Ben Vereen
Ben Vereen
Ben Vereen knows a lot about surviving: He carried on after losing his then-16-year-old daughter, Naja, in a car accident in 1986, struggled through an addiction to cocaine, and had a difficult recuperation after himself being hit by a car while walking in Florida. So it is only fitting that the 55-year-old Tony Award is playing one of the theater's ultimate survivors, Midge Carter, the eightysomething building super in Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport.

Gardner's 1985 comedy concerns the unusual friendship between the mild-mannered Midge and Nat Moyer, a feisty, eightysomething Jew played by Judd Hirsch, recreating his Tony-winning role; the new production begins previews at the Booth Theatre on July 12 and opens officially on the 25th. Though Rappaport might seem premature for revival, Vereen reports that audiences who have seen this production at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse and New Jersey's Paper Mill have been quite enthusiastic. "People have received it with open arms," he says. "I think it's the right time for the play's messages. One is that as long as we sit back and do nothing, we go into the dark quietly--and we shouldn't do that. The other is that society pushes elders to the side because we younger ones are so full of zeal and zest. But they know the way and we all need to honor that from which we came, to embrace it with love and to take care of it. Those people have paved the way for you and me."

This revival marks Vereen's second go-round as Midge; he did Rappaport in San Francisco in the early 1990s, a gig that actually led to his being cast this time. "Unbenkownst to me, Herb had come to see me do the show in California," says Vereen. "Then, last year, when I was doing Fosse, Herb called me and said they were putting together a reading. I am so thrilled to be part of this. For [director] Dan Sullivan to give me the nod and guide me is very special. And to work with Judd Hirsch every night is truly a treat."

Vereen with Judd Hirschin I'm Not Rappaport(Photo: Patrick Farrell)
Vereen with Judd Hirsch
in I'm Not Rappaport
(Photo: Patrick Farrell)
What isn't a treat is being made to appear to age 25 years, a process that takes between 90 minutes and two hours every time. "Being old is not for sissies," says Vereen with a laugh. "It is hard to carry that gentleman every night. This is much rougher than doing Fosse! There is so much concentration in the physicality, in staying true to the moment and to Midge and not let Ben Vereen come out. I try hard not to interfere with who he is." Vereen admits that time and circumstance have also led him to approach Midge a bit differently than he did a decade ago: "I have gone through different experiences and especially, having been in rehab, I understand more the kind of challenges older people must overcome. I have a greater respect [for that] than I did before."

Rappaport marks Vereen's seventh time on Broadway--his credits include Grind and Jelly's Last Jam--but his first time in a straight play. "I am sure there will be some people in the audience expecting me to sing and dance, but I won't--and they will have to live with it," he says with a laugh. Indeed, it was 30 years ago that Vereen first strutted his stuff on the Great White Way, as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. That performance earned him his first Tony nomination. "I didn't know you got awards for doing something you love," he says. "My doorman handed me an envelope when I got home--that's how I found out [about the nomination]. And I wept like a baby. I was so floored that the people in the industry were telling me, 'You've got something.' Jue the fact they invited me to their party was reward enough."

Vereen lost the award that year to Larry Blyden, who won for his role in the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum. The very next year, however, Vereen picked up a Tony for his performance as the Leading Player in Pippin, directed by his mentor, Bob Fosse. The pair met in the mid-60s when Vereen auditioned for the Broadway production of Sweet Charity and remained friends and colleagues until Fosse's death in 1987, so it was especially sweet when Vereen was asked to join the cast of Fosse midway through its run. "For Ann Reinking to say to me 'come on and play with us' was so wonderful," Vereen enthuses. "It was truly a lovefest every night at the Broadhurst--the cast, the crew, the audience. And I am so thrilled that Clear Channel put it on film. Gwen [Verdon, the show's co-creator and Fosse's widow] so wanted Bob's work to be remembered forever. I wish we could put all of his work on film."

Vereen and company in Pippin
Vereen and company in Pippin
Fortunately, some of Vereen's greatest work has been preserved forever: aside from a tape of a touring production of Pippin, there's his brief but memorable vaudeville bit in Funny Lady, his role as Chicken George in the legendary miniseries Roots, and his 1978 Emmy-nominated special Ben Vereen: His Roots. Though he is a veteran of two television series, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe and Silk Stalkings, returning to the small screen is not a major priority for him. "I would do another series but they would have to film it in New York," says Vereen, a Brooklyn native and current Big Apple resident. "However, I am working with both Clear Channel and Showtime on some projects I can't discuss. I'm also hoping to do a Christmas album sometime soon."

As important to Vereen as his profession is his involvement in helping those in need. The winner of numerous humanitarian awards, he founded Celebrities for a Drug-Free America, which raised funds for drug education programs. Now, he lectures extensively to troubled youth in prison. "I think, as celebrities, we need to tell our stories--and I know people will listen to us," he says. "I always feel we have to do something about the youth of today to inspire them, or we won't have them tomorrow. If you keep telling people they are bad, they will act that way. But if you show them their goodness, their attributes, they begin to move in that direction."

Vereen is also a strong advocate for the arts. He has been the spokesperson for National Dance Week and, last month, he flew out to Ohio to work with the Cleveland Ballet on Wheels, a group of dancers in wheelchairs. "The arts everywhere are struggling for funds, and we have to help each other in order to keep the arts alive for our country," says Vereen. "I think the arts are the way we are going to get through our national crisis--that and religion. I think, after prayer, you want to sing a song."