Ben Vereen and a sweet, happy life

Ben Vereen - Photo 1

When you call Ben Vereen’s mobile phone, you get a most entertaining voicemail message. It’s Chita Rivera singing, “My wish for you is a sweet, happy life.” Then a cheerful Vereen says that’s his wish for you as well. It’s such an uplifting message that by the time you hear the beep, you realize you don’t really miss talking to the man himself.

But then you get the man himself, and he proves to be even more cheerful than that message. At 65, and after a car accident in 1992 that would have sidelined just about anyone else, Vereen is a man on the move, a man with a plan. He’s bringing his show Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen to the Rrazz Room June 12-17. Next month he’ll play the newly opened 54 Below, the cabaret underneath the former nightclub (now legit Broadway theater) Studio 54. Then he goes to Australia, and after that, it’s Broadway, baby. At least that’s the plan. Vereen is hard at work on the show he’s call in The Last of the Showmen, and that’s really what he is.

As someone who has worked with the greats like Sammy Davis Jr. on the way to becoming great himself, Vereen knows all about the golden age of showmen – the unique razzle dazzle of someone who can sing, dance, act and fill a stage – and is the ideal entertainer to bring some attention to the legacy of legendary showmen, of which he is undeniably one. That’s not to say, however, that showmanship is dead. On the contrary.

“Let’s talk about my godson, Usher,” Vereen says on the phone from Los Angeles. “What about Or Beyoncé? Cats like that. It’s a younger generation doing their own thing, entertainment metamorphosing into something different. But we’ll always have song-and-dance men and women. I’m proud to be part of that legacy.”

Rrazz Room audiences may get a peek at some of the Showmen material while he journeys through some highlights of his storied career – like his Tony-winning turn in Pippin or his memorable performances in Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago or, most recently, Wicked (he was the Wonderful Wizard of Oz). Vereen was last here three years ago (read my review of that show here), and if the new show is anything like the one he unleashed then, audiences are in for a treat.

But don’t expect Vereen to spend a lot of time wallowing in the past. Ask him what he’s most proud of in his 65 years, thinking maybe he’ll say it was playing Chicken George in the seminal miniseries Roots or working with Bob Fosse on Sweet Charity or Pippin (pictured below). But Vereen is a man of the moment.

Ben Vereen Pippin

“I’m most proud of working in the Rrazz Room next week,” he says. “I’m in the present. I wake up in the morning and get another opportunity to do what I do. People ask me what I still want to accomplish, and I say, ‘The next day.’ Today is enough. I will take what I can in today and be fulfilled in today. I had to learn to live in the present. It happened when I found my breath. I’m a grandfather now. That’s something that will slow you down and make you grateful for each day.”

Vereen says he has a special fondness for San Francisco because he claims it’s where his career really took off. Even though he’d already done Sweet Charity in Las Vegas with Fosse and Golden Boy with Davis, he says it all really started when he drove his mail truck – he was living in it at the time – from Los Angeles to San Francisco to replace Philip Michael Hall in Hair. The year was 1970.

“I was a hippie!” Vereen says with glee. “I was a black hippie living in a puke-green ’54 mail truck I called Henry Charles Mailer. I had a tambourine, a guitar and a footlocker full of clothes. I think there was even an American flag hanging on the truck. I pulled up to the Orpheum Theatre to do Hair, and then after that I stuck around for the play No Place to Be Somebody. A journalist named John Wasserman wrote a story called ‘How a Star Is Born,’ and my career took off. Next stop was Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar.”

San Francisco was also the birthplace of Vereen’s daughter, Naja, who died tragically in a 1986 car accident. “San Francisco is where my daughter came into the world. How could that city not hold a special place in my heart?” Vereen says.

Vereen is clearly a man of spirit. One of his many activities these days is teaching young people the performing arts.

“In the beginning, biblically speaking, God created Earth,” Vereen says. “It’ doesn’t say God manufactured Earth. What we’re trying to do now is manufacture young people into life. Life itself is an art form. As long as we try to manufacture, we take out the essence and the spirit of life. Spirit is art. Children express art from the first cry out of their mother’s womb. They come to bring us art, and we try to separate that by educating them. We cut away the arts from the school system, and we’re cutting away our soul, our spirit.”

Earlier this year, Vereen and the rest of the Roots met for a reunion at the home of Oprah Winfrey. It was a reunion of sorts for Vereen and Winfrey as well.

“I met her years ago when she was working in Baltimore. She interviewed me in a little room,” Vereen recalls. “Sitting in her home, she said, ‘I remember you. We go way back.’ It was wonderful. The whole experience was wonderful. Imagine we’re still talking about Roots 35 years later. Talking about the value of it, what it brought to the country and our world. It’s not just about African-American life but about life itself, about true spiritual roots. If we can get back to those roots, maybe we can find peace on the planet. If enough people can believe in that with me, it can happen.”

And wouldn’t that be a sweet, happy life.

[bonus video]

Please enjoy Ben Vereen and Chita Rivera in the 1999 Las Vegas production of Chicago.



Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen Live! runs June 12-17 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$50 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit

Cabaret review: Ben Vereen


Legendary performer Ben Vereen sang standards and songs from Broadway in his Rrazz Room show. Photos by Isak Tiner


Kick, kick, turn and SING! Ben Vereen does the cabaret thing

Toward the end of his exhilarating show at San Francisco’s gorgeous Rrazz Room, Ben Vereen was musing on the state of the world and trying to find something positive to say. He concluded that it’s not so much about our leaders but about us living good lives and taking care of each other.

“But what do I know?” he said. “I’m just some legendary star.”

Then he let loose with one of those chuckles, grinned that high-wattage Vereen grin and sang “If I Ruled the World.”

Vereen was making fun of himself…sort of. He is a legend and he knows it. He won a Tony Award in Pippin, and he’s been in shows ranging from Sweet Charity to Golden Boy to Grind to Wicked. He starred as “Chicken” George in the landmark TV series Roots, and he’s made memorable screen appearances in All That Jazz and Idlewild.

At 62, after some rocky patches involving a car accident and health problems, Vereen is back on stage and in fine form.

He’s currently touring with a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. that requires an 18-piece orchestra, but he scaled things down for the Rrazz Room with his pianist/musical director Nelson Cole, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Marc Dicianni. But the thing about Vereen is that he’s a large-scale performer and brings theater-size pizzazz with him wherever he goes.

This was evident early in his 90-minute set with a medley of songs from Broadway shows he’s been in: “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin, “Aquarius” from Hair and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the title song from Jesus Christ Superstar. He even tackled “Memory” from Cats and gave it the full-on dramatic treatment then left us with a religious spin: in the last notes as the new day was dawning, he looked up and said, “Thank you, Father, thank you.”


Decked out in a black suit with red flourishes – a silky red scarf, a red stripe down the black tie, a flash of red around the black shirt collar – Vereen looks great and sounds good. He talked about his fond memories of San Francisco doing No Place to Be Somebody at the Off Broadway Theatre and going tribal in Hair at the Orpheum.

During his tribute to Frank Sinatra (which includes a “My Way” that Vereen somehow gets away with), Vereen sang “It Was a Very Good Year” and couldn’t resist the urge to dance. But looking at the rather confined space on stage, he said: “They said there would be room to dance” and chuckled. But he managed to move. And later in the show, during the Davis tribute’s rendition of “Hey There” from The Pajama Game, Vereen danced his way through the audience.

That Davis tribute really is the centerpiece of Vereen’s show, and it’s fantastic. Vereen and Davis worked together in Golden Boy, and it’s clear Vereen has great affection and admiration for Davis during such numbers as “Once in a Lifetime,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and a reconfigured “Mr. Bojangles,” complete with black bowler hat, that refers directly to Davis.

Vereen’s duets with the individual members of his band were stellar. With Dicianni using his hands instead of sticks on his drum kit, he and Vereen performed a thrilling “Misty”; with Kennedy doing extraordinary things to his upright bass, Vereen gave “My Funny Valentine” new life; and with Kennedy’s sumptuous melodic support on piano, he sang “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” that managed to be funny and affecting.

Like the seasoned performer he is, Vereen can make a cabaret feel like an intimate exchange or the Act 1 finale of a Broadway show. He’s charming, funny and intense, and he makes a strong connection with his audience. But then again, what does he know? He’s just some legendary star.


Ben Vereen will sing the national anthem at the Oakland As baseball game against the Texas Rangers on Thursday, May 7th.  Also on that day, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has also declared Thursday, May 7th, “Take the Stage for Diabetes Awareness Day” in San Francisco and awarded Vereen a mayoral proclamation.


Ben Vereen performs through May 10 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. except for a special Mother’s Day show at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 10. Tickets are $45-$50 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit for information.

Here’s an excerpt of Vereen performing “Magic to Do” and doing the Bob Fosse thing in Pippin (circa 1981):

Ben Vereen coming to SF

Tony Award-winning performer Ben Vereen is spending this Saturday night (May 17) in Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with a self-explanatory show called An Intimate Evening with the Legendary Ben Vereen.

Vereen made his New York stage debut at age 18 in Prodigal Son and shortly after landed in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin (which won him his Tony). With film roles in Funny Lady and All That Jazz, Vereen also made a lasting impression on the small screen. He won an Emmy for “Ben Vereen…His Roots.”

In the ’80s, Vereen appeared regularly on “Webster,” but the death of his son left him feeling suicidal. But Vereen bounced back and performed again on Broadway in Jelly’s Last Jam. Now he’s back on stage and back on tour.

The show is at 8 p.m. Tickets are $62 and $68. The JCCSF is at 3200 California St., San Francisco. Call 415-292-1233 or visit for information.

Here’s Vereen heading the company of Pippin with the show-opening “Magic to Do.”