Oh what woe that Ben Vereen–arguably the greatest living song and dance man in this or any country–seems to be suffering Beethoven’s tragic irony. I say this because when I rang him for an interview in advance of his forthcoming Maui performance (this Fri., Jan. 27 at the MACC’s Castle Theater) and said my introductory pleasantries, his first words to me were, “Wow, what a beautiful voice you have!” If such a thing were true it’d be a compliment of the highest order, coming from a prodigious and prolific Tony Award winner (with a handful of Emmy and Golden Globe noms, plus three NAACP Image Awards, to boot) whose stage and screen career has spanned more than four decades.
In 1967, at the age of 21, Vereen won a role in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity; and after a year of touring with the show, he landed a gig opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the play’s film adaptation. Vereen then starred in alternating roles as Hud and Claude in Broadway’s Hair, before becoming Davis’s understudy in the London Palladium’s 1968 production of Golden Boy.
The early ‘70s were huge for Vereen, as he played Judas Iscariot in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s nonpareil rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (for which he received a Tony nom for Best Featured Actor in a Musical), followed by a return to work with Fosse in Pippin (which earned him his first Tony for Best Actor in a Musical). He’s also famed for his role as “Chicken George” in the Golden Globe and Peabody award-winning TV miniseries Roots (which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year)–a groundbreaking program that depicted life before and during slavery.
It goes without saying that when talking story with Vereen, I found his voice beautiful; strikingly rich and rippled with passionate tone. Effortlessly eloquent, he speaks like a Broadway via Brooklyn bard composing on the fly.
This was best evidenced when I asked Vereen–seeing as he’s a song and dance man unmatched–to ascribe flavors to certain dance movements, or perhaps describe dance itself as a taste.
“Dance can be bitter. Dance can be sweet,” Vereen crooned. “It depends on what expressions come through. It could be anger or joy. It could be peace or sorrow. Dance has many flavors. It could be violent, or it could be sublime. It could be as gentle as summer or as upsetting as lightning. It’s an expression of the inner sea. That is the flavor of the dance, when you dance freely. What is your flavor? If you want to dance the dance of love, you can hold the world in your hands.”
Outside of art, Vereen is an advocate for diabetes awareness, saying “I want to have an active part in the solution, the healing component.” At the end of our talk, he also encouraged me to thank our servicemen and women more often, and to remind others to do the same. So, prompted by his openness about spirituality–and because he’s a man of unrivaled vocal talents–I asked him to share his thoughts on the voice of God.
“God has many voices,” said Vereen. “God speaks in the wind. God speaks in the bubbling of the brook; on the ocean. God speaks through the animals. Others have their way of talking about how God speaks to them, but this is how God speaks to me. And God is a great sound for the universe to make. Scripture says, ‘Be still and know that I am,’ Be still. And in that stillness is the most resounding, the most beautiful sound you’d ever want to hear.”
That Vereen finds inspiration in stillness intrigued me, so I asked him to share an anecdote about the last experience that moved him.
“There are many moments in my life that compel me to move in life itself,” he said. “But let me tell you a story: I was in an accident in 1992… I was walking home and was hit by a truck [and] when I arrived in the hospital I was pronounced dead.”
Vereen then described the outpouring of “prayer and vibrations” from medical professionals, family and fans–but how the doctors advised him to “start looking for another career.” They said he’d never dance again.
“They told me my career as far as I’ve known it was over,” he said. “But I wasn’t over it. I realized that struggle is of the mind–but that struggle must become an opportunity.”
Two years later, he was dancing to tap choreography by his friend Gregory Hines in the Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam. And he hasn’t slowed down since.
See Ben Vereen, live at the MACC’s Castle Theater
Fri., Jan. 27 at 7:30pm ($12 / $37 / $47)
Pre-show dinner made available by Food for the Soul.