InDepth InterView UpDate: Ben Vereen On STEPPIN' OUT At 54 Below, Broadway Return & New Films, Plus A Look Back At Classic Musical Roles
Today we are once again speaking with a world renowned living legend all about his phenomenal career on Broadway and in Hollywood in honor of his new 54 Below engagement later this month, titled STEPPIN OUT', the one and only Ben Vereen. Besides sharing what lucky attendees can expect from his 54 Below shows, Vereen also shares preliminary plans to bring a new biomusical to Broadway some season very soon as well as remarks on the forthcoming release of a star-studded documentary all about his iconic show business legacy planned to be released later this year. Additionally, Vereen reflects on a number of recent milestones and looks back at some of his most memorable movie musical work in honor of the 45th anniversary of the release of SWEET CHARITY last month, plus the brand new Blu-ray editions of FUNNY LADY and ALL THAT JAZZ now available, as well. Plus, Vereen shines a light on his ongoing patronship of the arts and spotlights the importance of arts education in schools via the nationwide high school competition series currently being held leading up to the annual Ben Vereen Awards while also clueing us in on some of his upcoming theatre projects, including directing a regional production of HAIR set to tour Florida later this year and more. As if all of that were not enough, Vereen also comments on some recent small screen and big screen appearances including his hilarious turn on the final season of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER opposite Neil Patrick Harris and sharing the screen with Betty White on HOT IN CLEVELAND, not to mention the smash hit success of the ensemble Chris Rock comedy TOP FIVE. All of that, first news on his upcoming feature film TIME OUT OF MIND, candid Bob Fosse memories and much, much more with one of Broadway's best triple-threats of all time. More information on Ben Vereen's STEPPIN' OUT at 54 Below on March 17 through 21 is available at the official site here. The Rhythm Of Life PC: You looked fantastic on this year's BET AWARDS a few weeks ago.BV: Oh, thank you. That was a lot of fun to do - it always is.PC: You just appeared in one of the biggest comedy hits of the year, TOP FIVE. BV: Oh, I really enjoyed working on that - Chris Rock is a very intelligent and very talented man. Actually, though, I'm really looking forward to my next movie even more...PC: Which is? BV: It's called TIME OUT OF MIND and it stars Richard Gere.PC: There's quite a few Broadway names in the cast. BV: Yes, there is. Great cast - it is deep; very deep.PC: What is it about? BV: It's about the homeless. I play a sort of MIDNIGHT COWBOY-type character - remember that movie - except instead of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight it is Richard Gere and myself. PC: Did you enjoy any films this Oscar season in particular? BV: I enjoyed BIRDMAN quite a bit. I'm glad that they did a movie about the theatre like that. It's wonderful when we depict the theatre on film, I think.PC: Speaking of which, ANNIE and INTO THE WOODS and JERSEY BOYS prove yet again that the movie musical is certainly back in a big way in the 21st century. BV: And that's wonderful. As long as actors are working and we are getting parts from the theatre and actors from the theatre out there is great. I think once Hollywood is really ready to - how do I say - cater to Broadway even more, then that I think will be fantastic. Just fantastic.PC: Movie musicals are a great first step in that direction. BV: You're right, they are. It's a lost art form - movie musicals - the best ones are from the 1950s and 1960s mostly. Bob Fosse was the last director to really make a great musical on film until now, I think. They've got great people doing them again now, so I hope somebody does something on that level. PC: SWEET CHARITY recently celebrated its 45th anniversary - your first film with Bob Fosse. It was not received well at the time because the trend was moving away from musicals, yes? BV: Yes, that's right. Exactly. Bob used to say that, too. Of course, I can't speak for Bob, but he used to say that he felt that he didn't do his best job on that, but he felt when he came back with CABARET that he had really nailed it.PC: With the Best Director Oscar to prove it! BV: [Laughs.] Exactly!PC: One of the greatest movie musicals ever made. BV: Without any question.PC: I think SWEET CHARITY is an excellent film, as well - I am quite partial to it, honestly. BV: So do I; and so am I - I mean, I am in it!PC: And unforgettably so! BV: [Laughs.]PC: Was that the first time you and Chita Rivera rubbed shoulders or had you worked together prior to that? BV: Actually, what had happened was that I had booked Vegas to do SWEET CHARITY with Juliet Prowse - Bob hired me for that first. Then, he hired me to go on the road with Chita Rivera and do the road company of SWEET CHARITY. I remember that one day we were in Montreal, I believe, and we got a telegram for us to both come and do the movie - so, we had known each other when we got there to do it from doing the show together on tour.PC: Would you be open to stepping into THE VISIT on Broadway with her during the run? BV: [Big Laugh.] Oh, I would love to do anything - anything - with Chita. I love this woman - love her. PC: Shirley MacLaine recently made quite a stir with appearances on GLEE and DOWNTON ABBEY. Did you enjoy working with her? BV: Shirley is a darling - yes, yes, yes, yes. I didn't know she was on GLEE - that's wonderful to hear. PC: She was quite well known for her multiple movie musicals at the time of SWEET CHARITY, as well. BV: Yes, yes, yes - she was.PC: Do you support the current online petition for the full roadshow version of the film to finally be released on Blu-ray? BV: Of course! That should be available for people to see - definitely.PC: Two of your other movie musical classics have made their Blu-ray debuts very recently, too - FUNNY LADY just came out last month, as a matter of fact. BV: Oh, it did? I haven't seen it yet - the Blu-ray.PC: Was that an enjoyable experience? BV: Oh, yes - FUNNY LADY was a joy to do.PC: How did you first become involved with that project? BV: Well, I went to see Barbra Streisand in UP THE SANDBOX one afternoon while I was doing PIPPIN and that evening I was in my dressing room and in walks Barbra Streisand. PC: Wow. BV: Yeah. And, the next thing I knew I was on the set. [Laughs.]PC: What Barbra wants, Barbra gets! BV: Indeed! Indeed.PC: Did you have quite a bit of extraneous material that was cut, as rumor suggests? BV: Yes, I did - but, you know, that's how it is in movies. That's how it goes. But, hey, you know, I'm in the film!PC: Boy, are you! What a magnetic performance. BV: Thank you for saying that, Pat. I was actually nominated for a Golden Globe for that - for doing the great number, "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie"!PC: Have you spoken to Barbra Streisand at any point since doing the film together way back when? BV: We haven't spoken, I don't think, but I have seen her at various functions that we both attended and things like that.PC: The third movie musical of yours currently celebrating a milestone is ALL THAT JAZZ, which finally arrived on Blu-ray in a stunning new print thanks to the Criterion Collection late last year. BV: Yes, yes, yes. How wonderful that is.PC: Have you dug into the exhaustive and exhilarating bonus features yet? BV: I have not, I regret to say, but I should definitely give it a look. I've heard it's a fabulous package - just fabulous. PC: How did Bob Fosse originally pitch you to do ALL THAT JAZZ? BV: Well, I was in Vegas - I was doing Vegas at the time. And, one day he called me and he said, "I have a part that I'd love you to do in this film." So, after the show, I flew out and worked on it for one day - we did the bit where I play the emcee on TV, O'Conner Flood - and then I went back to Las Vegas, where I had a few week engagement, and, he called me again a few days later and he said, "Ben, I am stuck for an ending. If you can come back and give me just one week, I think that I can get it." So, I flew back out and did what he asked. [Pause.] Three weeks later... [Laughs.] PC: Not quite a week, eh? BV: Three weeks later! But, we did it - we finished it. And you see that it was all worth it.PC: Ever the perfectionist. BV: That's exactly what Bob was - a perfectionist. Exactly. You know, I love that line in the movie when Roy [Scheider] talks about the rose and says, "Why can't I do that?"PC: So brilliant. BV: Yes. That was Bob.PC: That film has one of Jessica Lange's first big breathrough roles, as well. BV: Yes, you are right - one of Jessica Lange's first big parts was in ALL THAT JAZZ.PC: Would you be open to sharing the screen with her on AMERICAN HORROR STORY someday soon? BV: Oh, I would love to - love to. I think Jessica Lange is fabulous. PC: On the note of TV, you've recently made some high-profile appearances on some huge hits - firstly, the last season of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, starring Neil Patrick Harris. BV: Yes, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER - it's always great to work with Neil. I think he is a sweet kid - he is a real hard worker and he is very, very dedicated to his craft. It's always a pleasure working with him. Always.PC: You also appeared with Betty White on HOT IN CLEVELAND. BV: I know! I know! With Betty White - can you believe it?! [Sighs.] Look at that!PC: Is she as fun as she seems? BV: Oh, yes! More. It was an honor, though - a true honor.PC: Did you two know each other back in the day? BV: No, we did not, actually, but I was so happy to work with her on HOT IN CLEVELAND. We had a ball.PC: So, are you based in New York these days or have you escaped the sub-zero winter we are experiencing? BV: I am in Tucson, Arizona, actually, now, but I stopped in for a minute a week or two ago and I know what you mean - and then it got real cold right after I left! I missed the worst of it. PC: Have you seen anything recently that you particularly enjoyed? BV: Well, I mean, I am not in the city a lot these days - I go see my friends when I am in town, though. I have actually seen quite a lot of people play at 54 Below, where I will be doing STEPPIN' OUT.PC: Such as? BV: Oh, Patti LuPone and Roz Ryan and some of the others. I don't get the chance to see as many things there or on Broadway that I would like to, but when I am there, I go - I always do.PC: 54 Below is such a fantastic space. BV: 54 Below is the quintessential Broadway nightclub.PC: What can we expect from your new 54 Below show, STEPPIN' OUT? BV: Well, it's mostly familiar things and a few new things. It's interactive and it's about enjoying the people in the room with you and singing the songs that we love from the shows that I have been in - and, also, a few songs that they maybe have not heard. Pretty much, it's about telling great stories - sharing all of our stories with them. It's like going home to family playing there - a warm, inviting family. PC: And it caters to all age groups, as well - 16 to 96! BV: It does - it really does. It's so great - so great. It's the place to be. PC: Do you have more nightclub appearances scheduled coming up around the country? BV: Yeah, we are bringing this show around, but we are getting ready to bring my show into Broadway. Joe Colarco is working on the book and we are getting ready to bring the show to Broadway right now, so the show we are doing at 54 Below is going to be part of the show that is coming to Broadway.PC: What other projects do you have coming up? BV: Well, I am getting ready to direct HAIR down in Venice, Florida, and then take that around, too. So, besides that and doing the STEPPIN' OUT tour, I am also teaching classes and lecturing and things of that nature to remind people that the arts are alive and well in our lives and we have to embrace it. You know, we have so much strife going on in the world right now that we are all looking for an answer and I can tell you that the answer is the arts - that's the answer.PC: What a powerful statement. Do you particularly enjoy working with young talent? BV: I do. As you know, I have the Ben Vereen Awards, which is part of the Nederlanders' initiative to keep kids in the arts - they send out a list of plays that can be done to kids in high schools throughout the southwest; like in Tucson, where I live, and San Diego. Then, the kids put on these plays and musicals and the kids who participate in the plays then get to come to the Ben Vereen Awards ceremony and if they win that then they get $1000 and they come to New York for the Jimmy Awards, which offers the prize of $10,000 towards their college and their career.PC: How wonderful. BV: It really is. What we've done that's new this year is that we've established the wellness program, as well. We noticed that the inner-city schools don't have the arts because they do not have the funds for them, so what we are doing is holding a massive essay contest where young people living with diabetes or obesity or other afflictions have the chance to write an essay about the best day of their life - the idea is to focus on positive thinking through your adversity. Then, the best five essays will each receive $500 and we are turning them into a mini-musical that we are filming and planning on sending around to all the high schools and junior high schools in the area to bring awareness towards next year's contest. So, hopefully, it will grow and grow every year.PC: Is this happening soon? BV: It's happening right now! Right now. The main idea of it all is to keep the arts alive in any way possible. You know, in the Bible it says that "In the beginning, God created man," - it doesn't say that God manufactured us! [Laughs.]PC: An instructive point. BV: We need to stop manufacturing people and let them allow their creativity to come forward. We need to teach people how to live instead of just making a living and to also make some sort of artistic expression with their life. PC: Hopefully we will all get a chance to see this musical film someday, too. Will it be online? BV: Yes, it will be on the internet at some point. Basically, it's about overcoming diversity and it is all based on what these young kids write and we are picking the best five. It's difficult choosing only five - they are all so good; so good. So, we will choose the best essays and videos and make a mini-musical out that for this year, and, then, next year, we will do it again and keep it going on and on and on. The main goal is get kids talking about adversity and talking about the arts and give them a chance to pursue the arts in their lives. It's about protecting that spark of creativity inside of them.PC: I know Paul Becker from him having done this column and the documentary he is making about you is shaping up to be something unbelievable. BV: Oh, yes - Paul is a great man. A truly great man. Yes.PC: Have you filmed hours of footage for it? BV: Oh, yes, yes, yes - hours and hours; lots of footage. We promise that we will get it out soon! [Big Laugh.]PC: It's quite a daunting undertaking - what a life you have had!
BV: It's been a fun ride!
PC: With the documentary potentially coming out this year, when are you hoping to come back to Broadway at long last?BV: We don't have any confirmed dates yet, but we are on the fast-track right now to bring in my show very soon.PC: Chita back in THE VISIT, you back at 54 Below - now all we need is Liza back to complete the timeless Fosse trio! BV: Listen, that's great, but I want to get the three of us together onstage!PC: Imagine that! Like THE MAIN EVENT tour with Liza and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.. BV: Yes! Exactly.PC: Which would you prefer, a whole new show or a revue? BV: Oh, it's gotta be a whole new show - everything new! It's gotta be new.PC: It's always such a thrill and a pleasure speaking to you, Ben. I sincerely appreciate this today. BV: Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pat. I'll see you soon. Bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, etc.