I’m sitting in my lounge room in Surry Hills browsing Facebook and drinking coffee when my phone rings – it’s a blocked number too. Ordinarily I wouldn’t answer but something compels me to. I pick up and murmur out a questioning: “hello?”
“Hello David! This is Ben Vereen!”
I just about spill my coffee all over my laptop.
I have been told that I’m going to be conducting a phone interview with Broadway legend Ben Vereen. I’ve known for a couple of days now. But no time has been planned and it’s still being discussed between Ben’s Australian publicist and his assistants in Los Angeles… and yet here he is on the phone! And I don’t have any of my questions with me. I am mortified!
I am glad to report that I rally instantly, say what a pleasure it is to get to talk to him and thank him for making time – and as I do, I pull my thoughts together.
Honestly though, my influx of stress and concern at my apparent lack of professionalism in response to his phone call becomes the most unnecessary thing. Ben Vereen is unutterably charming and I’m instantly in the palm of his hand.
“I’m in LA” he says, “where are you?”
I tell him I’m in an inner city suburb of Sydney called Surry Hills and it’s a clear Autumn day.
“Oh! I just can’t wait to get there and to perform for you all! Will you be coming to my show?”
I say yes and he laughs delightedly. “That’s great man. This is such an honour to get to perform in Australia. I have so many great friends and I’m looking forward to meeting more. I can’t wait to share my show and my life and it’s work with you.”
Ben Vereen’s career spans four decades and includes some incredible achievements. He toured as Sammy Davis Junior’s understudy in the show Golden Boy having befriended (and suitably impressed!) Davis during the filming of Sweet Charity in 1967. He won his Tony Award for Best Actor in Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin in 1973 having already been nominated for his role in Jesus Christ Superstar the year before. His other stage work also includes Jelly’s Last Jam, Chicago, Fosse and Wicked.
His film work includes Funny Lady, All That Jazz and Idlewild – to name but a few!
A student of Jerry Robbins and Bob Fosse, he is easily one of the most versatile performers to have ever graced a Broadway stage. The presence of the showman on a stage is reputedly luminous and talking to him it’s easy to see why.
His voice is so alive and vital that even as I’m speaking to him, it’s hard to picture that this man led the original Broadway production of Pippin in 1972. He sounds like he could be leading the 2012 revival!
“The show I am bringing to you is called Steppin’ Out and I just can’t wait to share it with Australian audiences. This is my Australian debut. I’m performing first in Adelaide at the cabaret festival, and then in Melbourne and Sydney. It’s going to be just great! It’s a beautiful show and I’m very proud of it.”
The Adelaide Cabaret Festival has such a spectacularly diverse line up this year that the presence of a showman such as Ben – one of the chief exponents of the choreography of the legendary Bob Fosse – feels like the cherry on the icing. With such a rich background of work on Broadway, in film and television to draw on (he’s worked with Barbra! Enough said!) I ask what elements of his career have shaped the show?"I’ve taken inspiration from so many incredible people and so this is my chance to pay tribute to them"
“It’s more than just me man. It’s my career, sure, but I’ve taken inspiration from so many incredible people and so this is my chance to pay tribute to them. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior, Stephen Schwartz and Bob Fosse – these are special people and they’ve been a big part of the journey. And that’s what this show is. It’s the story of my journey and I want to take you all there with me.”
I seize on the name Stephen Schwartz and as about his experiences in the iconic Broadway composers shows.
“It’s just great! Pippin was so important to me. And then to be able to be on Broadway in another show by Stephen, and Wicked is just fantastic. It’s really brought a lot of young people into the theatre and gotten them interested in the stage and the music. I was just so happy to be a part of that.”"Theatre is the most important thing in my life. It brings me such joy, and the most important thing I can do is to share that joy with other people. And that’s what it’s all about"
“And that’s really so important, and it’s what I love, the chance to be able to work with the young people. I’ll be getting a chance while I’m in Melbourne. We’ve set up a masterclass at the [Victoria] School of Arts and I’m looking forward to that so much.”
“I work every year with the Broadway Theatre Project. It’s like a three week intensive where we take these talented kids from high schools and colleges and we give them a chance to work with professionals and Broadway performers. We’ve had Chita Rivera and Donna McKechnie, Patrick Wilson – some great people come and work with these kids and it’s just so incredible to have the opportunity to nurture them and watch them grow.”
Ben and I talk for about fifteen minutes and the constant is that this is easily the most charming, happy and exuberant guy I think I’ve ever met! He’s effortless to talk to – I can almost hear his smile through the phone. And when he takes pleasure or cares about a subject – his joy is radiant and you can’t help but be fascinated right along with him.
I ask him if there is anything he would like to say about his show.
“Theatre is the most important thing in my life. It brings me such joy, and the most important thing I can do is to share that joy with other people. And that’s what it’s all about. This show lets me have such a great time – but mostly because I get to share something I care about with other people. I’ve got a great life to share with some great music and some incredible stories with some beautiful people.”
“You tell them down in Australia that I can’t wait to share my story with them.”
We drew the phone call to an end there and again I thanked Ben for his time. After we hung up, I booked my tickets, and I can honestly say, I am so excited to see Ben Vereen in the flesh and watch this legendary showman perform.
Ben Vereen is performing as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide on June 22, at the Atheneum Theatre in Melbourne on June 23 and at the Parade Theatre in Sydney on June 28.