By Rich Arenschieldt
Ben Vereen, star of Broadway, stage, and television, returns to Galveston on Saturday, September 24, at 8 p.m., touring with his solo show, Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen featuring this legendary performer and a trio of incredible backup musicians as they pay tribute to Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and a life-spanning four decades in the theater.
“I’ve worked with show-business giants and called them friends,” Vereen says. “Through the years I was fortunate to eventually meet and work with people who were the recording and television stars of my own youth. As I became a successful artist, we came to know each other and, over the years, formed close relationships—one of the blessings of my life.”
On a personal level, Vereen has confronted some physical and familial challenges. At age 22, he discovered that he had an original birth family. “Several years ago, with help of a genealogist in Florida, I finally located my birth mother’s family in Laurinburg, North Carolina. My birth mother lived one hour away from us and I never knew it. The original story I was told (that I was abandoned) was not true and, in fact, I was actually abducted as a child. Even so, I now know that I was blessed with two mothers who loved me.”
Additionally, after being hit by a vehicle in 1992, Vereen had surgery and extensive physical therapy to repair damage that could have easily ended his performance career. However, with the help of friends, family, and a serious amount of personal determination, he triumphed, simultaneously gaining a new perspective in the process. “There are reasons why things happen in our lives,” Vereen says. “We may not know why things occur, but we must be thankful, no matter what the circumstance. There is something within me that I can’t always explain. If I am listening to that voice, it will take care of me and my work, guiding me through tough times. People arrive in your life as angels—helping you when you need it most: occupational and physical therapists basically taught me to function again, they and many others helped me through recovery.”
Legacy is hugely important to Vereen. As a Tony Award winner for Best Actor (Pippin) he is acutely conscious of his place in American theater, and the responsibility that comes with it. Through various charitable and community efforts, Vereen constantly works with younger, developing artists. “It is my duty to pass on the knowledge of this profession, just as it was given to me. I hope that students won’t make the same mistakes I have. It’s perfectly normal for them to falter, but I like to give young people the tools to negotiate challenges they’ll face. Some pathways may, for whatever reason, be blocked; students need to know how to negotiate those trials as they occur.
“I love to watch young people come to an ‘artistic understanding’ of the world around them,” he continues. “So many of our schools do not have effective arts curriculums. Once we allow our children to have that type of artistic outlet, they will be much more likely to bring wonder to the world, not negativity. Let them create and build things at a time when so many others seek simply to destroy and denigrate.”
A spiritual lens shapes Vereen’s worldview. “We have been divided by religion; I take a more universal view,” Vereen says. Through his seminars, master classes, and presentations he unapologetically confronts current issues, including those of race and aggression. ”Yes, there is violence. Yes, there is racial profiling. But as long as we allow it to exist, it will. What is happening today is partially due to the fact that we are completely disconnected from any higher power, however we each define that. Once we step across that portal and see who we really are, we will finally realize that racial differences don’t matter. When we comprehend the collective consequence of our actions, then we will discern what is crucially important.”
Vereen believes that artistic expression is the mechanism by which society heals. “This pervasive violence has to stop; we must begin to repair ourselves. The best way I know to do that is to show up, share my art, share my music, and disseminate the message that we must come together in totality, as a human race. We shouldn’t concentrate on our differences, but on our desire to make a difference. This can only be done when we enable people to see others as they really are. We are all one, colorful people, without division. Am I my brother’s keeper? Of course I am! Today, we are intent on separating, labeling, and dividing ourselves—our consciousness must be raised to stop this.”
Vereen’s career continues to flourish; he is currently working on a project with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and has just finished filming The Rocky Horror Picture: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again—an homage to the ’70s era cult classic where he plays the scientist, Dr. Everett Scott.
“I was contacted by Emmy Award-winning director Kenny Ortega [who Vereen had worked with previously] about the role. One thing I want audiences to know,” Vereen emphasizes. “This is most definitely not a remake. Anyone who has ever seen the movie knows that any attempt to duplicate it would fail. This is a tribute to the great work that Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and others did.”
Vereen’s Texas appearance in Steppin’ Out encapsulates his entire career in one evening. “This is my ‘gratitude’ show,“ Vereen says. “In it I thank audiences for the privilege and honor of performing for them for the last four decades. The show contains much of what is familiar to them, and I also share some of my experiences—those things that have profoundly affected my life and work.”
When asked about how to encase a decades-long career into a single evening, Vereen’s grasp of his art is clear. “As you create something like this, over time your audiences will tell you what works best. You often try several different things, observe the reaction and then include it or not. It’s a bit like stringing a strand of pearls—some will fit perfectly and others won’t.”
As always, Vereen’s guiding light is a sense of self-imposed vulnerability to his craft. “When you appear onstage, you must always be mindful and open to the presence of others in your life, remembering all the gifts they gave to you,” Vereen says. “If you do that and be what is truly within you…your art will follow.”
What: Steppin’ Out Live with Ben Vereen
Where: The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St., Galveston, Texas
When: September 24, 8 p.m.
Details: For ticket and information, call 1.800.821.1894 or visit www.thegrand.com.