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 Will.i.am? 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.
“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.
Please enjoy Ben Vereen and Chita Rivera in the 1999 Las Vegas production of Chicago.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.therrazzroom.com.