Ben Vereen Gets 'Wicked' on stage
Brentwood MagazineSummer 2005
These days, the legendary actor and musician isn't as interested in talking about dance or music. Instead, Vereen wants to teach people about the gift of life.
"I want people to understand that the cup isn't half full or half empty,"Vereen explains from his New York City hotel."People need to know that the cup is always 100 percent full! We must understand what a wonderful gift this world is and this life we have is. It's all such a tremendous gift."
It hasn't always been this way for Vereen, who is best known for his role as "Chicken George" in the award-winning, 1970s mini-series, Roots. In 1992, Vereen's career and life took an unexpected and near-fatal turn when he was involved in a horrifying car crash that led to a devastating stroke.
"I won't say it was necessarily a good thing,"Vereen says today of the crash that almost ended his life. "But I will say the things I learned following that experience have made me a much better person. I believe everything happens for a reason."
Vereen's message is about "showing up for life," and he shares it as often as possible.Whether it's with children at a school or adults attending a star-studded gala or corporate event, the ideas are the same.
"Believe in miracles. Expect miracles in your life," he says."Trust that there is a power greater than yourself who will hear you when you cry out for help. Expect angels, and accept how they show themselves."
Vereen believes that throughout his ordeal, angels came to him in all shapes and sizes and included the many people who surrounded him.
"I was helped by angels of all sorts," he says."After the crash my angels appeared in the form of the doctors, nurses, physical therapists and even those people who work hard to scrub the hospitals clean.They're all angels."
For all his talk of angels,Vereen himself is spending time as a wizard. Returning to the Broadway stage,Vereen has teamed up with longtime friend and Tony Award-winning director Stephen Schwartz, to play the part of the "Wizard" in Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.
"This is such a great story,"Vereen says of his latest Broadway stint."This is a funny, creative look at Glinda, the good witch of the north, and the wicked witch of the west from The Wizard of Oz prior to Dorothy's arrival."
"The story tells how one witch became good and the other became evil," Vereen explains. "It's just a great time and so wonderful to team back up with Stephen."
Vereen has so much respect for Schwartz that when the opportunity to work with him again came up, it was a no-brainer.
"Stephen called and asked if I'd be interested [in playing the 'Wizard'],"Vereen says, "and I was thrilled.He's such a talent and we've had some great times in the past."
Vereen and Schwartz teamed up in the 1973 award-winning Broadway production of Pippin, for which Vereen won a Tony Award.
He's also been nominated for several other Tony Awards and Emmys.
While Wicked is taking up much of Vereen's time, another recent project gave him the opportunity to honor one of his longtime friends.
Ben Vereen Sings the Music of Sammy Davis Jr., which Vereen recently performed at the Orange County Symphony Hall was, as he calls it, a cathartic way to pay tribute to his deceased friend.
"I love Sammy,"Vereen explains.
"He was a dear friend and an amazingly talented performer."
"The fact that I am able to get up on stage for a few hours [to] do those songs that made him so loved and to share stories of our time together...it's just a remarkable gift for me."
In discussing his own career,Vereen dismisses his status as living legend, preferring instead to focus on those friends he's met and worked with over the years. For him, to get to know and associate with the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horn and James Cagney means more than any paycheck or honor.
"These are and were good people," Vereen says. "Talented people.To have Princess Grace ask me to join her at a table for dinner is a sweet memory."
"That's what all of this has been about for me-the relationships I've been able to form over the years. It's not about the fame."
Vereen is humble, but his name strikes a cord with anyone who has followed entertainment over the last four decades. Vereen's credits include classic film musicals like Funny Lady and All That Jazz and legendary stage productions like Jelly's Last Jam, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.This versatile master of the performing arts has done it all, including appearing on the cutting-edge HBO drama, Oz.
"You have to get into character, whatever that character may be,"Vereen says."So whether it's a Broadway show or something a little rough around the edges, it's all acting, all art."
Vereen landed back on the big screen in The Painting, the story of a blind blues singer.The film was shot in 2001 with Debbie Allen and Clifton Davis and was literally lost in the basement of an office building for four years. After it was found and cleaned up, The Painting made its way to the Cannes Film Festival.
"I'm thrilled about the film," Vereen says. "It was a quick shoot and then I never heard anything about it. Now it's playing in Cannes and getting good feedback. Just goes to show, things always happen for a reason."
A true entertainer, Vereen remains in constant movement and has more projects on the horizon. A studio jazz release is in the works, along with an autobiography, a textbook for college acting classes and a book for parents of children venturing into the world of entertainment.
"I feel like there's so much to say," Vereen says. "I am blessed to have these avenues to communicate with people. I want to make sure they all get the message:
"Life truly is grand."
I loved interviewing Ben Vereen. He is truly a humble, nice man. He believes that he is blessed to have been able to do the things he has in his career. This is one of my favorite interviews because I interviewed a legend.