Ben Vereen: The original triple threat
After enthralling TV audiences with his performance as Chicken George in the epic miniseries Roots, Ben Vereen then conquered Broadway, winning a Tony for Pippin, and then, movies. The quintessential triple threat (he sings, dances and acts), Vereen has been steadily working and had recent stints on the small screen, most recently in the Magnum P.I. reboot and the first two seasons of Amazon’s Sneaky Pete. He’s coming to the Ridgefield Playhouse in Steppin’ Out for the Holidays on Dec. 2. Andrea Valluzzo spoke with him about the show.
Andrea Valluzzo: You started in the arts in junior high in The King and I. When did you know that the arts was your calling?
BV: I really didn’t. As a matter of fact, I still don’t know (laughs), it’s been good to me though. When did I know? It was fun and the fun just continued. I didn’t really know anything about show business. My track at the time was to be a minister or to be an officer in the military. My junior high principal said go into the high school of performing arts.
AV: When did you know you had made it?
BV: I think when I won a Tony, no, it was actually Jesus Christ Superstar and it still wasn’t like ‘this is major,’ but ‘this is fun.’ I can do something that I love doing. We in this business are here to serve you, the public. That is an honor and I’ve been blessed to be able to do that all these years.
AV: You worked with Bob Fosse on several shows and paid homage to him in Fosse in 1999.
BV: Meeting Bob Fosse was a major, major turning point in my life. I was not working, I didn’t have any money, I was standing on the corner at a newsstand and picked up Backstage, a trade paper and saw there was an audition at a place called the Palace Theater for Sweet Charity, which I had never seen. I met Bob Fosse and it changed my life.
AV: What’s the most important lesson you learned from him?
BV: Discipline, tenacity, seriousness of work, and perfectionism, although we never reach it, we must keep reaching for it. And that’s in life itself, you keep working at it, it’s never going to be what you want but at least you are working toward perfection in your life.
AV: What can audiences expect at Steppin’ Out for the Holidays?
BV: It’s going to be exciting because it’s also Hanukkah. I get to sing my Hebrew songs, for which I won an Israeli culture award for, and share some Christmas songs and stories.
AV: You’re working on an autobiographical show for Broadway, Reflections?
BV: We’re working on it, that’s still coming, I don’t like to talk about it until it actually is. What it is is exactly what it says, reflections, and it’s not only my reflections but our reflections or your parents’ reflections as you were growing up.
AV: Tell us about your foundation.
BV: The Ben Vereen Foundation. I started a thing called Wellness for the Arts some years ago and the idea was to help kids who do not have the arts and those kids who are homeless. In New York City where I am living, there are more homeless kids going to school and displaced. We must stop this, this is our future so I try to take the arts to them.
AV: What else are you up to?
BV: I’m working a show called Star where I play Queen Latifah’s father and a bunch of other projects. I’m giving lectures and I’m teaching master classes because I want to give these young people what I know, what has inspired me. I hope to inspire them and help them along the way. With the foundation, what we plan to do is eventually have summer camps and intensives for kids to learn singing, dancing, and the arts of life.