The Palladium Presents: Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen
The Palladium // Saturday, Jan. 18, 8 p.m.
Actor, dancer, singer—few entertainers are as accomplished or as versatile as Ben Vereen, who will bring all those talents to his debut performance at the Palladium. Aside from countless film and TV appearances, his career on the Broadway stage—his first love—has included roles in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Wicked,” “Fosse,” “Hair” and “Pippin,” for which he won both a Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Vereen has volunteered for the American Red Cross and given his time to the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Association. In 1989, he spearheaded his own organization, Celebrities for a Drug Free America, which raised money for drug rehabilitation centers, educational programs and inner-city community-based projects. The Community Mental Health Council awarded him with their 2004 Lifeline Celebration Achievement Award. For his humanitarian contributions, he has received a number of awards, including Israel’s Cultural and Humanitarian Awards, three NAACP Image Awards, an Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and a Victory Award. Additionally, Vereen received the Gold Coast Arts Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award at an opening night reception of the Gold Coast International Film Festival in Brookville this past November.
This season, Vereen appeared in an episode of “Bull” and in the new TV series “Magnum P.I.,” both for CBS. He also appeared in a recurring role on the Fox series “Star,” created by Lee Daniels, and an episode of the BET series “Tales.” Vereen also recurs in the first and second season of the hit Amazon TV series “Sneaky Pete,” produced by David Shore and Bryan Cranston. Prior to this, Vereen starred in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for Twentieth Century Fox, directed by Kenny Ortega and starring alongside Laverne Cox.
Vereen’s one-man show dazzles audiences with music from Broadway and tributes to Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and other legendary artists. Visit thecenterpresents.org for tickets.
How old were you when you first began dreaming about becoming an entertainer?
That started when I was about 6 or 7 years old in Brooklyn. Integration was just beginning to start in the ’50s. I lived in what was considered the “ghetto,” and up on the hill from us was considered the white community, where the affluent people lived and owned most of the stores in the ghetto. When this white gentleman came along looking for black kids to integrate into the dance schools, my mother said, “Take him,” and I started up at a dance studio. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it took to me.
At what point did you realize that your dream had a chance to become your reality?
You have to understand, living in Brooklyn in those days, you lived [only] in Brooklyn. When I thought about going to New York [City], I thought I needed a passport or a ticket to go over the bridge, so my only connection to entertainment before that was TV. My father was an avid TV watcher, and we watched shows with people like Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald. Television was like a whole other world to me. So, when I had to opportunity to cross the [Brooklyn] Bridge and find out that it was real—my world was changed.
You mentioned that you like to share teaching moments that you consider most valuable throughout your performances. What are some of those “life lessons” or moments from your life?
I go through the same things as you do. We’re all going through the heartaches and ups and downs that come with life. I’ve learned as I’ve gone through life that the downs only come as steppingstones for the ups in life, and that is what my life has been. It’s all been a blessing to me.
I teach performance excellence, and I cover the whole gamut in the schools. One of the things that I say to kids is suppose you have studied to be a star and that’s in back of your mind—wanting to be the biggest star in the world. But your spirit [or spiritual guide] is saying, “I need you to be on the corner of 33rd and Third working at Starbucks. Now, you’re thinking you’ve put all this money into your school and studied all these years and you’re saying to your spirit, “You want me to work at a coffee shop?” And the spirit says, “Yes,” and your ego says, “Now, wait a minute.”
But when we humble ourselves, that’s when the universe activates the “yes” factor. When we humble ourselves, the universe perceives us as pliable and moldable into the greatness that it wants us to be.
You are passionate about arts education and paying homage to the artists, musicians and talent that has come before us. One of the many ways that you share that passion is by teaching a Master Class in every city or town in which your tour. Will you share a little more about that class and why you choose to spend your time that way?
I feel so blessed to be doing what I’m doing and coming to places like Carmel to share these stories, and I’m thankful that Michael [Feinstein] is doing what he does for the community and for keeping the [Great American] songbook music alive.
These are the voices [the legends] whose [shoulders] the youth stands on today. My job as a teacher, instructor and as a performer is to inform the students to give homage to their heritage. I am thankful for the teachers and parents who allow me to give information to their young people in hopes that they’ll use it to strengthen their lives. I try to empower them to be who they are—who they’ve come to be. And hopefully, I can shed a little light on their direction. But the most important thing about my class is that it is propelling encouragement for them to move up a little higher and not only on stage but in their lives.
In 2016, you signed with Americans for the Arts, the largest advocacy group of the Arts in America. You went with other artists to speak on Capitol Hill, defending the National Endowment for the Arts against the proposed budget cuts. They also took you to the DNC where you spoke out to various senators, congressmen, governors on the arts and education and later sang “What the World Needs Now” with other Broadway icons. What can we—everyday Americans—do to help your advocacy?
We can hold the line because they are pushing us back. We must hold the line, and we must be a united front for the arts. Everywhere. If you give a child the arts at a young age, it will make it easier on him/her to do their academics later on in life. And they will be more open, receptive and creative about the way they look at things. We must keep fighting to keep the arts in our schools and in our lives. Even in wartime, the arts kept our society, our civilizations, going. The music keeps us alive.
You appear to refuse to slow down at this point in your life and your career. You have two major Broadway projects you’re working on: One is a new show, “Reflections” written by Joe Calarco, directed by Josh Bergasse, with music by Stephen Schwartz. What drives you to continue to create and to share your talent with the world?
Every day is incredible, and I wake up every day and say, “Wow, I’ve got another opportunity to get it right.” Last year was a wonderful year and I’ve been quite busy, but I feel like I haven’t done enough. There’s so much more to do. I don’t want to rest out of life—I’ve got too much life to give.