Musical Theatre Historian, Kristin Pressley, will lead a discussion before each show to help you view the show from another perspective.
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Classic Conversations from the 2016-17 Broadway Entertainment Series
By Kristin Pressley
It’s hard to study Broadway history without bringing up the star of tonight’s show.
Ben Vereen has been around for decades. Born in October of 1946, he grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and knew at a relatively young age that he wanted to be a performer. He got his chance early - enrolling in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts and studying under the likes of world-renown choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins.
At 21, Vereen was cast in the Broadway company of “Sweet Charity.” Two years later, he won a role in the “Charity” film adaptation, playing opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. The two performers developed a friendship, and Vereen danced with and understudied for Davis in several productions.
This led to leading roles of his own. After dazzling in Broadway’s 1971 production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” Vereen was cast as the Leading Player in Stephen Schwartz’s “Pippin” (a production of this musical is scheduled to visit the Classic Center later this season). For his performance, Vereen won the attention of casting directors across the country. He also won a Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Musical.
The world quickly became his oyster. Film roles were offered, as was a role in the television miniseries “Roots.” For his portrayal of Chicken George, Vereen was Emmy nominated.
Vereen has stayed busy ever since.
The singing, dancing, Tony Award-winning actor is now 69 years old. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down. His schedule is as hectic as it’s ever been.
In addition to prepping tonight’s show for a Thanksgiving week run at Manhattan cabaret 54 Below, Vereen is currently starring in two television series - Fox’s “Making History” (opposite Yassir Lester and Adam Pally) and Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete,” which co-stars Giovanni Ribisi.
He also took a turn as Dr. Everett Scott in Fox’s October remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This adaptation of one of Broadway’s best-beloved hits (1975’s “The Rocky Horror Show”) is the next in a series of stage shows being translated for the small screen - among them “The Sound of Music,” “Grease,” and “The Wiz” with “Hairspray Live!” slated to air on NBC next month.
Vereen, long known as an advocate for arts education, thinks this trend is a great one.
“It becomes another pathway to the arts and allows art to express itself and reach people,” he told Caryn Robbins of BroadwayWorld.com. “What that does is stimulate people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to come to New York to see a Broadway show … so it’ s wonderful thing for the arts.”
Vereen took his outspoken arts advocacy to this summer’s Democratic National Convention where he noted the importance of the arts for professionals in all walks of life.
“I’m not saying everybody’s got to be a song and dance man or an artist …,” he told the Huffington Post. “We need our creative-thinking people in politics, in corporations …”
The actor is committed to doing his part to make that happen. Each year, Vereen sponsors a scholarship competition for students committed to pursuing a career in musical theatre. The Ben Vereen Awards are awarded annually to pupils in San Diego high schools.
Vereen also champions the Wellness Through the Arts program. Available to San Diego students, the program awards young people who are seeking a healthier lifestyle through the arts. Competitors create videos that communicate their feelings on obesity, diabetes (Vereen himself is a Type-2 diabetic), low self esteem, and bullying.
He’s somehow managed to accomplish all of this while keeping a frenetic performance pace. In addition to the roles listed above, Vereen has performed on television, with recurring roles on shows, like “How I Met Your Mother,” Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” The roles that have meant the most to him, however, have been in the shows - “Wicked,” “Chicago,” “Fosse,” and “Hair,” among them - that have beckoned him back to Broadway.
As Vereen said, “Theatre’s my first love. It will always be my first love!”
That’s what prompted the development of tonight’s production. A retrospective of sorts, “Steppin’ Out” looks back at his illustrious career and features a few of his favorite things - singing, dancing, and paying tribute to the greats — like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
According to a New York Times review of the show’s premiere, it’s a not-to-be-missed kind of occasion. “In the tradition of his idol Sammy Davis, Jr., Mr. Vereen is an old-school song and dance man who never lets up,” writes Stephen Holden. “He wins you over with his sheer energy, good will, and showbiz know-how.”
For TheaterMania.com, Brian Scott Lipton takes it even further: “The … star is expending enough energy up there to power all of the Big Apple.”
Prepare to be amazed.
A passionate fan of musical theatre, Kristin Stultz Pressley is a frequent lecturer on Broadway shows and their histories. She earned a doctorate in Theatre from the University of Georgia. Learn more at http://www.DrBroadway.com or by following @DrBway on Twitter.
*Ben Vereen is the godfather of R&B superstar Usher.
*Vereen is a member of the Theatre and Dance Halls of Fame.