InDepth InterView: Ben Vereen Talks Solo Show, 54 Below, New Projects & A Career Retrospective
Today we are talking to a Tony Award-winning legend famous for his performances while starring in the original Broadway productions of PIPPIN and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, as well as his celebrated turns in stage and screen projects as diverse as ALL THAT JAZZ, SWEET CHARITY, CHICAGO, FOSSE, HAIR, WICKED, GRIND, ROOTS, I'M NOT RAPPAPORT, GOLDEN BOY, IDLEWILD, FUNNY LADY, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and many more - all of which he touches upon herein - the simply incredible Ben Vereen. Discussing many of his most fondly remembered roles and recounting his experiences working with many legendary directors and collaborators - Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Tom O'Horgan, Herbert Ross, Ann Reinking, Dan Sullivan, Stephen Schwartz, Sammy Davis, Jr., Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera among them - Vereen paints a vivid picture of a bygone Broadway and reminisces about many of the most significant theatrical creators of the past fifty years and his roles in their theatre and film projects. Additionally, Vereen fills us in on what we can expect from his upcoming solo spotlight show - a career retrospective - that will be kicking off at 54 Below on July 10 for a two-week engagement before an even larger, Broadway-bound mounting later this year at Princeton. Also, Vereen elaborates on the charitable causes and educational foundations closest to his heart, shares thoughts on GLEE and SMASH, names his favorite recent shows, cites his favorite current performers, comments on the modern movie musical trend and clues us in on his many exciting future plans in many different arenas - plus, what about an Usher/Justin Bieber PIPPIN with Ben as director? All of that and much, much more awaits! Join us...
More information on Ben Vereen is available at his official site here. Tickets to Ben Vereen at 54 Below are available here. You can follow Ben on Twitter here.
Sweet Summer Evenings
PC: Josh Young has recently done this column and I was curious if you cared to comment on his portrayal of Judas in the new revival of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, especially since you two just shared the stage at the Tony Awards a few weeks ago?
BV: Oh, he's a wonderful, wonderful young man. A wonderful young king. And, what a voice!
PC: Did you consider yourself a baritone or a tenor when you sang that role? He's a baritone, but it is cast with rock tenors quite often.
BV: I think what you would call me was a bari-tenor or a baritone/tenor.
PC: That's not an easy score to sing - especially eight times a week.
BV: No, it's not! Let me tell you, what I think it is about is anyone who can bring the volume and the passion like young Josh brings are welcome to the role in my opinion.
PC: What are your thoughts on the British invasion of Broadway that sort of unofficially began with SUPERSTAR?
BV: Yeah, yeah - it started with that show. What you have to remember is that when we came in with that show it was very taboo - very, very taboo. And, I applaud Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for having the courage to stand up against the church and have a voice with this very passionate piece about a topic that Christians were very opposed to them talking about - the story of the last days of Jesus Christ on earth. You know, every year around this time - around Easter - they have these pageants and the story is discussed, but, then, you have these two young English gentlemen who have the tenacity to do a rock version of the pageant and put it onstage with a full orchestra and release it as an album.
BV: Yeah! I mean, I can remember nuns standing outside the stage door yelling at me in Latin and hitting me with rosary beads as I would go into the theater every night - and I'm like, "Hey, I'm just trying be an actor," you know?! [Laughs.]
PC: It's just a job - you didn't write the show anyway!
BV: It was wild doing the role at the time - you see, I was raised with a very strict background and in order to play the part of Judas I had to do some very deep, deep soul-searching to find out why this man would betray the savior of the people; of the human race. And, so, I dug and dug and dug and dug until finally I found out the same thing Josh did - they were friends; Jesus and Judas were very dear friends.
PC: What else did you find out?
BV: Well, some years after the events, out comes a book called THE BIBLE OF JUDAS where they talk about the fact that Jesus and Judas were very good friends and that there probably was a conspiracy going on.
PC: You did your research! It's a fascinating dynamic that plays out in that relationship.
BV: What it all comes down to though is: who is Judas? Who is Jesus? You have to go down deep, deep, deep inside to find those things out for yourself.
PC: A personal identification with the character.
BV: Yeah. You know, I really love the piece and I am so glad that people are still embracing it and I am so thankful to Des McAnuff for bringing it back in a hi-tech fashion like he has done. More than our original production with O'Horgan - which was brilliant also - he really focused on the conspiracy, the revolutionaries; which was really kind of nice.
PC: It's a very unique take. The Sermon On The Mount and other additions during the title song and throughout are inspired, I think.
BV: Yes, yes, yes - I think so, too.
PC: How did you deal with the vocal adlib at the end of the title song? Did you have it mapped out or was it just vocal gymnastics more or less?
BV: Oh, just vocal gymnastics - but, you have to remember, that was the time! That was the time - the 70s. Now we are talking about 2012 - it's gotta be new and he has to bring his inner-spiritual expression to the piece; everyone who does it does. I was bringing my own to it at the time in the time we were in - back in the 70s; we were into wailing and that stuff back then. Josh brings his own special take to it, which is beautiful. I love Josh and I love his interpretation - he's such a nice guy and he is such a smart performer; he never pushes it. I think he was just brilliant and I congratulate him on his nomination - he shouldn't feel bad, I didn't win one for that show either! [Laughs.]
PC: As history would have it.
BV: And, you know what, Pat? Here we are today talking anyway! [Laughs.]
PC: You actually won the very next year, as a matter of fact.
BV: The very next.
PC: How did you become involved with PIPPIN? Were you in SUPERSTAR and rehearsing for PIPPIN simultaneously somehow?
BV: Well, what happened was that, while I was doing SUPERSTAR I got nominated for the Tony and that was my very first time - you see, at the time, I didn't know who Tony was, you know?! [Laughs.]
PC: It was a new world for you.
BV: Yeah, and, you know, I wasn't in the theatre for accolades, I was in the theatre for work!
PC: It was your profession.
BV: Yeah, and, so, one of the stage managers said to me, "This envelope just came from the Tony committee," and, I said, "Who's Tony?"
PC: You really said it?!
BV: I really did! Then, I read the letter and I realized that I was being recognized by my peers - my peers were recognizing my work. Then, it hit me - it was so powerful. It hit me so deep. Then, when I went to the celebration, in my category Larry Blyden won and afterwards someone came over to me and said, "Oh, I'm sorry you didn't win," and, I said, "No, I didn't, but they still invited me to the party!" And, right after that, I got a call from Fosse to audition for PIPPIN.
PC: What happened at the audition?
BV: I remember I went in and I did my little song and stuff for him - which I had done in San Francisco; I did a little act. So, I did a couple songs for him and then I read for him and he liked it and the rest is history.
PC: Indeed it is.
BV: I loved working with Fosse - I loved every minute of it.
PC: What was your very first meeting with Fosse like? Can you recount it?
BV: I actually tell this story in my act that I will be taking to 54 Below - we will do a little snippet of it in that, but, when we bring it back in the bigger version, there will be more of it. But, getting back to the question, my first meeting with Fosse was when I met him auditioning for SWEET CHARITY.
PC: How did that audition come about?
BV: I had no money; I had to jump the turn-style to get into the city and I would eyeball the show business magazines at the newsstand - BACKSTAGE and all those newspapers - and I would stand at the newsstand, pretending I was going to buy one, and, one day, I saw the audition notice for SWEET CHARITY at the Palace Theatre. I went to the theatre and there were thousands of people there waiting to get a role and I saw him come walking down the aisle and he was with his assistant, Eddie Gasper, and he got up onstage and did the entire combination for us with a cigarette in his mouth and the ashes never fell.
BV: Yeah, that's exactly what I remember thinking - "Wow, this cat is cool!" And, so, I sang for him at that audition and we hooked up and next thing I know I was in rehearsals for SWEET CHARITY with Juliet Prowse and we were heading to Las Vegas. I had never been to Las Vegas before. And, so, we struck up a wonderful friendship that would last for many years.
PC: He created the Leading Player role in PIPPIN specifically for you, of course.
BV: Yes. You see, what happened was, my agent said, "Don't do it," and I said, "No, I'm gonna do it - I want to do it. It's Fosse." And, so, I went to rehearsal and we were all reading the script and I didn't really appear in it at all! It said, you know, "Enter Catherine. Enter Charlemagne." I was sitting close to Bob at the table and I remember him looking over at me while they were going through it and laughing. Then, when everyone went to lunch, he said, "Don't worry about it! Don't worry about it." And, then, we created the character. He said, "I want you to go watch Bojangles and the slide and look at these photographs…." And that's how we created the Leading Player.
PC: And you got some other characters' material, as well, in the process.
BV: It was like this: I remember I'd come in and the group would be singing a song - like "Simple Joys"; he would have the group sing it through and then he would say, "Ben, sing this song." And, so, I'd say, "OK," and I'd do it as a solo. Then, he changed it to a solo. Then, he got "The Right Track" for John and I - that was another really a great experience.
PC: That was the last song written for the show, correct?
BV: Yeah, that was the last song - they added that; we really needed a song between the two of them. You know, that show was all created along the way - and in Washington it was longer and he cut it down to bring it to the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. And, Fosse was the first one to bring commercials to Broadway with PIPPIN, too.
PC: Of course.
BV: Nobody had done that before. You know, Bob was very inventive - he was the renaissance man of the theatre; along with Tom O'Horgan. They were both renaissance men.
PC: O'Horgan does not quite get the respect he deserves these days as far as his legacy is concerned - at least not compared to Fosse.
BV: You're right - and it's a shame. You know, he was the only director to have four hit shows on Broadway at the same time.
PC: HAIR, SUPERSTAR…
BV: HAIR, MOTHER GOOSE, LENNY, SUPERSTAR.
PC: O'Horgan's SUPERSTAR was so edgy and button-pushing. What did O'Horgan and Fosse think of each other as far as you remember?
BV: Fosse admired Tom. He would ask me all the time, [Incredulous.] "Aww, how did he do that?!" He would ask me questions about Tom all the time - he really admired Tom's out-of-the-box thinking. You know, they were both ahead of their time - to this day; to this very day, you can see something and say, "Oh, that's a Fosse movement."
BV: To this day, you say, "Oh, that's a Fosse staging." But, people in the theatre will say with some things, too: "Oh, that's an O'Horgan-ism." There are things he did that people remember, too.
PC: Did you ever work with Michael Bennett? I've always been curious to know your thoughts on him.
BV: No, I never worked with Michael Bennett, but I knew Michael Peters very well - who gave us the choreography in DREAMGIRLS; who gave us Michael Jackson's THRILLER and BEAT IT. Michael Peters and I worked together in Las Vegas. I remember he got a call one night when we were out there from Michael Bennett and he looked over and said to me, "Should I go do DREAMGIRLS?" and I said, "Get out of here! Go! Go!" [Laughs.]
PC: And we're still talking about it today!
BV: The rest is history.
PC: So, you never got the chance to work with Bennett yourself?
BV: No. I knew Michael Peters very well but I didn't really know Michael Bennett.
PC: Did you see Fosse and Bennett and O'Horgan as competitors? Did they see each other that way at all? History has painted them that way, it seems - Hal Prince, too.
BV: No, not really - not really. Fosse never worried about Bennett - Bennett was another thing; he had his own world. Fosse was Fosse, you know?
BV: And, if we really want to get into it and compare the two: who do we talk more about today? [Pause.]
PC: Fosse certainly wins that round.
BV: Exactly. Bennett was brilliant in his own way and Fosse was brilliant in his - you can't compare the two; they were too unique. There is no competition.
PC: When Hal Prince did this column, we touched on GRIND…
BV: Oh, Hal - Hal! I love Hal.
PC: Is it true you brought in Fosse on GRIND - with his approval, of course?
BV: Yes, I did.
PC: Could you tell me the story behind that?
BV: Well, the choreographer of GRIND was a man named Lester Wilson - he did a brilliant job, but we felt that we really needed a "Pow!" number. So, Lester was working on it, trying to find the right number, and, I said, "Why don't we call Fosse and see?" You know, they had wanted Fosse to choreograph it first, but he was busy at the time with something else - I forget what exactly - so, I called Bob and he came down to Baltimore. He came into my dressing room and he said, [Pause. Quietly.] "I'll do a number for you." And, then, we went into the studio to rehearse it and he said to me, "If you learn to dance like this, Ben, then you will dance the rest of your life," - the precursor to now. I had an accident in 1992 and I broke my leg and hit my head on the top of my car and damaged an artery to my brain. I had a spoke on my right side and the doctor said it would be three years before I'd even walk again. They took my spleen, too.
BV: I remember sitting in the hospital and people were saying all these prayers for me and I was getting all these letters of encouragement. I remember calling Liza and Liza said, "Remember Fosse - remember what Fosse said. Think of Bob Fosse." And, then, I called Chita and I said, "I'll never dance again," and she said, "You'll dance again - viva la difference!" Flash forward and I'm in therapy and I get a call from Ann Reinking. She says, "I want you to do this show, FOSSE."
BV: It was - and I just immediately said "Yes." I remember coming to the studio on 42nd St. where we were rehearsing for FOSSE and standing in the dressing room and the dance captain began the PIPPIN dance and I went along for a few counts and then I just went right into it - the whole thing; I do the entire number.
PC: Sense memory.
BV: As soon as I finished I started to ball like a baby! I couldn't stop crying - I still tear up thinking about it, to be honest.
PC: What a "Glory"-ous memory - literally.
BV: Exactly! Exactly. [Laughs.]
PC: It was the Manson Trio?
BV: Yeah, the trio. I stood there just balling and I could hear Fosse in my head saying, "If you dance like this, you'll dance the rest of your life."
PC: How beautiful - and poignant.
BV: That's my favorite Fosse story.
PC: Is it true you were playing Claude in HAIR just prior to first meeting Fosse? How did that casting come to be?
BV: Well, what happened was that I met Fosse first, before HAIR. I met Fosse on that day we were talking about before, for SWEET CHARITY. Then, after that, I went to London - I was in London understudying Sammy Davis, Jr. in GOLDEN BOY and I heard about a guy named Lamont Washington, who was playing Claude in HAIR; he had burned himself with drugs and had died.
PC: How tragic.
BV: It was shocking - the whole industry was shocked at the time. So, anyway, I came back to New York and Tom O'Horgan was holding auditions for a production of HAIR that was going to Los Angeles. So, I met him and we became good friends. I went into the show as Berger and then became dance captain, and, therefore, I got to do Claude and I got to do Berger.
PC: No way! You played Berger, too?
BV: I even had to do Sheila one night! [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious. Did you have any qualms with the nude scene?
BV: Hey, listen - the body is a beautiful thing! You know, we bomb and kill and destroy God's beautiful creation; why is all of this still going on all these years later? That's what the show is about - what is the need for all this killing and bombing and murder? As Shakespeare wrote, "What a piece of work is man!" Wow! And, then, we take this beautiful thing and cover it up and say it is ugly. Just because we take off our clothes people say we are tying to get attention or something? No! What we are saying is, "Hey, check out what you destroy - what you should be loving." You know, "I will give you your kingdom if you seek me;" that's what the Creator says.
PC: HAIR and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR were really two of the most influential musicals of all time - particularly looking back on them now and the influence that they have had. They changed everything.
BV: They changed everything in the theatre, at least - along with a show called OH, CALCUTTA!, which I never saw. But, that show was very influential as well as far as attitudes go, I think. But, in talking about HAIR - there will never be another production like the original, I must say.
PC: It was revolutionary.
BV: It was. You know, people will never understand the depths that we went to in that show.
PC: It was a special place and a special time.
BV: It was a place and a time - and you can visit it, but you can never know it. You need somebody to really take you through it to be able to do the show right. What was happening then is happening now, too, it's just camouflaged.
PC: What a statement.
BV: It's true - it's true.
PC: Forty years ago we had SUPERSTAR and FOLLIES on Broadway and they were just both back again last season. How do you see Broadway as having changed in that time?
BV: Well, you can't knock 'em too much - creativity is flowing and shows are still getting done. But, the question really is: what are we doing for the future of the theatre? Are we pricing out customers? The theatre should be accessible to all, I think.
PC: It unquestionably should.
BV: We just need to find a way to make it available to everybody.
PC: We really do.
BV: There has got to be a way for people to access the arts on all levels. You've got to understand something, in my Bible it says, "In the beginning, God created;" it does not say, "In the beginning, God manufactured…."
PC: An eloquent point.
BV: We are a creative people; we are all working for the Creator who created us and we all have a right to that creative expression. Let's not market it all out - let's let it all out; let's love it all out.
PC: What have been some of your favorite recent shows?
BV: What do I like? I like everything - basically, I like it when people are employed. [Laughs.]
PC: Another fine - and witty - statement!
BV: I saw ONCE and I loved that. I saw some other things, too, but, honestly, I don't get to New York that often, but whenever I do I want to kneel down and thank the Lord for Broadway's existence. It's still going strong and I hope it always will.
PC: While your stage work is superior, you also have a major role in what I consider one of if not the very best movie musical ever made - ALL THAT JAZZ. What was that experience like for you working on that modern masterpiece?
BV: I agree - it's really the best. You know, there was a time there where musicals just couldn't be a hit - they kept failing, failing, failing. But, then, you have CABARET and ALL THAT JAZZ. I think that CABARET is one of the best, too. Now, I praise them for doing musicals again and I have to say, "Bravo! Right on! Keep going!" Now, we have all of these TV shows and SMASH and GLEE and everything.
PC: What do you think of SMASH?
BV: Oh, with SMASH, thank God they are focusing on the theatre! You know, it makes people interested in it, and, then, there are shows like DANCING WITH THE STARS and AMERICAN IDOL and THE VOICE that get people interested in performing for the theatre - and that's great, too. All of that great stuff that is happening all starts on top of a little black board somewhere called a stage.
PC: Have you been approached to appear on GLEE yet?
BV: No, I haven't - but I don't know why not! I'd love to do both GLEE and SMASH. I've wanted to do GLEE ever since I saw it was on the air - I am so happy it is out there and people love it.
PC: WICKED is a very popular show with the GLEE audience…
BV: Oh, I love WICKED! I loved doing that.
PC: SMASH star Megan Hilty starred in WICKED on Broadway with you, of course - as Glinda.
BV: Yes, yes, yes - oh, I just love Megan. She was great then and she just keeps getting greater and greater in everything she does. Shoshana Bean was in it when I was there in WICKED, too, and I feel the same way about her. They are both amazing - it's like they were born on the stage, ready to perform.
PC: Such titanic talent. Would you say there is as much talent out there now as there ever was?
BV: Yes, there is. You know, honestly, I hate it when people say, "Oh, where are the song and dance men out there?" That's why the name of my next show is THE LAST SONG AND DANCE MAN - THE LAST SHOWMAN. There was an era that I was in where, yes, there were the Sammy Davis, Jr.s and Frank Sinatras and Gregory Hineses, but we are saying goodbye to all of that now. We are embracing the now - and there are young people out there who are doing it! They are doing it great, too - and they should be getting more recognition for being the song and dance men that they can be than they are.
PC: Speaking of one of them: tell me about working with Neil Patrick Harris. He is so smart and talented.
BV: Oh, I love Neil - he is hysterical. He is so smart, so wonderfully talented and just a go-getter and a no-stopper.
PC: Who are some of your other favorite current performers?
BV: Oh, I love Neil. Wayne Brady is the same way, I think - my godson, Usher, too.
PC: What do you think of an Usher/Justin Bieber PIPPIN?
BV: Oh, wow! An Usher/Justin Bieber PIPPIN? Would I be directing it, perhaps?
PC: Yes, of course!
BV: I'd love to do it - especially if I could direct it.
PC: Or you could do Charlemagne - or both.
BV: Yeah, I'll direct it and maybe do Charlemagne - perfect. [Laughs.] Seriously, I am going to text Usher that and run it by him. Thank you for the suggestion. I should ask Stephen Schwartz about it, too.
PC: Make it happen! We've got magic to do!
BV: As a matter of fact, Stephen Schwartz is going to be writing some songs for the bigger version of my show coming to 54 Below next month.
PC: How exciting! What can we expect from your 54 Below show?
BV: My show at 54 Below is going to be a condensed version of a much bigger show we are working on called THE LAST SONG AND DANCE MAN or THE LAST SHOWMAN that we will be workshopping at Princeton in September. Hopefully, after that, we will go into rehearsal and have the show ready for Broadway by February or March of next year.
PC: Will there be a recording?
BV: Yes, yes, yes - there will be a recording and everything. I am so looking forward to being at 54 Below first, though - following the fabulous Patti LuPone, no less; who I adore.
PC: Speaking of which: you've never done a Sondheim show, have you - at least not yet?
BV: No, unfortunately I have not done a Sondheim show - not yet.
PC: You'd be a fabulous Narrator in INTO THE WOODS, I bet.
BV: Oh, that's so interesting! I would love to do that - I'd love to do a role in anything of his.
PC: Besides appearing in FUNNY LADY, you also performed Kander & Ebb in CHICAGO onstage. What was working with Barbra Streisand on FUNNY LADY like?
BV: Oh, I love Barbra - of course!
PC: How did you become involved with that project?
BV: Well, first, what happened was this: I did a matinee this particular Wednesday and I decided that between shows I would go see a movie. So, I go see a movie called UP THE SANDBOX…
PC: A classic of hers.
BV: Right. So, I go back to the theater after seeing the movie and do an evening performance. Then, I hear a knock on my door and I say, "Who's at the door?" And it's Barbra Streisand.
BV: Yeah - I couldn't believe it. So, she comes in and I go over and introduce myself - I was like, [Nervous.] "You were in the movie and now you're here!" [Big Laugh.] And, next thing I know I get a call from Los Angeles asking me to come out and do FUNNY LADY.
PC: Talk about a fast turnaround!
BV: Yeah - I guess she wanted me in the movie.
PC: Was it a smooth shoot? I've heard there was some contentiousness between Streisand and James Caan.
BV: Well, I was never around any of that - we did our number together with Herb Ross, the director, and then we did our scenes and that was it.
PC: Kander & Ebb wrote some fabulous songs for that film.
BV: They write fabulous songs every time - every time. You know, talking about Kander & Ebb, I thought SCOTTSBORO BOYS was absolutely brilliant - Tommy Thompson and Sergio Trujillo are actually both working on my show.
PC: Sergio just did this column recently. He is so accomplished and such a nice guy.
BV: Yeah, he is directing/choreographing my show - as a matter of fact, we are Skyping about the show right now. He is the prodigy of Michael Peters, you know.
PC: I wasn't aware of that. When he did this column we spoke a bit about appearing in the film version of CHICAGO. What are your thoughts on Rob Marshall's film, particularly being a Fosse phile as you are?
BV: I think it's nice. [Laughs.] It's nice, but, you know, I'm all about the theatre. You've gotta be really careful when you do movies of musicals - I mean, to be honest, I hated NINE.
PC: It unfortunately didn't come together.
BV: And I hated SWEENEY TODD, too. They killed me - they broke my heart. Fosse always told the story - that's why CABARET and SWEET CHARITY and ALL THAT JAZZ work; they tell the story.
PC: IDLEWILD is a fascinating recent movie musical that has some dazzling sequences. Was that enjoyable to participate in?
BV: Well, Hinton Battle did amazing, amazing numbers for that - and unfortunately most of them ended up on the cutting room floor.
PC: I've heard that, too - what a shame.
BV: He did a brilliant, brilliant job - choreographing to that hip hop music in a swing fashion. Wow!
PC: A Herculean task - it was crazy to even attempt, but it works!
BV: Yes, it was crazy - but, yes, it worked! I remember being there onset and Liza came to the set one day and we looked at each other going, "Do you believe this?!" It was amazing! All that stuff - swing; jitterbug; Charleston - to hip hop music!
PC: A real mash-up of styles.
BV: You know, the whole movie could have just been that to me, but I guess they felt otherwise. But, thank you for mentioning that film - I am glad I did that. I was actually an acting coach on that, too.
PC: You and Patti LaBelle are fabulous in it.
BV: Oh, Patti's my darling - that's my darling. I love getting the chance to work with Patti LaBelle - we did IDLEWILD and we also did another movie recently called MAMA I WANT TO SING.
PC: ROOTS is perhaps your most celebrated non-musical role. Were you pleased with the recent DVD re-release?
BV: Oh, yes - I am thrilled with it. As a matter of fact, Oprah Winfrey had the whole cast to her homestead in Santa Barbara and we got to all get together again and it was so great. You know, we all got to get together and share our experiences of the journey with each other - I owe so much praise to Alex Haley who wrote the novel and everyone who put it together, and, especially, ABC for having the courage to air it in that time-frame. It was extraordinary.
PC: Who are some performers you would like to work with in the near future?
BV: One of the performers I'd love to work with is Audra McDonald - we've never gotten to work together. I love her and I love what they did with PORGY & BESS, too - she was just fabulous.
PC: It's a controversial take on the material.
BV: I know. But, you know, what Audra did with the character I have never seen - she really was that addict. It was amazing to see.
BV: Totally fearless. She's brilliant.
PC: Does your new show have the opportunity for other performers in it, as well?
BV: Well, as I said, we are beginning to build it now, so we will see - but I certainly might have something like that in it. In clubs, I love having someone stop by my set to do a number from time to time. But, you know, I usually only have one hour, and, especially with my one-man show, I can do three hours by myself! Most concerts I do go like two and a half hours - we just go until we stop! [Laughs.]
PC: You give everyone their money's worth - and then some.
BV: You know, it's a celebration of life - come to celebrate life with me; I promise we'll have a good time. I am here to serve you.
PC: Leslie Uggams recently did this column and she said much the same thing to me.
BV: Oh, Leslie is just wonderful - wonderful. We actually went on tour together - we did this thing called ON BROADWAY and we toured around the country together in it. It was great and she is just wonderful to work with and perform with.
PC: What specifically can we expect from your 54 Below show coming up?
BV: Well, 54 Below will be a retrospective of my career that will be the seedling for the bigger show - in that, we hope to have monologues and film and lots of different things going on. We will be doing tributes to people I've worked with like Sammy Davis, Tom O'Horgan, Bob Fosse, Stephen Schwartz - people who I have really enjoyed working with and who have touched my life.
PC: Sounds wonderful.
BV: It will be a wonderful evening.
PC: A little "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries", I hope?
BV: "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries"; a little Charles Aznavour; a little Stephen Schwartz - you know, we just want everybody to have a good time.
PC: FOSSE is available on Netflix, so everyone can check it out - which is a great asset for all.
BV: Oh, how wonderful! I am so glad to hear that it is out there for people to see and for the younger generation to be able to experience.
PC: Was your experience filming FOSSE fun - particularly sharing the stage with Ann Reinking and those fantastic Fosse dancers?
BV: Oh, yeah! Are you kidding?! It was like... well, like a bowl of cherries! [Laughs.]
PC: Too funny. How did you get involved with the filming?
BV: Well, Annie brought me in to do the show for a while and then I left. Then, they called me and Annie said, "We're gonna film the show and I'd love you to do it if you can - and I'll do it with you," so, I said, "Fantastic!" So, we both got there and we just got down to it and did it. It was with that amazing cast and those amazing musicians and everyone else - everyone at the theater was so amazing; so loving and so supportive. It was really a family on FOSSE. So, when we stepped into the theater to do that, you always felt at home and that everything and everyone was serving the show. Everything came from our hearts through our steps - you can feel that in the video. That cast gave one hundred and ten percent every night - every night! I used to stand in the wings and just be wowed - I mean, I'd never seen performers who just give and give and give like that; it was love, it was love, it was love.
PC: How refreshing to hear that from someone who has seen it all and done it all like you have.
BV: Night after night after night - I'm telling you, when we all got together the roof would come off of that building!
PC: It was a tremendous production.
BV: I remember when we would finish "Dancin' Dan" every night and the roof would just come off of the place - every time.
PC: Fosse would have adored FOSSE, would he not?
BV: Oh, yes; Fosse was cheering - every step. I'll tell you something else about Fosse, when Fosse made his transition I got a letter and the letter said, "We are having a memorial for Bob Fosse at the Palace Theatre and Bob would like to buy you dinner," you see, Bob's thing was, "Let me buy you dinner." [Laughs.]
PC: That was his famous line.
BV: You know, we'd be rehearsing or whatever and he's say, "What are you doing tonight?" and I'd say, "I don't know," and he would say, "Let me buy you dinner." And, then, he'd take us over to wherever and we'd have dinner. I remember sitting there with great writers - Paddy Cheyefsky; Herb Gardner - and him. So, when he died, he arranged for dinner with like a hundred of his closest friends.
PC: What was that like?
BV: Well, we went in and there was a little box on each table at everybody's setting and in the box was a top hat and a pair of gloves. When you opened it up, it said, "You deserve a standing ovation." [Pause.] That was Fosse.
PC: You eventually became involved with Herb Gardner - one of Fosse's best friends - once again when you did I'M NOT RAPPAPORT.
BV: Yes. Herb Gardner came and saw me when I was doing FOSSE and he said, "I want you to come to my house and I want you to come and read for I'M NOT RAPPAPORT," and, so, I did. When I got there, there was Dan Sullivan and there was Herb and, then, there was my buddy Judd Hirsch. And, then, we read the show that day and next thing you know we were doing it on Broadway.
PC: Dan Sullivan is such a smart and gifted director.
BV: Dan is the best - the best. I can't wait to work with him again.
PC: RAPPAPORT again?
BV: Yeah, sure - let's do it again! It's time. [Laughs.]
PC: So, what else is next for you after the workshop of your solo show in September? Will you be returning to WICKED at any point soon?
BV: No, I don't think so - I am focusing on the big show right now. And, next summer, I will be doing a new play at Tony Randall's theatre called FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, written by Will Powers and directed by Des McAnuff.
PC: Des McAnuff is a busy director.
BV: We actually did it once already at Princeton and we got a great review in the New Yorker - they called it a "must-see show" - and now we are bringing it back to New York next August, next summer.
PC: What happens if your solo show comes in around the same time, though? Do you have a plan?
BV: Well, my solo show will be a limited run - this time out at 54 Below it is a limited run and if we bring it back to Broadway next year it will be a limited run, also. Actually, in the interim after I finish my run I have to go back to Florida and work with Ann Reinking's Broadway Theatre Project in Tampa. I love working with the kids down there - I'd say we have about 150 kids out there that we are training in the arts.
PC: What a remarkable gift you are giving them - passing it on.
BV: I have to say, I am so very thankful and grateful to the chair of the organization - she said, "Go ahead and take the chair this year." This year, this will be the next phase of the program - "Broadway And Beyond"; we are bringing in motivational speaks and doctors and financial people that are teaching these talented young artists how to live in society. You know, we aren't given that education - when you go to become a performer, sometimes you don't realize that this is a business.
PC: Bottom line.
BV: We help people learn how to manage their business and manage their health and things like that - and we have people to come in and inspire them; people who say, "You are enough! Use your gifts that only you have."
PC: Another cause close to your heart is diabetes awareness. What is your advice to newly diagnosed diabetes patients? More people discover they have the disease every day, after all.
BV: Yes, they do. When I was diagnosed there were 23 million, now there are 26 million. The numbers are rising. I went to a few companies and we started a platform called S.T.A.N.D. - standfordiabetes.org - and people can go on it and they can find out the right questions to ask their doctors and it also provides them the chance to link up with other people with diabetes and other organizations. My particularly platform is to let people know: one, you are not suffering with diabetes, you are living with it; two, you do not have a challenge, you have an opportunity towards a better life; three, if all of society would follow the regimen of people with diabetes then we would have a much healthier country.
PC: All very helpful and life-saving advice, no doubt.
BV: You have to change your eating habits. You have to exercise. Those of us that have to take medication, take your medication. Those are the three things you have to do - that's it. You have to work with your doctor every step. Those are the points I try to make - especially to young people, because young people don't know and they need to know so they can be empowered to do what they need to do and live a healthier life.
PC: Awareness of ingredients in food is a big factor, too.
BV: It is, but everything in moderation - you know, you don't need to eat the whole cake; eat a thin slice. You can taste it - but everything in moderation. Talk to your doctor about it and you will better understand what your particular temple needs and how to make your life the best it can be.
PC: The human body is a remarkable thing - you, Liza and Chita have all been through horrific accidents and health situations, yet you are all still dancing and singing up a storm.
BV: It was a power greater than myself that got me here today - it was all the prayers of all the people who support me and my friends and family members out there; my heart just goes out to them all. I am so grateful to all the people who helped me and prayed for me - and when they come to see my show they see the power of their prayers in action. People who are living with difficulties or adversity can come to my show and see how they, too, can rise above their issues - I am no different; we are all the same.
PC: KHUMBA IN 3D is your next film appearance, correct? An animated film?
BV: Oh, yes - KHUMBA IN 3D. It's wonderful animation. I play a giraffe in that - it was so much fun! I didn't get to see anybody else who is in it when I was working on it, but it was so fun to do. I look forward to seeing it.
PC: We have so much to look forward to from you in the coming months and year, for sure!
BV: I actually am working on A New Television thing and I also have a documentary that should be coming out next year when I do the Broadway show, as well - and, also, I have a book, too. So, yes - we're having a lot of fun right now.
PC: You are a very busy legend, Ben!
BV: [Laughs.] I am also working on doing some seminars on acting in New York and Los Angeles, so performers can look out for that - I will be exploring how to be standing up onstage and in the moment at all times and all about awareness. I am really looking forward to doing those.
PC: We need you back on Broadway, too - it's been way too long since WICKED.
BV: Yes, WICKED was my last show on Broadway - I think you are right; it's time. It's time.
PC: We all can't wait for everything coming up. Thank you so much - this was phenomenal.
BV: Pat, my king, this was beautiful! Thank you, thank you. I'll see you soon. My love to you. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro