Ben Vereen dances into town
Entertainer Ben Vereen has a schedule that other performers would envy — and probably have trouble keeping up with (other than maybe Betty White!).
To name just a few of his current gigs, Vereen crisscrosses the globe touring his one-man show, “Ben Vereen Sings Broadway and More,” is filming a documentary of his life, working up a play about Muhammad Ali, creating a CD, appearing on television (on such shows as “How I Met Your Mother” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) and is active on the lecture circuit, speaking on topics ranging from overcoming adversity, to arts in education, black history, and recovery.
The legendary song-and-dance man, who won 1973’s Best Actor Tony Award for his role in Pippin, is now 64 and has no intention of slowing down.
“There’s time to slow down when you’re in the grave,” he said, adding that he “can’t wait” to turn 65 in October. “Get me that [Medicare] card!” he exclaimed.
Vereen will appear in Baltimore (“I can be more in B’more,” he laughed) on Monday, May 16, at 7 p.m. at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave. “An Evening with Ben Vereen” is presented by the Edward A. Myerberg Center and will honor Howard H. Moffet, the outgoing president of the center.
An early start in singing
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Vereen now lives in California. Entertaining was not in his family genes, but he had encouraging parents and got an early start.
The first money he ever earned as a performer — $5 when he was 10 years old — came from singing U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three” at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in his neighborhood.
“Wow, they pay you for this, I thought,” Vereen recalled, and that was the beginning of his stage ambitions — what he calls his “first love and passion.”
“The theater was my first training ground,” he said. “It taught me discipline, dedication and appreciation of hard work and values that will stay with me a lifetime. The stage sharpens the creative instrument and encourages you to go deeper inside and try new things.”
In addition to his star-making turn in Pippin, Vereen has appeared on Broadway in Wicked, Fosse, I’m Not Rappaport, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grind, Jelly’s Last Jam, and A Christmas Carol.
Of his role in Pippin, renowned drama critic Clive Barnes wrote, “Ben Vereen — unquestionably one of the finest performances seen on Broadway.”
Vereen sees his work on stage as a metaphor for his work in life. “Life is art,” he said. “Whatever we do in life — whether it’s performing or teaching or writing or raising kids — is a form of art.
“Whatever you do, if you embrace it, it will move you to the next level,” he said.
Because Vereen credits many of his mentors, including Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra, with setting him on the right path, he likes to do the same for other young people. That’s true whether they’re entertainers, like the R&B superstar Usher, or youngsters living with diabetes, from which Vereen himself suffers as well.
“Young people need to be empowered,” said Vereen. “I try to teach them to ‘love thyself,’ as well as ‘know thyself.’”
To give people the tools to do that, Vereen has also founded the Angels of Love Spiritual Center in Culver City, Calif. The center is for all people, no matter what their religion, said Vereen. “I simply want to give them the tools to lead a better life.”
Despite his professional successes, Vereen has had his share of personal struggles. A teenage daughter was killed in an automobile accident in 1987, leading Vereen — a recreational drug user for years — into a serious cocaine addiction.
He entered drug rehab, became clean, and later founded Celebrities for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating young people about the dangers of drugs.
In 1992, Vereen underwent another crisis when he was hit by a car. He needed several operations and months of physical therapy to recover.
Once again healthy, Vereen has “quite a few things in the cooker,” as noted above, but said that even though he makes plans, he accepts that life might always have something else in store for you.
“You can set a plan in motion, but then you need to let it go,” he said. “Trust that when the time is right — which may not be when you think it’s right — it will all work out for the highest good.”
Apart from looking forward to his prized Medicare card, Vereen is also sanguine about old age. “Getting older is a treasure,” he said. “We should be proud and stand strong. We are wise and we know the way.
“Let’s keep our eye on the prize…healing ourselves, our family, our community, our society and our planet.”
Tickets for “An Evening with Ben Vereen” are $40 general admission; $125 for patron seating, which includes a CD signing and a dessert-and-wine reception with Vereen. For more information and reservations, call (410) 358-6856 or visit www.myerbergseniorcenter.org.