Ben Vereen anticipates the question before it is even asked.
“You were going to ask about my favorite role, weren’t you?”
Well, yes. With such a remarkably far-reaching career, it’s pretty much an inevitable query. After all, this is the Broadway star who won Tony Awards for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Pippin,” who danced to the choreography and direction of Bob Fosse in “Sweet Charity” and affirmed his status as a dramatic actor in the landmark television mini-series “Roots.”
But Vereen’s answer is nowhere near as expected as the question.
“Employment,” he says. “I’m still working and it’s beautiful.”
This is my ‘thank you’ to my audiences for staying with me all these years, for allowing me to do what I do.
Ben Vereen on his current tour
The reply carries more weight when you consider that perhaps the most impressive credential in Vereen’s astonishingly far-reaching career is its longevity. The legendary Fosse cast him in “Sweet Charity” 50 years ago. Today, at age 70, Vereen stays ridiculously active in numerous television series (“Sneaky Pete,” which has been renewed for a second season, and “Making History,” which debuts in March), all-star performance galas (the recent “Concert for America” in New York) and stage works. The latter includes “Steppin’ Out,” a large-scale, cabaret-style program of songs and stories representing various eras and elements of his career. Vereen will perform “Steppin’ Out” on Saturday at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
“This is my ‘thank you’ to my audiences for staying with me all these years, for allowing me to do what I do,” Vereen said. “So it’s about gratitude, mostly, for the journey we’ve taken together. The material changes every now and then, but I hope for the audiences, it’s always inspiring.”
What of Vereen’s own influences? There were certainly many through the years, but few, outside of Fosse, were as formatively profound as Sammy Davis Jr. Vereen was an understudy for Davis in an international touring production of “Golden Boy” in 1968.
“It was Sammy’s love for his audience, his devotion, his discipline — that was what he symbolized to me. I wanted very much to get close to that. I was incredibly fortunate to get the opportunity to do just that.”
Flash forward nearly a half-century, and Vereen’s career, which has run from a guest shot on “The Muppet Show” to the role of Dr. Scott in last fall’s TV remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” was back in New York’s Town Hall sharing the stage with scores of Broadway artists on the night of President Trump’s inauguration. The event, “Concert for America,” deliberately avoided being a protest. The performers instead sang and spoke in support of women’s rights, the environment, civil liberties and more in a program that the New York Times termed “distraught but upbeat.”
We kept hearing that term ‘Make America great again.’ Well, I say, ‘OK. But make America great with love.’ Give love a chance.
“It was not a time, as I said at the show, for discouragement,” Vereen said, “It was a time to be encouraged and inspired. It’s time for unity. It’s time for us to come together, to make change. It was a time not to be angry but to be positive in our hope of wanting a better America. We kept hearing that term ‘Make America great again.’ Well, I say, ‘OK. But make America great with love.’ Give love a chance.”
Such affirmation is not new for Vereen. Even in his most severe dramatic roles, the love of his craft is obvious. Perhaps that’s why almost every publicity photo or every television interview has Vereen beaming a smile as big and luminous as Broadway itself.
“You know, there is a story of this Indian chief whose son is going out into the world,” Vereen said. “The father turns to the son and says, ‘As you go, two wolves inside of you will be fighting every day of your life. One is the wolf of good, the other is the wolf of bad.’ The son was startled, turned to his father and said, ‘Which one wins?’ The father says, ‘The one that you feed.’
“In my life, I’ve chosen to feed the one that is good. That’s what gives me joy.”