Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen
This is another milestone, another chance to talk to a performance legend, none other than Mr. Ben Vereen. For The La Jolla Playhouse, for Vereen and for me it's a series of firsts-his first time on any San Diego stage, their first having him perform and of course our conversation.
Not that he hasn't been to San Diego before, early in our conversation he talked about his annual visits to the Optimum Health Institute; he extolled the virtues of their fine tuning: "You gotta look at your life, our bodies are like a vehicle that we use through life-right? Just like most of us take our cars in for tune-ups every year, you have to take your body in for a tune-up every year."
There is a candor to him that is refreshing, a sensibility that he is in touch with what is "real" and what is important. I asked about his current show "Steppin' Out" and to what he attributed his long career, "You guys are the reason I am where I'm at. Sometimes we as artists forget, I think we just get wrapped up in what we're doing-but it's really not us that 'makes us', it's you. It's the audiences who have allowed us this opportunity-so it's a thank you. That's what the show is about. I also tribute Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minelli, Bob Fosse and Tom O'Horgan. I talk about the greats I have had the special opportunity to work and team with. I have been very lucky. I mean my god, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bunny Briggs, Gregory Hines, it's endless. It's all sort of a precursor for another show that I'm writing called... well the working title for right now is Brooklyn to Broadway-B to B! (Laughs)"
On top of his busy performance schedule, Vereen lectures all over the country; he is an avid arts supporter and believes in giving back. "The arts are the essence of who we really are. We're from different cultures, different parts of the world and different backgrounds. Essentially, at the center of everything, it's the art form that is life." I loved another thought he shared about invention, "In the beginning it says, 'God created,' it didn't say 'God manufactured.'" Truer words, sir. Truer words...
We talked about the state of affairs in the arts and how difficult it has become in regard to funding. "We the people must step up to the plate and say, we are standing behind the arts, because the arts help to generate clearer thinking, clearer direction and more cohesiveness among the people. I see it so much with young people when they are exposed to the arts. I have a group/organization that I'm starting, a program called Path to Excellence Through the Arts. We not only teach the arts, singing, dancing, acting and music, we also add in things like how to negotiate a contract and how to take care of your money, to try to round out the person. I'm trying to round out the performers so they are aware of what they are getting into-this wonderful business called the arts."
We share an excitement for artistic expression, I asked him what he thought about how the process works now, as opposed to when he was working his way up. "There is so much more accessibility, so many more avenues for expressing yourself than there was when I was coming up-I'm not sure whether that's good or bad. Technology is amazing, what we've moved into." He continued with this thought, "How do we use it to embrace and overcome? Artists are doing that, using technology to embrace, not overwhelm."
"We must remember that it is a human thing. All of the technology, all of the information comes from within us, the human mind. Technology can never replace the human mind."
Wise words from a wise man-it's no wonder that after this conversation, it feels as though I just left a heady mountaintop...
Thanks for the ride Mr. Vereen.
"Steppin' Out With Ben Vereen" is at the La Jolla Playhouse Friday, March 29 through Sunday, March 31. For tickets and more information call 858.550.1010 or go to lajollaplayhouse.org.
For more information on Mr. Vereen and his other concert dates go to benvereen.com