BWW Interview: Tony-winning Legend Ben Vereen Joins OC's MenAlive for ACADEMY AFFAIR
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by Michael L. Quintos
MenAlive - The Orange County Gay Men's Chorus will once again be presenting its Annual Benefit and Community Awards Gala called ACADEMY AFFAIR on Saturday February 23 at the posh Center Club, located at the Garden Level of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. At this year's elegant, black-tie optional event , the chorus will be joined by Special Guest Star Tony Award-winner Ben Vereen.
A legend of stage and screen worldwide for over 40 years (and counting), Mr. Vereen is well-known not only for his iconic role as Chicken George in the groundbreaking television mini-series Roots, but also for his outstanding body of work on the Broadway stage, where he has collaborated with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwartz, and, of course, the inimitable Bob Fosse.
He earned his first Tony nomination playing Judas Iscariot in the original company of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR in 1972, then a year later won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical as the Leading Player in PIPPIN. His other notable stage roles include parts in SWEET CHARITY, HAIR, JELLY'S LAST JAM, GRIND, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, CHICAGO and FOSSE. Most recently, Mr. Vereen donned his emerald best playing the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the hit musical WICKED.
Aside from his work in movies, television, and on the stage---which include musicals, plays, and well-received cabaret concerts---Mr. Vereen has also contributed his time and energy in several humanitarian and advocacy causes, as well as the lecture circuit. His topics range from overcoming adversity, arts in education, Black history, motivational topics, recovery through physical and occupational therapy and the importance of continuing education---just to name a few.
Last year, this timeless, versatile entertainer---who, by the way, is godfather to R&B star Usher---was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Later, he brought his one-man show Steppin' Out with Ben Vereen to 54 Below, and earned heaps of expected praises.
Hello, Mr. Vereen! This coming Saturday, February 23, you'll be performing here in Orange County, for the ACADEMY AFFAIR Gala Benefit for MenAlive...
Yes! I'm glad they're called MenAlive! It sounds better than Men-Dead! [Laughs] And, yes, I'm excited about it! My good friend Liza Minnelli just did a show with them [this past December], and raved about performing with them! So I'm looking forward to working with them myself.
Great! Can you tell our readers a little bit about what your set is going to be like?
It's going to be wonderful! I'll be singing some songs from Broadway and reminisce about the biz which I look forward to combining.
Wonderful! Now, over the years, you've worked with some of the world's best writers, composers, and choreographers on the stage. What is it about musical theater that keeps you coming back to it?
Oh, it's the art of it! I believe that life itself is an art form, and as I've been part of the performing arts, I have had the opportunity to reflect back to society the things that make them feel good and give them information. Why do I love musical theater and why do I keep coming back to it? Well, because it's me! It's like... why do you write?
Well, for me, it's because writing my thoughts down is enjoyable and...
Well, it's more than enjoyable! See, what you're doing... you're writing down your art in the form of words. You're able to give your thoughts and emotions to people that they can hold onto for the rest of their lives. You're important! You're an art form just by expressing yourself through the arts! That's what I do and that's what everybody on this planet does... mine just happens to be in the performing arts. As it says in the Bible, "In the beginning, God created..." It did not say, "In the beginning, God manufactured..." So, therefore, we are all created as expressions of a divine Creator! And what I do, is to express it through the arts---the performing arts. That's why I love it... I love it, man! [Laughs]
Great! Now, growing up as a young boy, did you already know that you wanted to become a performer?
Well... here's how it happened. Somewhere, I think, deep inside all of us, there is a...[Pauses] call it destiny, call it fate... For me, there was something that connected deep inside of me when I was a kid. And I didn't know what it was, I just knew that I liked showing off, man! [Laughs] I used to open the refrigerator door and the light would come on... and I'd give you [a show for] fifteen minutes! And then they'd say, "close the refrigerator door! He's gonna do it again!" [Laughs] But, yeah, there was just something about performing and the arts that took a hold of me, but I didn't know then where it would take me. And, fortunately, it's taking me right there to perform with the MenAlive Chorus! The journey has been wonderful, and that's what part of my set is about... a "thank you" for this wonderful journey.
Cool, I can't wait to see the show! So, somewhere along this journey, was there a point when some kind of trigger or ignition switched on that finally told you, "yeah, okay, this is for me!" Perhaps it came on while you were a student at the High School of Performing Arts?
[Laughs] No! [Laughs] But I watched other kids who came with that. You gotta understand my background: I'm from the streets of Brooklyn. I was from what society called in those days "the Ghetto." Actually, I think they still do call it that. Brooklyn was my world... Brooklyn Dodgers! Coney Island! And then, all of a sudden, I was transported into another country called "Manhattan." It was where Theater was. It was a whole new world for me. So when all of this was happening, I was too much in the midst of being in awe of it all, that it didn't ignite for me in high school. It didn't really ignite until... well, as a matter of fact, [not until] when I got my first nomination for a Tony! I had no idea who "Tony" even was! I mean, I wasn't working for a Tony, I was working for work! [Laughs] It felt similar to when I walked out to a standing ovation after doing Roots... But to really answer your question, I have just been in awe of the wonder of all my life. So when did it happen? I can't tell you exactly when, but I'm thankful that it did.
And, may I say, so are we! Speaking of your first Tony nomination... can you elaborate a bit more on how it felt when you found out?
Wow, that letter. That first nomination was for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, directed by Tom O'Horgan. Like I said, before that I didn't even know who "Tony" was. [At that point] I was just doing show after show going, "wow, this is all great," you know? So, anyway, there was this doorman---back when there used to be doormen---outside the theater... he walks up to my dressing room and hands me an envelope.
He says, [speaking in a quiet, formal voice] "Mr. Vereen, you have an envelope." And I just looked at him and was, like... okay, give me the damn envelope, man! [Laughs] But again he says "No, you have an... envelope." So eventually I opened it up and read this letter from the committee for the Tonys that said I had been nominated for this prestigious award. I mean, I did not expect it. And as I'm reading this thing, a tear comes to my eye. [Pauses] I still have that letter---and there are teardrops on that letter. All of a sudden I was, like... "I got it!" And it's from my peers whom I work with who are saying, "you got something, kid, stick with it." [Sniffles]
Wow, that sounds amazing! And then, a year later, to step up on stage when you actually won the Tony for PIPPIN... I mean, that must have been... surreal!
Oh... oh... oh... it was surreal. And I'm writing about it now in my book. Since I was nominated but lost to Larry Blyden [from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum] the year before, and then [here] I won for PIPPIN, that moment... when they announced me winning, I ran down the aisle and kissed---well, smooched---Stuart Ostrow, the producer of PIPPIN, right on his bald head! [Laughs] A friend of mine showed me a clip of that. I ran to the stage and I'm jumping up and down, jumping up and down! Yeah, it was surreal. It was like I was transported to another place. I remember later standing in the middle of Central Park that June and was just looking out to space... just so thankful. So thankful. [Voice Breaks]
Awww. That is so great. What an incredible, touching memory! PIPPIN, of course, was one of several shows that you have worked on alongside the legendary Bob Fosse. Can you describe a little bit why you think your creative partnership worked so well in producing such magnificent shows?
Well, Bob Fosse---and Tom O'Horgan, and all the directors I've worked with---are a part of my journey and a part of that ilk. Bob Fosse, you understand, was cursed... but was one of the great directors I've worked with, starting with SWEET CHARITY. And then I came back and did FOSSE with him. You know, Fosse was a perfectionist. Have you seen the movie All That Jazz?
Yes, I have! Love that movie!
There's one line in that movie where he---well, Roy Scheider---says, "I look at a rose..." he tells Jessica Lange, "and I say to God 'I know you can do this, why can't I'?" I am paraphrasing, of course. But that was Fosse. Why did he work that way? He didn't just see the dancer, he stepped inside the person and looked for what that person could bring... the greatness within us and really worked to get that out of you. He was a perfectionist. People are saying "oh, he was a task master..." No. He was a sculptor. Like Tom O'Horgan---they create sculptures.
It reminds me of this story I tell of Michelangelo. When the Pope comes over to three sculptors with a block of marble, and asked each of them, "what do you see?" The first one says, "oh I see a nice piece of marble there, I can do some good work on that!" The second one says "oh, I can carve up something pretty." And the third one, Michelangelo, is also asked, "what do you see?" He says, "I see David." So that's how people like Fosse and O'Horgan work. When we first did a reading of PIPPIN, I remember sitting there at the table in a panic. The role was nothing. And Bob looked at me and smiled and said, "Don't worry about it." And he shaped The Leading Player. Just like a stone of marble.
So did he keep chipping away at it? Were there a lot of ongoing changes?
Yeah! What happens is, for these visual artists---these directors---they take a block and have a vision. And then they give it to us, The Players. Then we, The Players, go through our imagination and figure out what we can do with this choreography, etc., and then we give it back to them. And then they see it and go, "oh, well, that's nice. Now, let's do it like this..." That's how they shape shows into what we see today.
Is there anything in current musical theater that's happening right now that you find exciting?
Well, I see employment as exciting. Employment is exciting these days. And speaking for all my singers, dancers, directors, and actors... please, keep us employed! Because that way, we can give you what is sent to us through you. You get it? That's why we have to keep supporting the Arts. Just like [seeing] the MenAlive choir--- that is supporting the Arts. They come together each year and give you art ...with tones that are from the heavens! Every cell and tissue inside your body is being embraced by the tones they bring forth in every song.
Wow, quite a vivid endorsement! Now, you very recently took on a role in another, very different Stephen Schwartz musical: you played the Wizard of Oz in WICKED!
[Laughs] Yes! I'd like to say that I was [the only cast member from PIPPIN] that played the Wizard, too, but no, that's not true. My friend John Rubinstein did it, too! [Laughs]. That was wonderful. You know why I like that show? It's a story we all know. But what Stephen did and what the writers [Winnie Holzman and novelist Gregory Maguire] did was delve inside the minds of these two entities and told you the other story. That's why everybody's running towards it today. The song "Defying Gravity" talks about overcoming obstacles in our lives. Stephen Schwartz is such a profound expressionist! And he's American! Uh oh! [Laughs] He's a home-grown boy! Not that I'm knocking writers abroad, now, because they do wonderful work as well. But our home-grown crop... we gotta praise them and hold up our proud banner! Now more than ever. I told him once that "I wish I could be a fly on the wall when the spirit comes through you when you start writing!" His words are just so profound and deep.
I recently caught the episode of The View celebrating the 36th Anniversary of the groundbreaking mini-series Roots featuring you and several of your co-stars. Looking back now 36 years later, how do you sum up that experience?
36! Isn't that amazing? Why it was profound was because of the time it was done in. America at the time was still questioning... who are these people? So what Alex Haley did---with the encouragement of David Wolper and Stan Margulies, and then convincing ABC to do it at the time which was amazing---was talk about the African-American holocaust. Everybody was curious about what happened. You gotta understand something. Do you know why America is called "the melting pot?" Because we all as a people have gone through some sort of holocaust to make the red, white and blue what it is. And what's sad is that slavery is not over. Sadly, It's not over.
That's why I think it clicked at the time, and still does... I just did a [documentary] film called Kunta Kinteh Island. They renamed this place Kunta Kinteh Island because it was the last place where the Africans will see their homelands [before they're forced off into slave ships]... they called it "the door to no return." That's coming out soon. What I'd like to see is more of that type of thought-provoking, soul-igniting stories being told.
Roots must continue to stand as an example. And like the saying goes of my Jewish brothers about their holocaust, we say about our holocaust: "This will never happen to a people again!"
Totally agree! It's such a stirring, shocking piece of history. Alright, unfortunately, I have just one last question...
Last question? Hey, we've been having a great conversation here! [Laughs]
Oh, yes, I know... but it's a good one. A lot of our readers here on BroadwayWorld are young students who are vying to do what you do and become an actor, maybe even in musical theater. What is the one piece of advice you'd like to impart on them?
I have a thing that I'm starting called PATH TO EXCELLENCE Through the Arts. It's a summer intensive. What I teach young people is this: You are the excellence in which you are seeking to be. What professional artists have got to realize is that you're given a set of tools. Once you've got the tools, throw them away and trust that thing inside of you is going to carry you through. And do not be fooled by what you see! Be amazed of the things that you do not see because it's already inside of you... and work from there.
MenAlive's Benefit Gala "ACADEMY AFFAIR 2013: Reach for the Stars" takes place Saturday, February 23 at the Center Club located on the Garden Level of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA.
For more tickets or information, visit www.MenAliveChorus.org.