You can’t see it, but you can feel it, warming your heart from the other end of the phone line.
Yes, there’s nothing like that Ben Vereen smile, especially when he flashes it on stage, signaling his audiences that they’re about to see something special.
A dance, a song, a story performed only as a legend can, though he never utters the word.
Because Vereen never really stops long enough to consider whether or not his status in the entertainment world is legendary. He’s much too busy looking to the next project, the next show, the next opportunity to share what he knows with the next generation.
That’s probably the thing that generates his biggest smile, teaching young people what he knows so they can carry on the tradition.
Now, that’s not saying they’ll all grow up to be Ben Vereens. There’s only one of him.
But it is to say they can use his lessons to develop their own talent and style.
“It’s just important for them to know where they came from so they can carry on,” Vereen said.
Vereen has been doing a little bit of his own reflecting lately, looking back on a career filled with, well, legends. He’ll share his reflections in Baton Rouge when he performs his one-man show Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen on Sunday, Sept. 11, in the LSU Student Union Theater.
Call the show a compilation of his favorite things. Vereen has chosen his favorite songs from past Broadway musicals in which he’s appeared, as well as popular songs from those in which he hasn’t.
He stops in between numbers to talk about the people who have inspired him. And he dances, which is one of the things he most loves doing.
“Well, actually, I love being in front of people,” Vereen said.
He laughs, because this show’s audience is about to grow even bigger. Meaning that he’s about to step out in front of even more people.
“I’ll be bringing this show to Broadway in the spring,” Vereen said. “So the road show can be considered a preview of what will be seen in New York.”
So, audience members who see Vereen’s show at the LSU Student Union Theater will see a Broadway performance long before it plays out in front of New York audiences.
“And I want to thank the people of Baton Rouge in advance for coming to see the show,” he said. “It means so much.”
Even better, the performance promises to be as warm as Vereen’s smile.
“It’s a celebration of life,” Vereen said. “It’s about my connection with people. It’s a sampling of my career and the people who touched my life. It’s a joy to perform this show.”
The story of Vereen’s career could fill a continuous series of shows. At 64, he’s nowhere near stopping. He’ll celebrate his 65th birthday on Oct. 10, almost exactly a month after his Baton Rouge performance. And the show will go on.
That’s the way it is with a per-former whose checklist includes a Tony Award for his portrayal of The Leading Player in the 1972 production Pippin. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics for the musical, and Roger O. Hinson wrote the book. But it’s the name of the show’s director that’s most remembered here, because Vereen would spend a large chunk of his career working with Bob Fosse.
Yes, the Bob Fosse, known for his innovative direction and choreography in staging such shows as Sweet Charity, Cabaret and Chicago. Fosse also directed films, and Vereen would play a part in Fosse’s semi-autobiographic picture All That Jazz.
But not before winning the Tony in Fosse’s production of Pippin. Performers who have worked with Fosse have said he was as gracious with those who didn’t win parts in his auditions as those who did.
“He really was,” Vereen said. “He was always gracious.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was just as warm. “He was my inspiration,” Vereen said. “But I knew them all – Sammy, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. They all were good to me, and I’ll be singing some of their songs in the show, too.”
That word pops up again, legend. Yes, the names of all of those people truly are legends in the entertainment industry. They, too, were innovators in their fields. Most of them, with the exception of MacLaine, are gone. So, Vereen is left to carry on.
“It gets a little lonely,” he said.
But again, he’s not stopping anytime soon. When not doing a song and dance on stage, Vereen can be seen in television and movie roles.
Fans of the now iconic 1977 television miniseries Roots will remember him in the role of Chicken George. He has a recurring role as Wayne Brady’s father in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and in between, he’s played parts in everything from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.
His Broadway appearances have included roles in Jesus Christ Superstar, for which he was nominated for a Tony, Grind, Jelly’s Last Jam, A Christmas Carol, I’m Not Rappaport, Hair and most recently in 2005, Wicked.
But that’s all history. Vereen doesn’t talk about that as much as he does the future on this particular day when a storm named Irene is carving a path up the eastern seaboard.
He thinks about the people who may experience her wrath, he calls for a prayer for them. Which reminds him to count his own blessings, because he’s been given many.
Vereen survived a car accident along the Pacific Coast Highway in 1992, which required special rehabilitation to regain his ability to speak. Then, in 2007, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“When the doctors told me that I had diabetes, I thought, ‘I’m Ben Vereen, I sing and dance, I can’t have diabetes,” Vereen said.
But he did.
“That’s when I realized that this is a disease we don’t talk about,” he said. “When I was growing up, when someone had diabetes, people just said, ‘Oh, he has some sugar in his blood,’ and that was it.”
Vereen knew diabetes could be deadly if left untreated.
“I knew I had to exercise and change my eating habits,” he said. “Twenty-seven million people in our country live with this every day. It’s an epidemic in our country, and no one’s talking about it. I’m here to say that we’ve got the power over this. We the people have control over our destiny, and we the people must make the change.”
Vereen is doing his part by speaking out, telling his story at every opportunity and encouraging those with the disease to speak out, as well. Things won’t change until the conversation is at a constant flow.
“It’s like the story Horton Hears a Who,” Vereen said. “No one wants to talk about the Whos living in Whoville.”
Another laugh, one so rich that you’re again warmed by that smile emanating from Los Angeles through the telephone line.
It’s a smile that puts everyone at ease, one that says, “You can do this.”
Vereen also works with youth in Ann Reinking’s Broadway Theatre Project. The program has been called the most well-regarded intensive training program for aspiring and current professionals in the Broadway community. Vereen is its co-artistic director, and he helps with auditions, which are conducted in major cities throughout the United States.
“We try to locate them in cities that have central locations,” he said. “We want to make it accessible.”
This is where Vereen gives back, where he passes the torch. He knows that Broadway has evolved since his earlier days. He knows, too, music isn’t the same.
His godson is, after all, Usher. Yes, the recording artist, actor and dancer. His style isn’t the same as Vereen’s.
“But as I keep telling him, it’s important to know where you’ve come from,” Vereen said. “And I tell the kids in the Broadway Theatre Project the same thing.”
The program participants, no doubt, listen, because they know where Vereen has been. And they know that he’s still going.
And no one can resist that warm, beautiful smile.