BWW Interview: Ben Vereen Discusses His Award-Winning STEPPIN' OUT WITH BEN VEREEN Cabaret Show
Triple-threat entertainer Ben Vereen's legendary performances transcend time and are woven into the fabric of this country's artistic legacy with his on stage, screen and television appearances continuing to inspire and influence artists of all ages. His extraordinary journey on the Broadway stage includes his starring role in Pippin, which garnered him both the prestigious Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for "Best Actor in a Musical." He has also starred in Wicked, Hair, Fosse, I'm Not Rappaport, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grind, Jelly's Last Jam, The Prodigal Son, Sweet Charity, Golden Boy, Gurton's Apocalyptic Needle, No Place to be Somebody, Chicago, The Exonerated and A Christmas Carol.
Along with his many appearances on the Big Screen, his memorable television roles that have stood the test of time include Chicken George in Roots and Louis Armstrong in Louis Armstrong - Chicago Style. Most recently, Ben starred as Dr. Scott in the made for television movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show by Twentieth Century Fox, garnering him a new generation of fans.
He is currently continuing to tour the world with his one-man show STEPPIN' OUT WITH Ben Vereen which has received rave reviews internationally. On July 19th and 20th, he is bringing the show to the Catalina Jazz Club inside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and shared with me how much he is looking forward to entertaining his loyal fans in the Entertainment Capital of the World once again.
It's great to have you back in Los Angeles, Ben. When was the last time you graced a stage here?
It's been too long - way too long. The last time was when I was touring with Pippin which my manager tried to dissuade me from doing it on Broadway. But since Bob (Fosse) wanted me for it, I did it. And the rest is history. Now someone needs to start a show here for me and then take it New York!
While on tour with your current show, what similarities or differences have you noticed in audiences worldwide?
There is one thing is common with audiences around the world - people want to be entertained, to bring their physical selves and spiritual selves together to enjoy the magic of a live performance. And I see myself as the conduit to that experience, which honors me because I love my audiences so much. Every show is different and unique; one night you come on and everything is in sync. You can do no wrong. Then the next night, the audience seems to not be with you, even though you are doing the same show. I learned a lesson about live performances from Bob Fosse who told me, "Never chase your audience. Let them come to you." And I say, "Don't bring yesterday's luggage into today's show." Each day, each show, is a brand new thing. The audience wants to see something fresh, and the freshness is you!
It's important to respect the author and memorize your lines when you are doing a play. You have to change your inner attitude toward being in the moment, being honest and sincere as you express the true feelings of the character. And never deviate from your true feelings. The same thing is true when I am onstage in my own show. I must stay honest and sincere, always sharing myself from my heart and soul no matter what happens. I learned that lesson during my first show, The King and I, at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in which I played the Interpreter. I learned everyone's lines, but also to be prepared for things to change every time and go with the flow.
Speaking of surprises, I am sure there have been many on this tour.
Yes, there surprises everywhere on this tour. The whole procedure of setting up a show and bringing audiences together, you never know who they are or how they are, just knowing their intent was to be together and be entertained. It's always a fascinating thing. You never know in advance from country to country how audiences are. I was surprised in China where there is no applause until the very end. That's just how their culture is. I was worried at first that they were not enjoying my show, being so quiet. I didn't know to expect that. But they loved it! But now I know what to expect after having gone to enough places and so I don't wait for applause at the end of each song.
I am a big proponent of the disabled community so now I take an interpreter with me when warranted, often having an American Sign Language interpreter on the stage with me as I will during my shows in Hollywood.
And your show is so visual as well.
Absolutely right. And emotional. And they can feel those emotions. After all, even if you can't hear the words, you can feel the music, the beat, and the emotion being shared. And everyone, included those who are disabled, need to be part of the dialogue. This world is one community. The community of humanity.
I really admire Aly Stroker, an amazing performer in a wheelchair who just won the Tony for Best Featured Performer for Oklahoma.
Yes, I saw her in "Spring Awakening" on Broadway. She is heaven on wheels. You know when I had knee surgery in 1992 and was confined to a wheelchair, Gregory Hines taught me how to dance so I could appear onstage with him. But, of course, I could not take the stairs to the dressing room below the stage. To this day, I thank the stage hands for building me a dressing room on the stage, and making me feel worthy to be in that show.
Speaking of surprises, rumor has it there are always fun surprise guests (friends of yours) that participate in your show. In the past, they have included Wayne Brady, Mitzi Gaynor, Bette Davis and Liza Minelli, Jimmy Ortega, just to name a few. Any surprises planned for your shows at the Catalina Jazz Club on July 19 and 20 that you can share?
My friends always surprise me by being in the audience! I never have any idea who will be there. In fact, no one knows other that the box office and they don't tell me. So I am sure there will be several surprise guests in the Hollywood audiences! I'm excited to find out who!
What an amazing woman she was. A true activist before the word was even invented. Such an inspirational story she told in her autobiography Thursday's Child. I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could.
Well, you just might get the chance, so to speak, as I recently saw a marvelous Hollywood Fringe show about the fabulous Eartha Kitt, performed to perfection by Jenelle Lynn Randall. And I know she will be in your Catalina Jazz Club audience.
Wow, that would be special!What songs will you be sharing during STEPPIN' OUT?
Lots of Broadway songs, of course, from many shows I have done or admire. Plus songs we sang when we were younger than who we are now, such as "When I'm 64" with my own special lyrics.
You have also received many honors for your humanitarian work. Eighteen years ago, you volunteered with the American Red Cross during 9/11, an event that changed your life and the world forever.
That was a necessity to do. I could not just watch it. I was walking my daughter's dog that morning and looked up to see a ring of fire on the first tower. When I got home, I went home and told my daughter, who was a film student, that we should record it because it was going to be historical. When we went to the window to film it, since my view from Brooklyn faced the towers, we saw the second plane hit. The air was taken out of the air for days. I thought I was having a nightmare. From my window that day, I saw thousands of people running across the bridges to get out of Manhattan and I knew I had to do something. I managed to get a ride into the city and ran food back and forth. I found a fan at the Red Cross who signed me up as a volunteer and went on a truck to ground zero. Smoke was rising, smoldering from the ashes. I was there for two weeks because I had to go back to work. I was so angry at the time that someone could do this to my country. The whole experience was surreal and changed my life forever.Now that you have the ability to make your voice heard for causes in which you believe, I want to personally thank you for your ongoing dedication to eradicating diabetes in our lifetime. It is a cause close to my heart, as well as my pancreas.
Everyone needs to realize we have it, diabetes does not have us. The only way to eradicate it, as well as many other diseases, is by controlling our own lives and doing the right thing. Type 2 diabetes is a wake-up call, reminding us that we are the garden and must take charge of it to flourish. It's all of us who need to learn how to live, not just make a living. How to live inside this garden we have been given and support each other to be the best we can be.
Perhaps even more important to you is your desire to share your talents to channel the Arts for a better world, fueled by your belief "the theater is my training ground. It teaches discipline, dedication and appreciation of hard work," considering those values to be the foundation of your life. In these times of uncertainty where the value of life is undermined, I know you feel as I do that the Arts provide a reminder of the truth about who we are, where we came from, and the greatness of the gift of our life.
The Arts give people the tools to survive for generations to come. Of course, I want people to come to my shows, but everyone needs to get out and see a show wherever they live, to support the Arts in any way you can. If not going to a show, then volunteer at a local theater. The Arts are your community and your life. Celebrate it together! Live - just don't make a living.
I thank you sincerely for all the love you have shared with the world through your talent and dedication to your craft, and look forward to seeing you onstage again soon!
STEPPIN' OUT WITH Ben Vereen promises to be an evening filled with song, dance, stories, and humor (and perhaps a few surprise guests!) that will take you on a journey through Broadway with some of the greats of our time, including 'Magic to Do' from Pippin, 'Defying Gravity' and 'For Good' from Wicked and the ever-popular 'Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,' among many others.
The show won the prestigious Cabaret Award after playing New York's 54 Below in 2015. And now thanks to The Cooper Company and Catalina Jazz Club, Los Angeles audiences can catch the return of one of North America's greatest entertainers, performing his popular stage show, STEPPIN' OUT WITH Ben Vereen, for a strictly limited engagement of two performances only on Friday, July 19 at 8:30 pm and Saturday, July 20 at 8:30 pm at Catalina Jazz Club (6725 West Sunset Blvd.) in Hollywood.
Tickets are now on sale and available at www.TicketWeb.com and by phone at 323.466.2210. Be sure to order yours soon before both performances sell out. Dinner or two drink minimum per person with doors opening at 7pm for dining pre-show.
STEPPIN' OUT WITH BEN VEREEN continues with a San Diego engagement at Martini's Above Fourth on July 23 & 24 at 8pm only. Tickets may be purchased at https://tickets.ma4sd.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=160
Photos of Ben Vereen by Isak Tiner