By Michelle Trauring
When Ben Vereen auditioned for “Pippin,” the burgeoning Broadway star never thought he would get the part.
But not only did he nail the audition — in front of the original production’s director, Bob Fosse, no less — his performance as the Leading Player would win him the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1973.
At the behest of Bay Street Theater Artistic Director Scott Schwartz — whose father, Stephen Schwartz, wrote the music and lyrics of “Pippin” — Vereen has reprised the role for the Sag Harbor venue’s virtual gala, “A Starry Night,” a celebration of 1970s Broadway musicals on Wednesday, July 22, at 8 p.m., featuring performances by luminary figures of the performing arts.
Ahead of the gala, Vereen caught up with The Express News Group, reflecting on his 55-year career, the current civil rights movement and its place in the theater.
“Every war, every conflict we’ve ever had, the arts has been the thing that has brought us through,” the 73-year-old Broadway veteran said from his home in Florida. “Because the arts is spiritual. The arts has no color… It is an expression of the most high. And the conflicts of the human race, we can reflect back on our races and say, ‘This has to be changed, and this is what you need to know about the joy of your journey.’”
Q: What has this time been like for you, between the COVID-19 crisis and long overdue unrest we’re seeing across the country?
I think everybody’s been inner-focusing and trying to create in a world that is totally brand new. So the opportunity is here to create for ourselves what we want in this new world.
I’m trying very desperately to encourage people not to go at it in a violent or looting fashion, but in a united fashion. And I want to encourage them to realize how valuable the arts are in our lives, that we are all art. We think of ourselves as individual, separate from that which created us — God, Allah, Buddha, whoever created us. That energy force is the same energy in everyone, and it’s about embracing that.
My time I spent on doing that, by writing letters, by Tweeting, by all that sort of thing — mostly positive things from this point on.
Q: How does Bay Street’s virtual gala fit into that mission?
They asked me to sing a famous song, so I did that for them — so I’m gonna be there virtually [he laughed].
Q: Yeah, you are!
Yeah, yeah! This virtual thing is a new dynamic for us all. I’m so proud that the theater there is embracing it, because we will be back in the seats again, but this way we stay connected. We are separate, but together. We’re connected spiritually, we are together, and don’t forget that. You’re not alone.
Q: What song will you perform for the gala?
Scott asked me to sing “Magic To Do,” written by his father, of course. It was great revisiting something from the ’70s. And I couldn’t ask for anything better — “Pippin.”
Q: What was it like coming back to that musical?
It’s always terrific because it was my second time on Broadway. My first was “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Coming forward with it, it’s wonderful. It’s an old friend. It’s like greeting an old friend again.
Q: Can you take me back to 1972-73? What was that time in your life like, starring in “Pippin” as the Leading Player?
It was wonderful. I remember, I had just been in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and I’d heard about Bob Fosse doing “Pippin,” and I didn’t think I’d get the show. I just went to him to show how much I’d grown since he gave me the opportunity of doing “Sweet Charity” 9,000 years ago. [he laughed].
So I went to the audition just to show him the growth. As a matter of fact, I think I put on a three-piece suit that day, I had the shoes and tie, and I sang for him… And he had me read for the part, and that was my first time reading for a part, and he said, “Well, your reading sounded good, we’ll let you know.”
So he called and said, “I want you to do the show,” and they sent me the script. I was going to Philadelphia do to something for Joey Bishop, a gala he was having down there… I went to my agent and said, “I want to do this show.” And he said, “Ben, don’t do the show. It has a 90 percent chance of not making it.” And I said, “Well if Bob’s gonna do the show, I’m gonna do the show.” And the rest is history. He didn’t work for me after that, I fired him.
Q: Good move.
Everything happened. It was just beautiful.
Q: What was it like, at that time, to a Black actor on Broadway?
Well, I was employed. And the thing about the arts, we’re so grateful to get a job… But we need support. When an African American’s on stage, we should all go down to see what that’s about — not because we’re in the theater, but because we enjoy good entertainment, you know? We enjoy it.
I remember in my church, I played Scrooge . I was in high school and I was playing Scrooge. As a matter of fact, the first show I did summer stock, I went to the directors in Pennsylvania, in a barn, and I was doing “West Side Story,” and I said, “I want to play Tony.” And they said, “C’mon, Ben, you’re not Polish.” And I go, “I can be Polish!”
It’s about your mindset. Even Bob Fosse said to me, “I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body, but I never thought about it: The fact that, oh, let me get some African Americans on stage, let me integrate the cast. It just wasn’t in my world. I wasn’t in that world.”
Q: What needs to change in the theater, especially as we talk about systemic racism in the United States?
What we need to do I felt, even then, is that more African Americans need to come to the theater, meaning shows that are not Tyler Perry’s. I think one of the problems is, the theater was so out of range in price that a lot of people couldn’t afford to come to the theater…
I remember when I did a show called “Grind,” Hal Prince was the director. Opening night was a beautiful gala, with oysters and champagne and smiles, and we had a good time. Caviar, it was crazy. I remember a few days later, we got terrible reviews, the reviews were horrible, but we wanted to keep the show alive. So they came to me and they said, “Ben, we want you to come to the theater at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday,’” and so I said, “Alright,” and we went up to Harlem — I’ll never forget this — and there was the Black press. And they were sitting there.
We came in — Hal Prince and other producers and other people and myself — and he started telling them, “It’s a great show and ba ba boom, and dah dah dah,” and they looked at him and they said, “So, the show failed.” And he said, “Well, we got a few good reviews.’:And he said, “No, you got tanked. So now you come to us. Why weren’t we invited to have caviar with everybody else?”
Whoa is right. It hit me: That’s our problem. In the theater world, reaching out to the Black community is a second-hand thought. We should be invited on the first night with everybody else. The Black press should be a part of the opening and we have our own theatrical reviewer to review the show, and we should also make a discount, I felt, for the youngsters to keep theater alive. Not only African Americans, all races — because the theater is about all races. It’s about the arts. And the arts doesn’t say, “Well, I’m white.’”
No, we are God’s rainbow, and we reflect that into society, what they need to see and need to hear, as artists — and that’s what the theater’s all about. Right now, everyone is clamoring. I was talking about this 40 years ago, you know? I said, “Hello? We’ve been out here waiting. Oh now you get it? Okay.” Long overdue, long overdue. And we gotta remember that the arts is about everybody.
Q: Do you plan on addressing this movement in your upcoming work?
I’ve been addressing it my whole life. I’m a Black man on a stage. Just by me being there, I’ve addressed it. Just by every entertainer, who’s been there, is addressing it. There’s nothing different for us. Now we’re gonna say, “Oh now your recognize us? Now you understand what we’ve been fighting up against our careers and lives. We’ve been holding the space for you guys to wake up and come help us out here.’” We have a rich, rich heritage and legacy in the arts. We’ve given so much, and we’ve had to endure so much. We’ve had to endure a lot of humiliation. But we took it. We’ve got a rich history, and we should not be ashamed of where we’ve been.
Q: How does theater move ahead from this place? Are you concerned at all for its future, given the trajectory of the pandemic?
We’ve got to keep it alive, that’s why we’re embracing virtual. Right now, I’m working with some people, we’re talking about bringing back “Pippin,” but it’s gonna be virtual. We’ve got to keep moving in that direction. People need people. You need the live theater, the vibration that comes through the spiritual experience of being in a room with a lot of like-minded people being lifted up, being informed. We need that, as a people, as a person. We are not alone in this.
Our job is to continue moving forward, and to, yes, we’ll make the radical changes that are necessary, but that doesn’t mean there’s a black theater or a white theater. That means there’s a Martin Luther King-idea theater, of united people, of the United States. We work together on an equal plane.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more information about Bay Street’s virtual gala, “A Starry Night,” visit baystreet.org.