Ben Vereen in concert. (Photo courtesy of The Cooper Company.)
By Ryan Leeds
Talking with Tony Award winner Ben Vereen is like picking up a great self-help book. In spite of the tragedies he’s faced in life, Vereen is a relevant, consummate entertainer whose zest for life is both inspiring and contagious. The devout prayer warrior is featured in several television shows, hard at work on his own charitable foundation, and still manages to squeeze in a song and dance.
On Thanksgiving weekend (November 22,23) he’ll make his debut at Manhattan’s Cutting Room, performing standards and Broadway fare in Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen. Next month, he’ll add some Christmas flair to the show in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
On a recent chilly rainy afternoon, The Broadway Blog’s Ryan Leeds spoke with the multiple award-winning star about his show, his career, technology, and spirituality.
I saw you sing “What a Wonderful World” at the Concert for America after the 2017 presidential inauguration and understand that the version you sang that day is available on Amazon. What can audiences expect from your upcoming performances?
A day of Thanksgiving. It is a day that we come together to celebrate the thankfulness that has been given to us throughout the whole year. What I like to do is give my show to the audience as a ‘thank you’ from me for giving me the opportunity to entertain them and lift them up through whatever they are going through. Let’s come together and celebrate. It’s time to be thankful. If we really look at the big picture, we have so much to be thankful for.
That is a positive outlook for sure. Do you have your own band or does it vary from venue to venue?
I have guys I’ve worked with for years who have been with me from the beginning of my career. Some other guests will be joining me as well, so it’ll really give the audience a treat. I’m at the Cutting Room — so many greats have played that stage.
And you’ll also be taking the show to Ridgefield, Connecticut, on December 2nd, too.
Yes. That will include some more Christmas songs as well as some Hebrew numbers as well. It’s the start of the Jewish holidays so I’ll get to commemorate with my Jewish brothers and sisters, too. It’s about all of us coming together to celebrate, especially in the atmosphere that we’re in. It seems like the arts are being clouded, but we the people are the arts and we’ll shine throughout the world. We need that now more than ever.
I’m so excited about your involvement in arts education. You’re so dedicated that you’ve started your own foundation.
Yes. That’s right. I’ve been doing this for years, actually. I have a program called Wellness Through the Arts, which helps kids in schools, juvenile detention centers, homeless kids, etc. They write essays from their experiences of being bullied or dealing with obesity or whatever they are going through. The essays are then performed by students at a performing arts school. The kids who wrote the essays then come and see their words turn into power. It changes their lives. I’ve done it in Florida, San Diego, Sacramento, Tucson, and now we’re talking about bringing it to New York. Young people are empowered through the arts. Stop separating the arts from life. Life itself is an art form. It will soon be on our website so people can sign up. We want to get schools and corporations involved.
Do you think younger generations are embracing the arts or is technology winning their interest?
I think technology itself is an art form. We have to use technology for good and not for destruction. It needs to enhance our lives and not disrupt it. We are overwhelmed and confused right now by what to do with technology. We have to get back to the core of it, which is an artistic expression. We need to blend it and not lose the human aspect of it.
It’s amazing even how we consume music with iTunes, Spotify, and streaming services.
True. But there’s there is nothing like live performance.
The Huffington Post wrote “if the Ben Vereen Story were a movie, no studio would buy it. The triumphs and tragedies are too incredible to believe.” I understand you were raised in the Pentecostal church. I’m sure that had much to do with shaping your spirituality.
The only answer to that is yes. It is that deep-rooted spirituality which carries us all through. It’s not a religious thing — it’s a spiritual thing that encompasses all religions and all people in this incarnation called life. It’s the energy that carries us onward and upward and if we allow it, it can heal us. We are natural healers who can heal ourselves. It’s about finding your inner truth and saying, I’m good, and that’s what’s so beautiful, you are good!
So true. I feel like we are often our own worst critic.
The Biblical book of Joshua says, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.” That means you can choose to serve the positive or choose to serve the negative. Do you want to serve misery or happiness? A friend of mine says, “80 percent of the people we complain to don’t care and the other 20 percent are glad it’s you.” So get out of your pity party. Step up and enjoy life!
It’s increasingly tragic when we look at the recent shooting in Pittsburgh and other horrible world events. It’s tough to have that positivity but I really think that the music and art can help.
My prayers go out to the families at the synagogue and for the horrifying things happening in our nation right now. I’m constantly on my knees in prayer and meditation for us as a people. But I believe in us and think that we can turn it around. The arts is that one thing that is going to carry us through. What’s a song and dance gonna do? It’s gonna lift your heart. You’ll get through it.
You have your own line of clothes called Spiritual Enforcer. Tell us about that.
Yes. We are designing that as ministers of fun. If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. And if you have to do it, make it fun! I learned that from the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass.
That begs the question: What is the punishment for someone who breaks the spiritual rules?
(long pause)… It’s your own punishment. (laughs)
You’re currently on the new Magnum P.I., as well as the show Star with Queen Latifah and Amazon Prime Original Sneaky Pete. You’ve done a ton of television, not to mention a stage career spanning more than 50 years. When do you sleep?
I don’t (laughs). I’ll sleep when I lay this body down. I had a Godmother who started me singing in the Pentecostal church. She had a testimony and said, “When I die, I want God to look at me and say ‘You didn’t rust out of life. You worked your way out of life.” That has always stuck with me.
With all of that work, do you have a preference towards one form or the other?
My keynote answer is employment because it allows me to reach the people. We are in this business to serve. When I teach master classes, I let people know that this is a service business. You give people information and joy. Whatever you do with that talent could change another life.
I often wonder about artists’ signature tunes. In your case, it’s “Magic to Do.” from Pippin. Everyone wants to hear it. Do you ever cringe when you have to perform that song for the umpteenth time?
(Laughs). Honestly? Yes. That thought comes into my mind, but right away, I have to tell myself that there is someone out there who hasn’t heard that song yet. For them, it’s opening night and I have to give it my all. It’s not about me. It’s about you. And what happens once I realize that is that there is a freshness that goes on inside of me and I bring that to the stage.
That is an excellent way to look at things. You started to write a book back in 2012. Where are you in that process?
I got sidetracked a little bit, but I’m back on it.
Will it be exclusively about finding your family or other things as well?
It will be about everything. My walk, what I’ve learned, and what I hope I’ve shared along the way. Bob Fosse told me once that the hardest part of writing an autobiography is not to make yourself a hero in each chapter. (laughs)
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.