirit is or God is or Allah is or Buddha is, or the teachings that they came to teach us, and whatever divine divinity, whichever you're calling upon, is in the present moment right now. So we must breathe deep right now and live this moment right now.

Or we won't see tomorrow.
BV: Let tomorrow take care of itself.

Ben Vereen

Let's talk a little about showbiz. Can you reflect on one of my favorite vocalists, Sammy Davis, Jr.?
BV: Yeah, Sammy was my good friend. He saw me in Vegas, and I talk about it in the show — how we met [again] in [the film of] "Sweet Charity" and the journey that we went on together. And I was with him all the way. When he made his transition, I was there and Gregory [Hines] was there. I'm sure Gregory spoke, and then we lost Gregory. Of course, Gregory made his transition. We've lost some great people — not lost them, but had them. We must praise and celebrate the life that they had with us.

Sammy was amazing, and what people don't know about Sammy is that all during the Civil Rights movement, Sammy was very active. Sammy was the one person that kept down the riots in Chicago. People don't know these things. They say, "Oh, Sammy Davis. Song-and-dance man." What's that? Come on! This man did such good in the world. When he made his transition, he left with nothing, because he gave everything away to everybody. He would give you the shirt off his back. I remember working for Sammy one time. I was out of work, and I came to see him shoot a "Mod Squad" episode, and I was standing there in Paramount looking at him, and he saw me in the crowd. He said, "Hey, Ben! What are you doing?" And I, like most actors, [said], "Oh, you know, I got things going…" And he said to me, "You're not working." And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Look, I'm shooting a show in Vegas. Why don't you come out and work?" Now, the producer and the director did not want me on the set. Sammy paid me out of his own pocket. Each week, he paid me out of his own pocket — substantial — and all I had to do was sit around and be on the set. The director didn't want me on the set, so he put me in scenes behind the curtain. Sammy said, "No, bring him out," because that's the type of man he was.

 

Vereen performs Music of Stephen Schwartz at Westport Country Playhouse.
photo by Kathleen O'Rourke

Some people forget, because he's known as such a dancer, that his vocal albums, like "The Wham of Sam," are kind of amazing.
BV: Amazing! Amazing! That's why I do this tribute called Vereen Sings The Music of Sammy Davis, Jr. with symphony orchestra. And what we do is, we took some of his charts, we recreated them, and I do an evening of just his music. It's beautiful, and the charts are just amazing. Wow!

What's coming up for you?
BV: Well, after I finish [the] Town Hall [show], I go back to L.A. to shoot a couple of episodes of "How I Met Your Mother." And I continue doing my lecture series. I'm going up to Edinburgh [Scotland] to do the symphony up there, and I'm still doing concerts and lectures. When I'm not doing that, what I usually do is, I have a center in California, in Los Angeles, called The Angels of Love Spiritual Center for All People. The website is angelsoflovespiritualcenter.com, if [readers] want to look on it. What we do is, we find a need in the community, what they need, and if it's food, we gather food and we give it to the community. If it's clothes, we find a homeless shelter and we give clothes. We're looking to expand and have a place where we can, every Saturday, feed people. Now, I don't believe in just feeding people, because you feed people and they eat for the day, but if you teach them how to fish, then they can go fish for themselves. So we're putting in place a learning center where people will learn how to get a job…and find places to place them also. So we're trying to become a center, to be a lifeline within the community. (Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at kjones@playbill.com. Follow him on twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

Vereen performing "Mr. Cellophane" on "The Muppet Show":

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