These days the phrase “triple threat” is used in acting circles to describe anyone who has one big talent—in singing, dancing or acting—and proves surprisingly proficient in the other two. But some triple threats are truly formidable in all three. Case in point: Ben Vereen. An Emmy-nominated actor for playing Chicken George in the landmark TV miniseries Roots, Vereen earned a Tony nomination for his Judas in the vocally taxing rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and, the following year, danced up a storm under Bob Fosse’s tutelage in the original Pippin, which won the singer-dancer-actor a Tony Award.
For two performances on April 4th at the Tilles Center in Brookville, Long Islanders can watch this legendary performer’s trio of skills at work in his Broadway-targeted solo revue, Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen. In his 2012 critique of the show when it played at the Manhattan supper club, 54 Below, Theatermania’s Brian Scott Lipton wrote, “Every song has been chosen because of a personal connection and delivered with complete conviction… Seeing Ben Vereen will definitely change you both for the better and for good.”
Asked about his journey with Steppin’ Out, Vereen told Pulse, “It’s a work in progress; we’re moving towards a bigger show for Broadway. It’s not so much about me as it is about us as a people and what we’ve gone through together. One thing I’ve learned on this path is that it hasn’t been about me. It’s about you allowing me to be. And so, to my audiences I say, ‘thank you.’”
Far from mere lip service, Vereen’s gratitude also stems from recovering from a very different triple threat—three separate calamities that happened on the same night two decades ago. “I was driving in my car,” recalled the performer, “and I obviously hit a tree (people told me this; I don’t have any memory of it), and I damaged an artery to the brain. So I was walking home at three in the morning to my manager’s house in Malibu and I had a stroke and was hit by a truck. When I woke up in the hospital, the doctors said it would be at least three years before I would even walk again… But there’s a thing called the inner spirit and the tenacity of the will. People prayed for me and sent me cards and letters, which encouraged me. And the great Gregory Hines, who was in Jelly’s Last Jam, said, ‘if he [Vereen] can be ready by April third of next year, he’s got a role in the show.’ And April third of that year, I was onstage in Jelly’s Last Jam.”
Before that show however, thanks to Sweet Charity, Pippin and the film All That Jazz, Vereen had been most closely associated with the dance style of the late Bob Fosse, about whom he could not be more admiring. “He was quite a mentor. Bob Fosse was the one who shaped the madness,” said Vereen.
I was walking home at three in the morning to my manager’s house in Malibu and I had a stroke and was hit by a truck.
“I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar and the reviewer for the New York Times wrote, ‘Jeff Fenholt, who plays Jesus, gets lost in the scenery. And Ben Vereen, who plays Judas, tears up the scenery looking for him.’ So I was all over the place. Bob took that and honed it in…made me focus. I learned that less is more. Fosse would often say, ‘If the audience isn’t with you, get smaller, and they’ll come.’”
A diabetic who places great importance on diet and exercise, Vereen admits he wasn’t always kind to his metabolism and indulged in the typical excesses of a star in the 1970s and 80s. “Eventually though, you say ‘enough is enough,’” Vereen explained. “When you’re sick and tired of being of sick and tired, you seek help. And there are programs out there to help you—there’s AA, there’s NA. The thing about the addict is that he feels he’s in it by himself and he can handle it. You cannot handle this disease and you need help. There are people out there who have walked the same path, reached a higher ground and are now reaching out for you.”
On a lighter note, audiences tend to be blown away that 67-year-old Vereen has the dexterity and energy of someone half his age. How does he do it? “You practice every day and do what you can do. I try to do a lot—probably more than I should do. There are moments when you go, ‘I wish I could…’ But then you have to turn around and say, ‘but I’m thankful I can do what I’m doing.’ I don’t do the cartwheels or splits anymore, but I’ve found another way to move. Less is more.”
Author’s Note: The complete 30-minute interview with Ben Vereen is scheduled to be broadcast on the author’s radio program, Dave’s Gone By, on March 29th, and then archived on his website davesgoneby.com.