Photo courtesy of Ben Vereen
Between the two of us, we have four left feet. We always wished we could dance. But we can’t. As kids, we did dance vicariously through our sister, who was a talented tap dancer and all around great performer — think Liza, but with an “S” since her name is actually Lisa. She introduced us to a lot of song-and-dance types in our youth. But none left as large of an impression as Mr. Ben Vereen (insert Jazz hands here.)
Since the day we started writing about pop culture he has been at the top of our interview bucket list. Not just because of his immense talent and the years of joy he has brought to us, but also because from everything we have read and heard he is truly a kind soul and a spiritual force of nature. We knew he would have a lot of passion to share with the Passionistas.
When we got the invite to attend Ben’s tribute to Stephen Schwartz at Pepperdine University, we knew we just had to request an interview. It can’t hurt to ask, right? Our hearts skipped a beat when they said yes.
Ben Vereen on Stephen Schwartz
Ben talked about the tribute to Stephen Schwartz and the composer’s influence on him personally and on theater-goers in general. He described Schwartz’ music as “fabulous words of encouragement and of the heart… On the surface it sounds great, but underneath is a whole thunder of emotional consciousness, which if you dig deep in to will really spawn all sorts of wonderful, positive things in our lives, for the good.”
He continued, “’Think about the sun Pippin.’ Think about all the great things in your life and think about all the gifts… It’s amazing. ‘You’re on the right track.’ In your life, you’re on the right track. You just keep moving forward, keep going toward the sun, you’re on the right track… ‘Defying Gravity.’ No matter what you come up against in my life I’m gonna defy it. I’m gonna fly. I’ve got it in me. Something has changed within in me. Something is not the same. It’s that voice within me that’s calling me to move onward and upward towards my glory.”
The triple-threat performer, who seems like he can do it all, said he was in awe of Schwartz’ talent. He admitted to saying to Stephen, “I just want to be a fly on the wall when the spirit hits you and it flows through you. When that angel comes and says ‘write this.’”
To Ben, this concert is a way to pay tribute to this hero. “I’m there to say thank you for honoring an American icon of our musical theater and continue support for him and his wonderful music that he brings to us. He allowed that angel to channel through him and bring us more beautiful music.”
Ben Vereen on Getting into Theater
As a young kid playing stick ball in Brooklyn, he never imagined the life he would one day lead. He looked back, “It called me… I was not aware of the arts… but an angel came down the block and said, ‘You.’ Out of all the kids on the block, ‘You come to this dance studio.’ I didn’t know what a dance studio was… But somebody shows up in your life that needs you to show up and be present. That’s how it works.”
Ben attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. He joked, “When they told me I had to go to Manhattan, I thought I needed a passport.” But these four years opened up a whole new world for the young teen. He went on to make his Off-off-off Broadway debut in The King and I, toured with Sweet Charity and then made his Broadway debut in Hair in 1968, garnering him his first Tony nomination. His next Broadway role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar won him a Tony for Best Featured Actor. But the role that, perhaps, brought him to the forefront of mainstream consciousness was the Lead Player in Pippin, for which he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.
Ben Vereen on Gratitude
Through it all he has been eternally grateful to his fans. “It’s all about thank you to my audiences for allowing me this journey. Because without audiences, we would be out of work. So we must thank them. Not only inform them, not only entertain them, but thank them. We must humble ourselves and say, ‘Because of you I am here. Because of you, because of your interest I am here. Whatever is propelling you spiritually to come this way, you are lifting me up.’ And I am here to serve. Simple.”
He admits he was not always grateful, but a significant event changed his perspective. He said, “You hit your head a couple of times and you wake up.” What woke him up was a life-threatening accident in 1992, when he was hit by a car walking along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. He recalled, “You look up one day from the hospital bed and you can’t move. You can’t walk. You got a broken leg, a stroke, your spleen is taken. And you look up and somebody comes to you with a big box of letters and you think they are bills… but the letters are from people whose lives I had touched… Who am I not to say thank you?”
It was these letters that inspired Ben to suffer through intense physical therapy to be able to walk, and dance, once again. So when asked who his mentors and inspirations are, he throws out names like Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli. But, he said, “It’s the little old lady who came and said, ‘I saw your show and it changed my life.’ It’s that child who looks me in the eye and says, ‘Because of you I’m in this business.’”
Ben Vereen on Wellness Through Arts
And these people are the reason he has started his Wellness Through the Arts program. He holds master classes and does speaking engagements throughout the country stressing the importance of the arts in our lives. “With sports on the rise, we need more people banging the drum for the arts… What about the ballet? What about the symphony? What about the plays? What about the musicals? It’s all an art form. Sports is an art form. Life itself an art form. But we forget that and we separate ourselves from who we really are — art expressions of that which created us.”
Ben’s mission is to get arts back into the schools that have been stripped of this important component of education due to lack of money. He noted, “My role, as a mentor, as a teacher, is to instill inside them the greatness that they’re seeking and let them know that that greatness is seeking you, by giving them back the arts.”
He added, “These students are my mentors now. I watch them grow. I watch them get it. I teach from the inside out, not the outside in. And I watch them develop.”
The profits from his Spiritual Enforcer clothing line go directly to fund arts programs for kids and he encourages everyone to become a Spiritual Enforcer. “Let them know that spirit is center in there lives. Not religion. Religion is a part of spiritual expression… But spirit is at the core of all life. We need spirit now more than ever. We need a positive spirit on the planet more than ever. A Spiritual Enforcer is enforcing love. And when we enforce love, we enforce art. Because life itself is an art form.”
We ended our time with Ben by asking him which pop culture icon he would like to walk in the shoes of. He replied, “The first one that comes to mind is Jesus the Christ. Buddha, Ghandi, Martin Luther King. All those people who tried to make a change in the world, who tried to make a change in making people understand that you are that which you seek. Take him off the cross and let him dance through your lives.”
We are so grateful that Ben Vereen has danced through our lives.
Ben Vereen is performing in Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz at The Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts at Pepperdine University on Tuesday, February 2 at 8pm. For more info Pepperdine’s website. And for more information about Wellness Through the Arts and Spiritual Enforcer visit BenVereen.info.