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Ben Vereen: Awake, Aware, and Alive

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He earned a Tony Award for his singing and dancing in Pippin. He became a household name playing a quietly defiant slave in TV's Roots. He's toured stadiums and concert halls all over the world. But when Ben Vereen takes the stage at Feinstein's at the Regency, he is making a debut that is more than sixty years in the making.

"I've never done cabaret," he says enthusiastically, "so this is gonna be exciting." Rather than performing in large theatres or stadiums, as he has in the past, Ben Vereen is finally bringing his fans close to him—literally. "This is my intimate evening with Ben Vereen. It's not just a cabaret show. It's an intimate look at my life." And indeed, the concert takes its audience on a meandering road through Vereen's remarkable career, showcasing songs from Jesus Christ Superstar , Hair and Pippin, and honoring some of the entertainers who inspired Vereen.

Vereen credits many disparate artists with influencing his stagecraft. Jack Nicholson, Shirley Maclane, and Sidney Poitier are only a few of the names he mentions as inspiration in his career. "When I first saw James Earl Jones on stage, I was floored," he recalls. Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, and Jackie Gleason all contributed to his style, but he offers particular praise to Frank Sinatra, who nurtured Black performers when it was unpopular for white artists to do so, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Several songs and medleys in the cabaret pay homage to the two legends.

"Sam showed me a lot," Vereen remembers fondly. "I worked with him on Golden Boy, and he gave me jobs when no one would… I'd go to his cabaret and watch him night after night. He had a deep passion for what he did, and he lived for that, to entertain. He was truly the quintessential entertainer in my eyes. He did everything, and he did it superbly. He was amazing. I watched that, and that love that he had, and that he gave, influenced me."

Other influences were less nurturing, but no less significant. "I attribute the shaping of my concert act to [critic] Rex Reed, who came to see me at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel," Vereen recalls of one of his first solo shows. "He wrote a terrible review. He slammed me! He said he never saw me because I had too many props, too much stuff going on, he felt, and he wanted to see me pure. And that was key to me. To come to pureness of performing. Which is the spirit of the arts." That pureness, he says, is like standing onstage naked, completely exposed, and asking for the audience's love. "It's really a love affair with my audience," he muses. "I love my audience, truly. They're the ones who have sustained me. They have kept me going. They have been there for me. And I love them."

That love and support has helped Ben Vereen survive obstacles that would easily end the careers of other artists. In 1992, he was in a car accident, suffered a stroke, and was struck by a second car all in one night. "I had to learn how to walk again and move again," he recalls. "My right side was completely numb. I had to learn how to feed myself. I had to learn how to bathe myself." Walking, much less dancing, seemed an insurmountable challenge. He turned to his friend Chita Rivera, who had triumphed over a debilitating car accident of her own, for comfort. "I called her," he says, "and I said, 'Chita, will I ever dance again?' And she said, 'You'll dance, but you'll dance differently. Vive la difference .'" Her encouragement, he says, helped him to work harder at rehabilitating his body, and with physical therapy—and the support of Gregory Hines, he is quick to add-- he was able to return to Broadway in Jelly's Last Jam the following year.

While the accident was his greatest professional hurdle, the greatest obstacle in his personal life was the death of his young daughter. Sixteen-year-old Naja Vereen died in 1987, also the victim of a car accident. "Nothing will ever compare, will ever come close to being a bereaved parent," he says softly. "That's a scar that will never heal. And all the therapy in the world will help you live with it or cope with it, but it will never heal." After the accident, Vereen's agent, Lee Solomon, was able to keep Ben busy with concerts and television appearances. "He knew the work would help heal my emotions, and take me through that," Vereen says. "And all the prayers of support were so amazing. Show business, what I call the Blessed Business, was very important." His triumphs over these tragedies helped him appreciate what he has, and what he still can do. "What has happened in my life has happened in all of our lives, and the blessings that came through for me come through for all of us. We've just got to be aware. Join the Triple-A club," he quips. "Awake, Aware, and Alive. To be able to share that with the public is just amazing."

He doesn't just share it with the public. Vereen has taken numerous young performers under his wing, nurturing them and giving them advice to prepare them for the rigors of music, dance and drama. He helps bring new artists to the theatre, and passes on his experience to the next generation of actors, singers and dancers. Pop star Usher is his godson, and it was Vereen who nurtured the young man through his Broadway debut as Billy Flynn in Chicago, a role which Vereen had played in Las Vegas. He also offered advice to the hip-hop group Outkast for their post-modern movie musical Idlewild, in which Vereen also had a featured role.

He credits his philosophy to his godmother, Mary Eddie, who was dedicated in her work for the Church. When asked why she would continue working as her years progressed, she responded "I don't want to rust out. I want to work out." Vereen picked up on that attitude, and applies it to his career and life: "I want to work for God. I want to work the spirit. I want to share this journey with people. It has been, and it is, a fascinating journey."


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