“I spent the day at a church in Harlem feeding the homeless. It is something we should all do,” said the world-renowned entertainer Ben Vereen when I spoke to him by phone the day after Thanksgiving. I called him to talk about his one-man show, “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen,” and upcoming debut at The Palladium on Saturday, Jan. 18 at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. With his long-time trio, Vereen will perform a tribute to legendary friends such as Frank Sinatra and his mentor Sammy Davis Jr.
During my chat with the jovial Vereen, whom I found to be kind, genuine and humble, he told me he had been looking out of the window of his Midtown Manhattan home at the “winter wonderland,” the result of a recent heavy snowfall, before expounding on his work with the homeless. “It’s become my banner issue this year. I became involved with this organization called Care for the Homeless. At the church where we fed them, I greeted them and sat with them and got to know them. We just had a Thanksgiving,” said Vereen, who played a homeless person in “Time Out of Mind,” a film he did with Richard Gere. “When referring to the homeless, I often use the quote ‘There but for the grace of God go (you and) I,’” he added. “We truly are our brother’s keepers.”
Constantly working and visible for more than 55 years as an actor-singer-dancer, 73-year-old Vereen’s first love has always been the theatre. A graduate of Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, he’s starred in Broadway shows such as “Wicked,” “Fosse,” “I’m Not Rappaport,” “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Pippin” (for which he won the coveted Tony Award), “Grind,” “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and “A Christmas Carol.” More recently, the versatile Vereen was in an episode of “Bull” and the new TV series “Magnum, P.I.,” both on CBS. He had a recurring role on the FOX series “Star” and appeared in an episode of the BET series “Tales.”
Vereen is thoroughly excited about his inaugural appearance at The Palladium, which is also the home of the Great American Songbook Foundation, founded by Michael Feinstein, who is also the Center for the Performing Arts artistic director. “Like what Michael is doing, I am trying to keep alive the music of the American Songbook and the legacies of the people who sang that music,” said Vereen. As for Feinstein, he said, “Mike and I go way back. Mike used to come to my house in Los Angeles and practice before he became Michael Feinstein (laughs). My wife and I are good friends with him. Now he is everywhere. I am so proud of him.”
Besides his continuing passion for performing, Vereen also champions arts education. In January 2016, he signed with Americans for the Arts, the largest advocacy group in the country. “My godmother was a missionary and I started singing in churches. I enjoyed the arts as a child, but I did not look at it as ‘the arts.’ I looked at it as life. Art should be at the forefront of our consciousness. That is what we are working to do. Holding the line for the arts means you are holding the line for your life,” said Vereen, emphasizing, “I try to live my life in a way that is an example for others to follow my path, but I want young people to find their goals which are within them.”
But it hasn’t always been easy. As one of the first black stars of musical theatre, he’s endured his share of discrimination. “I never let it have power over me. I wouldn’t allow myself to be a victim. When you complain, you remain.” In 1987, he lost his 16-year-old daughter Naja in a horrific traffic and just five years later, he was hit by an SUV while walking and suffered major head trauma and other internal injuries. “I have had a lot of tragedies in my life, but if you have a power greater than yourself and you lean on that power, it will carry you through,” he said. “It has no religion. It is an inner feeling of faith inside yourself or belief in Allah or Buddha or Jesus or whatever you call that greater high power. It works. Trust it blindly.”
Never one to let grass grow under his feet, Vereen revealed he is once again working with lyricist-composer Stephen Schwartz, who created the music for “Pippin,” and Emmy Award-winner (“Smash”) and Tony-nominated choreographer Josh Bergasse (“On The Town”) developing the Broadway-bound musical “Reflections” about Vereen’s life. “It is kind of hard not to make yourself a hero in every scene and hard to tell a story about yourself that is authentic. And that is what we are in the process of doing, the authentic part of it. It’s my life and life in general. Not just about me, I hope for it to be universal,” he emphasized.
Effusive with a great sense of humor, Vereen joked throughout the interview. I asked him if he is still dancing, to which the performer, who has studied with the likes of Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, replied with a hearty laugh, “I’m still moving. I am 73 years old,” before going on to tell me about a T-shirt he wears that says, “ I wouldn’t mind aging if I wasn’t so sexy.”
Concluding what was a totally delightful exchange with the self-effacing star, I asked what his Palladium audience can expect on Saturday. “A good time. A very good, inspiring time. We need inspiring stories. We need to talk about the good that is happening these days and our ability to overcome all things. Love and peace and things people aren’t talking about anymore. We need to inspire young people to be all they can be,” he said before we said our goodbyes.
For tickets and information about “Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen,” visit thecenterpresents.org.