Q&A: Ben Vereen
Ben Vereen practically launched his career on the Strip “in the days when it was just one block.” He went on to Broadway to sing and dance in Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Pippin before starring on television in Roots and in Bob Fosse’s semi-biopic All That Jazz. He makes frequent guest appearances on television nowadays, as he discussed with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, but his heart is onstage as audiences at Myron’s Cabaret Jazz inside The Smith Center for The Performing Arts find out Sept 20-22.
You’ve been doing this particular production for six or seven years now, right?
Yeah, I’ve been doing it for a while but it’s still in development. Matter of fact, we’re talking about doing a spin-off where I’m actually going to do a Broadway show based on my life, and part of it will be the essence of what you see at Smith Center.
So the show at The Smith Center has evolved somewhat. You take it where you want it to go …
Yes. Exactly. Now we’re writing a book to it, to actually have a Broadway sit-down show.
Will Stephen Schwartz contribute music?
Yeah, Stephen Schwartz is going to contribute. We’ve got Joe Calarco working on the book. We’ve got (choreographer) Josh Bergasse. Talented man, talented.
Would that be your first time back to Broadway since Wicked?
Oh, yes. I was in Wicked. Played the Wizard, with Shoshana Bean, and we introduced a woman named Megan Hilty. It was her first Broadway show.
Are you doing “When I’m 64” in the current show? I don’t want to give too much away …
We play around with that. I think it’s time now that we recognize the songs we sang then … I’m living those songs now. (laughs) I am. I’m past 64! So we gotta celebrate.
So all the main shows that you’re famous for are represented in show we’re going to see. Songs from Sweet Charity …
Sweet Charity, Stephen Schwartz, everybody. A little bit of Jacques Brel, a little bit of Motown, Hamilton.
Last time I was at Smith Center was for Chita Rivera.
Oh, my darling.
I understand you’re pretty good friends, and you hosted the third annual Chita Rivera Awards (which recognize dancing and choreography on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in film) in May?
Yes, with my friend Ann Reinking. It was fabulous. We had such a good time.
Is that part of your activism efforts on behalf of the arts in education?
Very much so. I’m a strong believer that life is an art form. What you do as a writer is a process. Everything in our life has a creative base. In the Bible, in the Bible I read, it says, “In the beginning God created,” not “God manufactured.” Therefore we are all creative aspects of the one that created us, call it Allah, God, Buddha, Jesus, Higher Power … we are all creative aspects of that, and if we honor each other as much as we honor paintings, music, and we honor ourselves as art people, maybe the world will be a little better. Maybe we wouldn’t have so much violence today, and talking about these guns and everything … maybe if they had violins and instruments, might be that the world might be better. I’m not saying everyone’s going to be a song-and-dance man, everyone’s going to be an artist, everyone’s going to be a musician. No! What you’re doing with your life is an expression of your creator, which is art.
You have a lot of history with Vegas.
Yeah, I do. Matter of fact my first show was with Juliet Prowse. We opened in a little place. It was a coffee shop called Caesars Palace.
Was that Sweet Charity?
Yes, she was the star of Sweet Charity, yes. We came in, Bob Fosse directed it, and we opened Caesars Palace with our first show. I think it was the first Broadway show that came to Las Vegas. I’m pretty sure it was.
I wasn’t aware that they were bringing Broadway shows to Vegas at the time.
Oh yeah, yeah! It was the first time a Broadway show actually came to Vegas. Juliet Prowse, Paula Kelly and Elaine Dunn, I think. The three of them. That was the first Broadway professional show I did. I tell the story often about how I just happened to show up on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, and it was like the opening of All That Jazz, the film. Every male dancer from New York City and the world was on that stage, and the show I was auditioning for was Las Vegas, Sweet Charity.
So did Bob Fosse pick you out for Vegas, or did the relationship develop after that?
Yes he did! That was the first time I met Bob Fosse. I happened to be on the corner and I picked up a trade paper called Backstage. And I happened to notice there was an open call—I didn’t have an equity card—for a show called Sweet Charity starring a lady named Juliet Prowse, going to Las Vegas to open Caesars Palace. That was the first show that I auditioned for and got, with Bob Fosse. First time I met him, and we became fast friends after that.
What was your first starring role on Broadway after that?
A show called Jesus Christ Superstar. I’d auditioned after I came back from London with Sammy Davis Jr., who in those days … the Rat Pack was running Vegas! It was an exciting time. I mean, it was unbelievable. I’d go to Nero’s Nook, and I’d be sitting there with Frank Sinatra. It was the Rat Pack! We were hanging out! I met Sammy Davis in Vegas, and later did the film Sweet Charity with him, starring Shirley MacLaine. I came to London from New York, auditioned for (director) Tom O’Horgan, who took me into Hair, and he chose me to do Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. It was my first Broadway show, although I came back to Broadway to do a little stint in Hair.
So a little stint in Hair, then a Tony nomination?
Yeah. I was nominated for a Tony in Jesus Christ Superstar, and then the next year. Bob Fosse heard I was up for a Tony. He called me and put me in Pippen.
What is it like to have a sudden uplift like that in your career? You had no idea where things would lead when you started.
I didn’t enter this career thinking about hit shows. It was about employment. (laughs) It still is. I’ve been blessed to meet people like Tom O’Horgan, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince. Michael Peters. The list goes on and on and on. They had faith in me and my talent.
I first became aware of you when I was living in New York as a child, and there was a 1978 Boston Pops performance on the PBS station.
Yes! With Arthur Fiedler.
You were doing a tribute to (Bahamian-American Vaudeville entertainer) Bert Williams in blackface. I can give you the perception of an 8-year-old kid that had no concept of you. I felt like you were looking right at me, and I felt all the emotion, and I, as a child, understood what you were doing right away.
I understood the symbolism of what it meant. I understood when you wiped away the blackface. I understood the emotion in your eyes, and when I found out you were coming to The Smith Center I jumped on it and told my editor we had to do an interview.
Wow. I appreciate that, and I appreciate you. Thank you. These are the rich moments in my career, when I hear stories like that. Thank you for that.
I’ll bet. You’re welcome. It must mean a lot when you grasp the spectrum of how you affect and affected people. I knew of blackface when I was a child, and it trended as a news topic last year. I’m sure that caught your eye.
Yes, I did. You know why I was doing it? Because it was historic. It’s a part of African-American history. I had just finished (playing Chicken George) in Roots, and I said this is a good time to bring this up and talk about the subject, because this is a part of our Holocaust as African-Americans, that we had to endure in this country. And overcame.
Black entertainers had to perform in blackface to get paychecks and support 20 other people that didn’t have performance skills.
They had to. When slavery was abolished and a couple of white entertainers happened to be out of work, and they were in the South, and they saw African-Americans entertaining themselves on a Sunday, supposedly their day off. And they were dancing and carrying on, and (the white entertainers) said, “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s black up and do them.” But when slavery was abolished and African-Americans wanted to go on the American stage in most cities, they said “The only way you’re going to get on our stage is by wearing blackface.” And they took it and made it an art form.
What I didn’t know until recently was what happened at the White House when you did that performance again (for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981) and they cut off the end of it. The heartbreak must have been immense.
I really felt that it was important, especially for the President at that time and the nation to see what we had to clean up in this country. We still have a long way to go, but in those days I was promised that the entire piece would be shown, and they cut it in half. So the nation, the world, only saw me doing the buffoonery. … We were denied the opportunity to read in this country. My great-grandfather, who was a slave, he was working on a house. He was standing on the roof of the master’s house, listening to the white people read the Bible, and he would sit by the fire when they all went to sleep and he taught himself to read that way. He would look at the pages and he’d remember the words so he could put them together. We are a magnificent people with a magnificent heritage, as all Americans are.
I saw Roots: The Next Generations before I saw Roots, so I saw the scene where your son, Tom, played by vastly underappreciated Georg Stanford Brown, is forced to read before he’s allowed to vote. That stuck with me. What they call “woke” now, Roots was the beginning of that.
It was, it was.
And that was your first role as an actor where you played a dad. You’ve been playing fathers so much lately. You were Chris Rock’s dad (Top Five), Will Smith’s dad (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Wayne Brady’s dad (How I Met Your Mother) and recently Queen Latifah’s dad (Star). That’s a lot of dadding.
(laughs) That’s a lot of dads.
You’re the go-to dad. Everybody wants Ben Vereen for a dad. Which dad did you like playing most?
(laughs) I’ve got to tell you, I really have to thank Will Smith. I enjoyed them all, but Will Smith … I had just had an accident in ’92, and my body was pretty broken. The doctor said I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, according to their knowledge. They look at the physical body instead of the spiritual body, and they said “It’ll be three years before you walk again.” And I was blessed that 10 months later, I would walk onstage in Jelly’s Last Jam. I was invited to do the show with Gregory Hines. While I was doing the show two things happened. Will Smith called and asked me to come out and play his dad. Recently on Father’s Day of this year, he tweeted to thank Lou, the character I played. He said “We much understand our fathers. Happy Fathers Day, Lou.” I was so touched. And then after that, Levar Burton (who played Kunta Kinte, Chicken George’s grandfather in Roots) called me to play his dad in Star Trek: The Next Generation!
You either play fathers or mentors. I enjoyed your performance in Sneaky Pete. That scene where you’re walking on the sidewalk and you transition from the elderly magician’s walk to the Ben Vereen walk before getting into an expensive sports car. That was really done well.
With Giovanni (Ribisi), yes! That was a fun scene, thank you.
Sammy Davis was a mentor to you. Do you have that kind of relationship with Usher? I understand you’re his godfather.
Yes, as a matter of fact my daughter brought Usher to me. My daughter, Karon Davis, she has a museum in Los Angeles that’s called The Underground Museum. She’s getting bigger than I am. My God, she had a full page in the Los Angeles Times. I’ve never had a full page in the Los Angeles Times! She’s doing fantastic. Well, she discovered Usher. He sort of came around, and next thing I know all my dance tapes were going off the shelves. I said, “Where are my tapes of my shows?” Usher had them. And so he became my godson.
So he’s doing your moves.
Sammy was my mentor but Sammy was everybody’s mentor, ’cause nobody could do it like Sammy Davis Jr. to this day. Nobody does it like Sammy Davis Jr. And I had the honor and the privilege for him to call me friend. You know what a blessing that was … is? I actually pay tribute to him in my show. I want to keep his name out there. We must hold up our heroes, and the people on whose backs we stand.