In his show at Hartford Stage's SummerStage, this veteran of stage, film and TV will celebrate our beloved show business pioneers while taking audiences from Brooklyn to Broadway.
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Song-and-dance man, actor and humanitarian Ben Vereen comes to the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford July 6-11 as part of Hartford Stage's SummerStage Series. For info, call 860/527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.
This show is being billed as "a tribute to Broadway, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr."
It's an intimate evening with Ben Vereen. It's more than a tribute to Sammy and Frank and all the great people I've worked with. The audience gets to know a little about me. We get to share some of my career. And they get a piece of the new show I'm writing, From Brooklyn to Broadway. There'll be storytelling and a wonderful evening of song. I'm bringing fabulous musician—Nelson Cole on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass, Mark Dicianni on drums, and my son Aaron will be playing conga.
I have family in Connecticut. My sister lives in Derby, my mother lived in New Haven. I found my family just recently, so I'm really excited to be in the Hartford area, to see all my relatives who will come out and all my new friends and family.
Is From Brooklyn to Broadway an autobiographical show?
From Brooklyn to Broadway is still in the process of being formed. I'm trying out material and seeing if people like it, seeing whether certain pieces will make it into the final cut. The show is autobiographical, but it's not so much about me as the time we all grew up in. We're also planning a book and documentary.
You worked with Sammy Davis early in your career.
I was the understudy for Golden Boy. It was a wonderful time. Sam and I had just met, and he asked me to go with to London. I learned a lot from him. He became my mentor. But he was that way with everyone—he was just a giving person. I pay tribute to those who paved the way for us to be who we are today. And they shouldn't be forgotten. Young people need to know on whose backs they're standing. People like Gregory Hines and Marlon Brando—they're gone and people forget. People don't mention them anymore, or the technique they brought to history.
People like Tom O' Horgan, who changed the face of theater. People don't talk about him any more, or Michael Bennett. They're gone, but their legacy lives on. Bob Fosse. So I get to talk about them, and during the show we celebrate that period of time or that life.
You just hosted a commemorative concert for Fats Waller at Lincoln Center. He's someone we really need to reclaim.
Yes, I was floored that they asked me to do that.
Who are your favorite artists now?
Michael Bublé is keeping it alive. I'm still hung up on people like Lionel Richie and Bobby McFerrin. My godson Usher—I love what he's doing, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he is going to do. Justin Timberlake, Queen Latifah, John Legend. Tony Bennett. I have inclusive tastes, and I listen to a lot of music.
What was special about Sammy Davis Jr. as a performer?
Endless performing. He was born for this, and very few people are born to do just that. His whole fiber, his DNA was about that. If he couldn't do that, he couldn't breathe—and it became contagious. He had a saying, "Open the refrigerator door, I'll go into my act."
One thing he instilled in me was to be myself. I wanted to follow him around and he said, "You've got your own stuff. Find your own voice." That's what I try to tell young people today. I think it's harder for them, because there's just so much information out there: Kids can go into their closets and make CDs and sell them on the street. There's so much "American Idol," there's 15 minutes of fame everywhere. How are you going to build something that's going to sustain a career longer than 15 minutes? In my day, if you worked hard, and you were tenacious and got the right connections, you could possibly put your feet down and have a career. I'm blessed. My God, I've been doing this thing for how long? Because those tools I was taught have sustained me all these years. Kids today don't get those lessons. There's so much glitz and bling-bling, but the substance is missing. Very few talents today have that staying power.
You became thought of as a master interpreter of Bob Fosse . . .
Well, thank you . . . [laughs]
What did he contribute to choreography?
Bob Fosse contributed style and grace to dance, and left a stamp on society that's very definable. He's left his influence on everyone who works in choreography today—he's touched them all one way or another.
From your perspective, what makes a great dancer? And a great dance?
What makes a great dancer is reading the manual, getting it and then letting go. What I mean by that is, what you've read gives you the technique, then you've gotta learn the technique and internalize it, and use it to express yourself. So it's not just technique, it's an expression of your inner being.
So a great dance number is one that comes from within, one that makes you relate to not only the steps but the passion. It's sent out from the center of the dancer's being, only then can it move you to tears—because he's so involved in the movement he's not concerned about you, he's concerned about releasing something within himself. He's caught up within that; it's a beautiful thing to watch.