An Astonishing Career
by Anthony Chase
Ben Vereen at the BPO
Ben Vereen is a legend in 20th-century entertainment. He won a Tony Award for originating the role of the Leading Player in Pippin, and was Broadway’s original Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. His other prominent Broadway appearances include joining the casts of Wicked, Fosse, and Jelly’s Last Jam. His landmark television appearances include the role of “Chicken” George in the historic Roots mini-series, and he starred in the most requested episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” in which he played the biological father of Will Smith’s character. He appears in the current Chris Rock film, Top Five; and appears with Richard Gere in the upcoming film, Time Out of Mind, which was highly praised at the Toronto Film Festival.
Vereen will perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Kleinhans Music Hall this Saturday, January 31st at 8 p.m. Contact the box office by telephone at (716) 885-5000 or visit the BPO online at BPO.org .
Vereen begins the interview with a thought on his mind.
“I want to start by saying I applaud the people of Buffalo for supporting their orchestra!” he says. “Other cities have lost their symphony orchestras. Buffalo saved theirs. You should feel proud of that. Buffalo supports the arts. I always remind people that in the beginning, God ‘created,’ he didn’t ‘manufacture’ the world. We rely on government to do the right thing, and too often we just wait for them to tell us what they are going to do. We get wrapped up in other things, but in Buffalo, you have held onto the arts. You have insisted that this is important. The arts are what give life meaning, so Buffalo, I’d like to thank you!”
Vereen’s performances are known for his effusive thanks to those who have influenced his life and career. He also enjoys helping others as he was helped in his youth. There is an award program for young performers in his name, and he is a popular speaker on topics ranging from overcoming adversity to the value of the arts. In addition to his BPO performance, while in Buffalo, Vereen will talk about his career with Buffalo State and Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts students, and will conduct a master class with Buffalo State theater students.
He recalls that he performed with the BPO before, in more difficult times.
“Yes, I performed with the BPO,” he says, “but it was a long time ago, which makes it especially nice that they’ve asked me back!”
For a life that has had its full share of loss and hardship, including a life-threatening accident in 1992 when he was hit by a car, Vereen is a man filled with gratitude. His performances are famously filled with expressions of thanks and tributes to those who have inspired him, from Frank Sinatra to Sammy Davis, Jr. Indeed, only 30 seconds into our conversation, the names Sinatra, Davis, and Shirley MacLaine easily come up. It’s actually fun to play the name game with Ben Vereen. He’s worked with practically everybody!
A BEN VEREEN SCRAPBOOK
George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins—As a teenager, when Vereen auditioned for New York’s Performing Arts High School, he danced for three titans of 20th century dance. He was not intimidated because, he admits, he didn’t know who they were. “All I knew was that they were three white folks, not from Brooklyn!” He was accepted to the school. Later, Vereen’s first professional show, Prodigal Son, would be choreographed by Graham.
Above Left: Carol Burnett is a huge Ben Vereen fan and was thrilled to feature him on her celebrated variety show.
Above Right: Vereen recalls that LeVar Burton star of the historic television miniseries, Roots, was just a kid when they met during filming. Burton ran up to Vereen, thrilled to meet the star of Pippin.
Above Left: Vinnette Carroll—American playwright and actress, and the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway, with the 1972 musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, Carroll was the head of drama at the Performing Arts High School. Doing a perfect impersonation of Carroll’s deep contralto voice, Vereen recalls that after his graduation, the great lady gave him his first professional job in the theater, inviting him to appear in her production of Prodigal Son Off-Broadway, choreographed by Martha Graham. “‘Ben,’ she said, ‘I want you to come work Off-Broadway with me!’” he recalled. “I was just a teenager!”
Above Right: Sammy Davis, Jr.—Vereen was cast in the film Sweet Charity with Sammy Davis, Jr. The following year, he became the older star’s understudy in the London production of the musical Golden Boy.
There’s a whole lot of Bob Fosse in Ben Vereen. “He cast me in my first big show,” recalls the star, referring to the Vegas company of Sweet Charity. The great director/choreographer would also use Vereen in the film version and in his autobiographical film, All that Jazz. Vereen’s Tony Award winning performance of Fosse’s choreography in Pippin is among the most definitive statements of the great director’s style.
Fosse folk: Ann Reinking (Fosse dancer and companion), Ben Vereen, Gwen Verdon (Mrs. Fosse and the original Sweet Charity), Liza Minnelli (star of Fosse’s film version of Cabaret), and Roy Scheider (star of Fosse’s film, All that Jazz) at a tribute to Bob Fosse.
Above Left: Gregory Hines—Vereen replaced his close friend, the great dancer Gregory Hines in Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway.
Above Right: Kermit the Frog—if it’s in the entertainment world, from Vegas to the Muppets, chances are Vereen has been there!
Above Left: Shirley MacLaine—Good friends and fellow dancers, Vereen appeared in Fosse’s film version of Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine.
Above Right: Liza Minnelli—long time friends and fellow Fosse disciples, it was Liza who inducted Vereen into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Above Left: Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen have been close friends for years. Chita appeared in the television version of Pippin with Vereen, and they appeared together in the musical Chicago in Vegas. They were both in the film version of Sweet Charity. After his accident, when Vereen confided in Chita that doctors told him he would never dance again, the legendary Grand Dame of Broadway, an accident survivor herself, assured him that he would. She was right. When Chita celebrated her 80th birthday with a Broadway concert, she invited Vereen to perform with her.
Above Right: Frank Sinatra—Vereen and Sinatra were friends, and famously reached out to each other at time of hardship. Sinatra was encouraging at the time of Vereen’s accident. Vereen was among the mourners at Sinatra’s private funeral.
Above Left: Edward Villella—the great ballet star and Vereen were both New York City kids and shared important dance teachers.
Above Right: Norman Walker—one of the foremost modern dancers of his generation, performing widely throughout the 1960s, was an important teacher to a generation of dancers, including Ben Vereen.
Above Left: David Wood—as a student at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, Vereen studied with many highly regarded modern-dance instructors, including the revered Graham dancer David Wood. “He taught me that you…have to have an inner story going on about your movement while you’re dancing,” Vereen explains. “So when a dancer who has been trained like that wants to become an actor, it’s a very natural transition.”
Above Right: Ben Vereen’s rarified world: President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan attending “All Star Tribute to Dutch Reagan” at NBC Studios (from left to right sitting) Colleen Reagan, Neil Reagan, Maureen Reagan, President, Nancy Reagan, Dennis Revell. (From left to right standing) Emmanuel Lewis, Charlton Heston, Ben Vereen, Monty Hall, Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Eydie Gorme, Vin Scully, Steve Lawrence.
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