Related Story: Ben Vereen Is Steppin' Out In San Diego
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In show business, Broadway performers are known as the cream of the crop. They sing, they dance, they can make you laugh, they can make you cry. But it takes a special energy, charisma to become a Broadway star. Ben Vereen started showing that over 40 years ago, including Judas, and the lead in Pippin. Despite a series of devastating personal setbacks, he's returned to the stage in recent years, and he's performing in San Diego this weekend in his 1-man show called Stepin' Out with Ben Vereen. It's a pleasure to welcome you to the show!
VEREEN: It is a pleasure to be here. And hello to all your listening audience.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you say steppin out to the performers, the songs that have meant a lot to you over the years.
>> And to the audiences that have allowed me this wonderful journey that I've been on. The show is a precursor to a bigger show called Be the B, from Brooklyn to Broadway. It talks about our lives, from the time I entered this business, what this world has meant to me and meant to us, the things we have gone through, and the journey I've been allowed to go on. What they'll say this weekend is like a skeleton version of what's going to be.
CAVANAUGH: Some particular performers are featured in this show, performers that have influenced your career.
>> Yes, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that. Who are they?
VEREEN: Well, of course Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Shirley McClaine, Bob Fosse. The list goes on and on and on. There's so many! I had a hard time finding the ones that I wanted to feature. And for those I did not, you know who you are and you know I love you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you don't do imitations.
VEREEN: Oh, no, no. I introduce you to the essence of them. This is my tribute to them from my heart to them and to you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what drew you to show business in the first place? Were you a singing dancing kind of a kid?
VEREEN: My mother drew me to show business.
[ LAUGHTER ]
VEREEN: And I didn't -- I had no idea what it was -- what theatre was all about. The first show they was in, Sweet Charity, that was the first Broadway show I had ever seen. I had gone to school in Manhattan, performing arts, but I had never seen a Broadway production. I can seen marquees and heard stories about it, but I couldn't afford to go through the theatre because my family wasn't of the theatre. They were workers, we were from Brooklyn, and so the theatre was a whole new world for me. The arts, that's why I'm an advocate for supporting the arts today. Because we know the fact that we are struggling in the arts and we shouldn't be. Because art, that's life! Life itself is an art form. That's why we're here at the La Jolla playhouse this weekend. To encourage people to support the art, support yourself.
CAVANAUGH: What do you think your mom saw in you that said to her this one goes into show business?
VEREEN: You know, I think all parents see something in their children and want more for themselves. She had no idea when this gentleman came down the street and was looking for -- was a scout, and looking for kids to go through the stand school, that that would be my career. He was talking about something that wasn't happening in the neighborhood, and she said take him. You know? Maybe this is it. And it was it. That's why I believe in divine destiny.
CAVANAUGH: In the late '60s and '70s, they were special times on Broadway. People were taking chances, they were bashing boundaries, there were musicals like Hair.
VEREEN: Yes, I was in it!
CAVANAUGH: Jesus Christ, superstar.
>> Yes, I was in it! The country was going through a period of we want change, we are stepping out of the dark ages. We are going to make a difference. We are going to love one another, hoping -- what happened I think, what I feel, is that we got in a carnal love rather than the divine Agappy love. How do we stay in the agape love? Maybe things would be different today. But we had a voice! And Jesus Christ superstar, he was a man of love, and he loved you so much he stretched out his arms and died on a cross for you.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things that happened during that time too, kind of pushing boundaries in the way that musical performances looked, a lot of your signature style of performing is associated with Bob Fosse.
CAVANAUGH: And you worked with him several times. Did you have similar ideas about dance and movement?
VEREEN: Oh, no, no. When I opened in Jesus Christ superstar, and the New York Times said Ben Vereen -- Jesus Christ gets lost in the scenery. Ban Vereen tears up the scenery looking at him.
[ LAUGHTER ]
VEREEN: And Bob Fosse came around and gave me style, he calm today down.
CAVANAUGH: Did you get it right away?
VEREEN: It made sense in the brain, it made sense in the body. Bob was a taskmaster! And he was the type of guy, you see all that jazz, there's a line he says I look at a rose and ask how did you do that and why can't I? That's the way Bob worked.
CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from your recent performance at the 54 below club in New York.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: That's just a bit from Magic to Do.
VEREEN: Yes, that was wonderful.
CAVANAUGH: That recalls such a time and place, I can't leave the 70s in New York just yet. There's this famous photograph of you and Liza Minnelli, black and white photo.
[ LAUGHTER ]
VEREEN: But it was a beautiful art piece!
CAVANAUGH: Exactly! And it just typified that time in so many ways am are you still friends?
VEREEN: Yes, I am. I was just with her. She was at Town Hall with Allen Cummings. And we're still good friends.
CAVANAUGH: What is it about two high-energy performers like you and Liza that would make you bond? Is it because you know what it's like to have to bring that to an audience?
VEREEN: You know, we were sharing this the other night, one time when Liza and I was hanging out back in the day, we had been up all night and having a good time, and I ran out of voice! And I had a matinee. And I said I don't think I can go on! She said you'll go on because that's what we do. And she's right. This is what we do. This is what we've been sent here to do. And thank you for allowing us to do it.
CAVANAUGH: I want to move TV. And generations of American TV viewers know you first and foremost as the character Chicken George in the mini-series Roots. What did playing that character mean to you?
VEREEN: At the time when I got the roll, in America during those years, there wasn't much on African Americans in the history books. So when he came along with this book called Roots, and they had the courage to do this production, every African American in America wanted to be a part of Roots. I wanted to be a part of Roots. I just wanted to be a part of it not knowing that 36 years later, you and I'd be talking about it. But having some documents on film that like my Jewish brothers and sisters have -- Hitler was such a egotistical maniac that he filmed everything! But he had film. We had no film. We had only word of mouth. So here was film being done to give a scratch on the surface of the atrocities of our Holocaust.
CAVANAUGH: I know that you have been a spokesperson to get people to understand black history and the history of black performers in the United States.
VEREEN: Yes, very much so. Because they paved the way. They're the ones that did the performary; while the universities were being built, while the scientists were inventing. They were the ones who took the knocks in order for this to happen. And sadly they are still looked upon as an embarrassment. But no, they're the heroes who stood up in the atrocities of the oppression of a people so that the others could strive. And we've got to pay homage to them.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about your personal life just a little while. The kind of years that you've gone through in the past 20 years have been quite something. You've had to deal with a series of tragedy, including the loss of your teenaged daughter, and your own almost fatal car accident.
VEREEN: Well, first of all, when you lose a child, you never get over that. For all you parents out there. And I hope that there are no more, but sadly we still are fighting a war. And that's why I encourage people to say, look, I don't care if you're for or against the war, you got to stand behind our children. They're wearing the uniforms so you and I can pursue our American dreams. So make a home for them and make it easier for them when they come back home. I got off on that.
CAVANAUGH: No, I appreciate that.
VEREEN: A parent holds it always in their heart, that their child will always be okay. I would go through that accident in 1992 100 times, every day, if I could have my daughter back.
CAVANAUGH: And you relate every time you hear about somebody who loses a child, that comes back for you?
VEREEN: Yes. Of course. I can relate for them. We are in that family for the bereaved, we understand there is no grief, no pain, no sorrow as deep as that. And to live on.
CAVANAUGH: You mention you had your own nearly fatal accident in 1992. And lots of doctors were saying that you wouldn't perform again.
VEREEN: Yeah, and I talk about this in the show as well. The fact that I -- to encourage people, we all fought through adversities in our lives. Mine was an accident. Others have their adversities. And sometimes, the sin is this: To lie town in your misery and not get up. You got to get up. And sometimes you feel like you don't have the strength or the faith to go on, but deep down inside of you, there is a strength that you can rely on. And it comes to you in various ways. Sometimes it's not inside of you. Sometimes it comes in the angels that come into your room, it's the orderly, the nurse, the Doctor , the visitor who says a word of encouragement that sparks you, that makes you say I can do this! And you can do this.
CAVANAUGH: Did you know about this strength before you had this accident?
VEREEN: It was like -- I knew about it. But I was an observer. I was night participant. But once I became a participant, now I am a witness of that truth.
CAVANAUGH: You came back, you came back to Broadway. You've been in a number of shows on Broadway, in TV, in movies. Now this 1-man show, steppin out.
VEREEN: Yes, at the La Jolla playhouse!
CAVANAUGH: Is that very demanding for you though? Considering that you have recovered from this major accident, how do you prepare for this show?
VEREEN: Love. I love what I do. That gives me -- that's the reason to wake up in the morning! To do what I do. It's love. That's how I prepare. You go through rehearsals, you find your numbers and things like that, but the center vibration is connecting the love.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a technical question. You have performed before 100,000 people at the Washington monument. Huge crowds. This performance space at the La Jolla playhouse is Sheila and Hughes Pontica Theater. That is a small venue. What's it like to ramp that down to a more intimate space?
VEREEN: Exactly you said the word, intimate. You share something special. An intimate moment. So come out and enjoy that.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, we were talking about the '70s and Broadway and all of that. And Broadway seems a lot tamer now. Does it to you?
VEREEN: I don't know if it's tamer. I think it's going through a transition. I want to thank the people for supporting it. And it's going to find its way once again. There are some wonderful shows on Broadway. I just saw a wonderful production of Matilda. It was amazing. The motown is there, Pippin is coming back. And Lucky Guy with my friend Tom Hanks. So Broadway is thriving. And Broadway is going to thrive as long as the people support it. As I said, support the arts. It's not just about Broadway. Broadway is an extension of the arts. But support the arts all around. Life itself is an art form. It's said in the Bible, in the beginning God created. It did not say in the beginning God manufactured.
[ LAUGHTER ]
VEREEN: Support the arts.
CAVANAUGH: When you go to a show, when you go to a Broadway show and you see performance, are you one of those performers that can enjoy that? Or do you always want to be up on stage?
VEREEN: Ah, that's not fair!
[ LAUGHTER ]
VEREEN: I do enjoy it, but there's a part of me that kind of goes! Ooh! Ooh! I want to get out there!
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: I had to there.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Stepin' Out with Ben Vereen will be at the La Jolla Playhouse from March 29th to the 31st. Thank you so much for coming in. It has been a joy.
>> It's been a true joy for me as well. God bless you.