You graduated from the High School of Performing Arts.How do you feel about the quality of that school?
My godchild is there now, and she's studying the arts. It is still a school that primes our young people for a career in the professional arts. For the performing arts aspect of life they are, as far as I'm concerned, number one. Of course, I'm a little prejudiced. I am a recipient of the first star on their Walk of Fame.
Congratulations! You deserve it. Memory time! I'm going to mention a show to you that you have done. Mention the first thing or two that come to mind.
Sweet Charity. (67-68)
My first show. I talk about it in my show Steppin' Out, when I first met Bob Fosse... at the Palace Theatre. It was phenomenal. It was like the opening of "All That Jazz", every dancer in the world was there. Bob hired me for Sweet Charity. Also when I met Gwen Verdon, Helen Gallagher and Thelma Oliver backstage, it was the first time I had ever been to a Broadway show.
Well, Tom O'Horgan, who is a good friend and a wonderful genius of theatre, touched my life and touched many people's lives. The play is very important especially relevant to today. We are in a world today where we need to "let the sun shine in". I just directed the show again in Venice, Florida, right outside of Tampa or Sarasota, Florida. I took it, sort of re-imagined it and took it to a place where the emotions would be personal relationships, with the message that would go deeper than just the surface where everybody is having a good time. For me the real meaning behind Hair is that in fact we made a promise some years ago and we didn't live up to that promise. That's why we are where we are in the world today. So, we got good reviews and we're looking to take it around the country. It's still playing in Florida until December 13.
Golden Boy. (68)
Golden Boy, Sammy Davis Jr., my buddy. My mentor, who took my hand and took me to London, out of the country for the first time. He gave me that experience and also stuck by me throughout my career. He was a good friend.
Jesus Christ Superstar. (71-73)
Another Tom O'Horgan play. It was amazing because it was really innovative for the theatre. The way Tom directed Hair ...a very innovative director. I got a chance to introduce a young actor named Ted Neeley, who played Jesus Christ in the movie. As dance captain, I discovered him in the LA company of Hair, I hired him, and he came on to New York to blast away and take off. He became understudy to Jesus in New York.
Pippin. Your Tony Award and my favorite. (72-74)
Bob Fosse again. My buddy. I auditioned for him because I wanted to show him what I had learned through the years of being away from him, starting me out in Sweet Charity. I came to the audition not expecting to get the role; he asked me to read for it and the next thing I knew I was in rehearsal. There was no role in the beginning, and he said not to worry about it. With Bob's help, we created the role. Bob had the vision, and we went to work.
Now the newest version of Pippin has a female actress playing the role.
That was not the first time. Paula Kelly played it first, in Brazil. For me, I like to see the woman more seductive. Being the female aspect of the consciousness, it's more seductive. I prefer to see more of that sensuality that Bob(Fosse) was all about. It's the calling of the other consciousness of the mind. A woman may be more seductive, a man more enticing.
Switching to television. Roots. (1977)
Roots was an opportunity that Alex Hailey brought to the world. It relates to all mankind. All people are struggling for humanity, and now for the planet. We must all step up and do something about the environment, do something about the violence and all the inhumanity that is happening to man right now. Roots shows us what we have done to the African American people. It's about my holocaust. Our Jewish brothers and sisters had their holocaust. This is about the African American holocaust. The American Indian had their holocaust. Various peoples have had holocausts down through time. It's time...it stops. We are all one people.
When they called me to do Chicago, my friend Chita Rivera insisted that I play Billy Flynn. We took it to Las Vegas ... once again, years before we brought Pippin to Vegas, and it was the first Broadway show to play Vegas. Now I came back to Vegas in another Fosse show, Chicago.
I was not working, and Ann Reinking called me out of nowhere and said I want you to do this show Fosse. I came to this...I had had an accident in '92 and injured my back. I didn't think I could do Fosse. I remember that Fosse had said to me, "If you learn to dance this way, you will dance the rest of your life." I was nervous to do Fosse, because I didn't know whether I'd be able to pull it off. As we began to rehearse and do the dances, it came back inside my body and... I wept. I cried, I cried. I had to thank Bob for that. He reached out and touched me from the other side. Thank you, Bob!
I'm Not Rappaport. (2002)
It was amazing. (He laughs.) First of all, Judd Hirsch is an incredible actor. Being onstage with him every night was such a lesson. His timing, his presence...you sat back and watched and learned.
The Exonerated. (2003) (Off-Broadway)
|as the Wizard in Wicked (2005-2006)|
That was a wonderful chance to talk about what's going on in our prison system. It was a short run, but an important piece.
Do you have a favorite musical of all time?
Well, of course, Pippin...what can I say. It's the depth of the character. The Leading Player. I looked at him as the consciousness of Pippin. That part of our mind that sort of like seduces us. It takes us into areas of great adventures. Its goal is to really burn out that big part of our lives. Be aware of a higher power that will guide you instead of man guiding you! Lean not on man, lean ye on spirit; it will never let you down; man will let you down. Man has to turn to spirit...when we wake up in the morning, we have to realize that there is something great to put us on our way, and that is created in our own human consciousness. It's a spiritual thing. That's why I enjoy Pippin, and I'll probably direct Pippin somewhere again, down the line. It speaks to me on so many levels.
Is there a current Broadway musical show that you think possesses that same kind of power, one that turns you on?
Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken an historical piece, and he's placed it in this musical...how can I say this?...the piece is people, he has black and white people up there onstage and they're all playing experiences in our government, set to rap music. And this rap music, if you sit there and listen, you get it. You hear, you get every word. And it has meaning and depth. And the choreography is amazing. You look at it and go, " Wow! They would have danced like that. They would have moved like that...O.K." (He laughs.) I really enjoyed it. I can't wait to see it again.
Is there a performer now, singer/dancer that you see as a real up and comer?
Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton, the man who kills Hamilton. That young man seems to have a lot going for him. He sings, he dances, he's amazing. He's the only song and dance man that I see stepping forward.
Tease us a little with your cabaret show Steppin' Out.
We've been working on it for some time. It's in retrospect of my career, the experiences that I've gone through, I share with the audience. It's really a celebration to my audiences, for allowing me an opportunity to be on the stage doing what I do and giving me the great career that I have had. It's my thank you to them.
Don't miss the incredible Ben Vereen live and in person at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood December 18 and 19. His show was a big hit at 54 Below and he will be bringing it back there in January.
For tix and reservations to Catalina, go to: www.catalinajazzclub.com or call (323) 466-2210