Editor's note: Vereen has laryngitis, and the show has been postponed until Nov. 8
Richardson — When I asked Tony Award winner Ben Vereen how he fell in love with performing, his answer was a little surprising: “I didn’t, it fell in love with me!"
"You come along to this planet with gifts—passions—and they wake you up!"
His passions woke up early, as you’ll see when he takes center stage in his one-man show Steppin’ Out Live with Ben Vereen, opening the new Eisemann Presents series at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson. This one-night only event is a tribute of his journey from Brooklyn to Broadway, which includes narratives about his life and a special tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.
“I was a wild child and a street dancer,” Vereen admits. “I had never seen ballet or modern dance as a kid.”
At 14 Vereen attended New York’s High School for Performing Arts where he studied under now-legendary choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. This is where he learned to be a professional dancer. While the dance teachers were instrumental to his success, it was a non-dancer, school director Dr. Rachel Yocum who made a monumental impact on young Vereen.
“She was like a mother to me,” he reveals with tenderness in his voice. “She encouraged all of us and stood up for us. She really kept an eye on me."
After graduation he started working professionally. And then he met Bob Fosse.
In 1967 Vereen made his way to Las Vegas to perform in Fosse’s production of Sweet Charity. Fosse was known for his provocative and physically demanding dances. Vereen refers to it as “Fosse style.”
“Working with Bob Fosse was the turning point in my career. I had crazy moves and he had a style. He turned my craziness into something beautiful, working with Bob made me feel free.” Not only does Fosse’s style continue to influence his dancing today, he teaches the techniques to students in his master acting and dancing classes.
Little did he know that it was a role that would shape the character that would earn him a Tony Award for best actor in a musical, for his portrayal of Leading Player in Fosse’s 1972 production of Pippin. More on that later.
Time with Sammy Davis, Jr.
While he was still in Las Vegas Vereen was called back to New York and the following year he was cast opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity. The two men hit it off, and Davis invited the 25-year-old Vereen to join him in London to be his understudy in Golden Boy.
“Sammy took me under his wing. He was the kind of man who would give you the shirt off his back,” Vereen says. According to Vereen, most people don’t know that during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s Davis worked passionately behind the scenes to create calm among African-Americans during a tumultuous time in American history.
“He would go out at night and talk to people in the streets, including gang leaders, to try to make peace,” Vereen says. “He was a great friend and humanitarian.”
After steady work on Broadway, in 1971 Vereen was cast as Judas Iscariot in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, which earned rave reviews. The next year, Fosse cast him as the vibrant Leading Player in Pippin. That show won five Tony Awards for the 1972-73 season, including Vereen’s; Fosse earned Tonys for best direction and choreography.
In 2013, Broadway welcomed the first Broadway revival of Pippin in a new circus-inspired staging from Tony Award-nominated director Diane Paulus, circus artist Gypsy Snider and choreographer Chet Walker. The show won four Tony Awards in 2013, including one for Patina Miller’s portrayal of Leading Actor. Having been produced more than 40 years apart, the two versions are very different, Vereen acknowledges. (The national tour of this revival will appear in both Dallas and Fort Worth in 2015.)
“I saw it and enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s more Cirque du Soleil than it is Fosse style. I think Pippin gets lost in the production.”
Pippin 2013 also produced the first Tony Award ever awarded to both a male and female for the same role.
“It’s hard not to win with that part,” Vereen said half kidding. “It’s a great role. Miller is very talented and I look forward to working with her.”
A broadening career
In 1977 Vereen was cast as one of the leading roles, Chicken George, in the epic mini-series Roots, a dramatization of author Alex Haley's family line from enslavement to his descendants’ liberation. The mini-series won nine Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. Having worked mainly on the stage during his career, this role exposed Vereen to a much broader audience.
“It opened a lot of doors for me as an actor,” he says. “And it was important to have a film about the horrors of slavery. Unlike Hitler, who did not hide what he was doing, slavery was hidden.”
On Broadway, Ben Vereen has also appeared in Wicked, Fosse, I’m Not Rappaport, Hair, Grind, Jelly’s Last Jam and A Christmas Carol. He’s been in several films, television series, and has become of the nation’s most requested speakers among audiences of all ages. His topics range from overcoming adversity to the importance of continuing education. He is also the recipient of numerous awards, and he donates his time to many organizations including the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association. He continues to enjoy a demanding career, which includes his first love—stage—as well as film and television. He also just filmed a movie opposite Richard Gere and another starring Chris Rock.
Vereen says he is excited to be coming back to be with his friends in Dallas. And as he prepares for his appearance at the Eisemann Center, on stage he will follow the advice his good friend Sammy Davis Jr. gave him many years ago:
“Go out there and live and give all you can to your audience.”