Ben Vereen Is Steppin' Toward Broadway

Vereen spills the beans on his upcoming Rialto return after his club act at 54 Below.

Ben Vereen takes the stage at 54 Below February 17-21 with a return engagement of his solo act, Steppin' Out
Ben Vereen takes the stage at 54 Below from March 17-21 with a return engagement of his solo act, Steppin' Out.
(© Tristan Fuge )

It's been just about a decade since Ben Vereen was last on Broadway, as the wickedly wonderful Wizard in Wicked, and the Tony winner is now beginning to plot his return. "It's been much too long," Vereen says, with an air of wistfulness in his voice. "I miss the theater." He pauses. "I miss employment," he adds with a laugh.

Vereen's "as soon as possible" return will be in a career-retrospective solo show he's developing with the playwright and director Joe Calarco. He expects that they'll have it ready by the fall and that it will first play a tryout run before Broadway beckons. To get himself back in the groove, he's returning to 54 Below, the nightclub in the cellar of Studio 54, with a return engagement of his club act Steppin' Out, from March 17-21.

"The show is a celebration," says Vereen, a Tony and Drama Desk winner for his legendary performance as the Leading Player in Bob Fosse's original production of Pippin. "It's all about the people. They have allowed me this wonderful career, so it's my thank-you to them."

Ben Vereen at the opening night of the 2012 Broadway revival of Pippin, a musical that won him a Tony Award in 1973.
Ben Vereen at the opening night of the 2012 Broadway revival of Pippin, a musical that won him Tony and Drama Desk Awards in 1973.
(© David Gordon)

Given that Vereen's career is so closely associated with his work in Pippin, it's no surprise that "Magic to Do," Stephen Schwartz's mysterious opening number, is bound to make an appearance. Audiences can also expect to hear some other Schwartz ditties, like "Defying Gravity," the great Act 1 closer of Wicked. It's a song Vereen didn't sing during his several-month stint as the Wizard at the Gershwin Theatre, but one he greatly admires. "I love that song," Vereen says. "I think Stephen Schwartz is probably one of our greatest American composers and writers, and not just because he's a friend. I love the way this man puts words together."

He was equally supportive of the new Broadway revival of Pippin, which recently closed after a year-long run at the Music Box Theatre. Vereen, looking snazzy in a top hat, walked the red carpet on opening night. But the experience of seeing it didn't bring back any memories. "It's a different show. Fosse's Pippin was about Pippin. This was about something else. It was good and I enjoyed it, but it didn't take me back."

Besides, he has enough memories of that run. "Working with Bob Fosse and getting to be with Irene Ryan [who played Berthe]? My god," Vereen says, clearly impressed even at the thought. "I got to be onstage with Irene Ryan. Jill Clayburgh. John Rubinstein. How many people can say that?"

Vereen also hasn't forgotten about the filming of the storied Pippin television commercial, which famously showed viewers "a free minute from Pippin" and asked them to come back for the remaining 119 minutes live at the Imperial Theatre. "We went up to shoot at Pace and the camera guy didn't want Bob in the studio," Vereen recalls. "Bob went home and got his awards and came back and said to the guy, 'I think I can do this.' That was the one that turned Broadway around. Right after that, people started doing commercials."

Like the Pippin memories, Vereen's countless stories, many revolving around pivotal decades of theater history, are featured in Vereen's act. "It'll be wonderful just to be at 54," he concludes. "I remember [this place] back in the day…Oh, boy. That's another article."

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Closed: March 21, 2015