The seductive singer-dancer-actor Ben Vereen won back-to-back Tony Awards for his unforgettable roles as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972 and as the lead in Pippin in 1973, and was recently on Broadway in I’m Not Rappaport and Wicked. On TV, he played Chicken George in the series Roots and Wayne Brady’s father in How I Met Your Mother.
Vereen is also a dedicated advocate for the arts and diabetes awareness. We spoke with him by phone before he arrived for an island-hopping schedule of concerts, workshops and talk story sessions with high school students.
You were last here in 2009 for the [Honolulu Symphony] Toyota Pops. You seem to love it in Hawaii.
Yes, I love it in Hawaii. What is there not to love? And your Honolulu Pops were wonderful and I’m saddened that they are not there [now], but no, no, they will be back and better…I believe that about Hawaii. I believe that about your dedication to the arts.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from a life in performance?
A life in performance? I’m still in school. [Laughs] Even in death we learn! But, you know, my lifetime has been a schooling. I’m learning all the time.
And when you speak to kids about performance?
What I try to do is bring the crystal or the diamond which is within them out. I try to get them to reach within themselves to discover who they are. So it’s not just about acting, it’s about life itself. It’s about being in touch with your feelings…Theater is all about the inner feelings.
I like that idea. Any tips on the practical side?
I’m starting a group in Tucson called “Broadway and Beyond,” and that’s where we get into more of the life and living skills as well as being an artist. It’s something to sing and dance but, you know, an artist has to learn [something] which I didn’t learn and a lot of artists didn’t learn when they get in this business. We love to express our art so we forget about this thing called business. And this segment of my teaching will be about business, about spiritual growth, about taking care of yourself.
Now here’s the thing, once you have the information what you do with it is what’s going to make a difference in your life. If you don’t activate it–the materials are going to be there, but you’re going to be standing there with the tools in your hand. You’ve got to build the building.
How did you become an advocate for the arts?
Look at our times right now. The arts have been cut from our schools. Therefore, those of us who know that life itself is an art form, we who stand for the arts are standing for our culture. And when you stand for our culture, you stand for the civilization of man and woman. So I’m–I’m an advocate for life.
You sound like Don Quixote.
Don Quixote, yeah, yeah! Bring that windmill on! Bring that windmill on! Someone’s got to stand and dream the impossible dream.
You are going to be hopping from island to island. How are you going to keep yourself fresh?
I’ll rest on the other side. My godmother was a missionary and she’d build churches. And when she’d give testimony, she’d say, “My testimony is my life here, God. I want God to say ‘You worked yourself out in life, you didn’t rust out.’” She taught me everything…and that’s become my mantra as well.
Another of your concerns is diabetes awareness. Give us a little background on that.
You know, we’re not taught how to live on this planet. I didn’t know that [my] having a dry mouth was a sign, I didn’t know that urinating a lot would be a sign, I didn’t know that [my] being lethargic was a sign. I didn’t check it out. [When] my doctor said, “Your sugar’s a little high.” I didn’t ask him the key question, “How high?” I didn’t know which questions to ask. None of us know which questions to ask.
You said in one of your lectures, “You don’t have a challenge with diabetes, you have an opportunity.”
What I mean is this: usually when a challenge comes up, it means you’ve got to struggle, right? You’ve got to get your armor on, you’ve got to fight–you’re going to get tense. But when you have an “opportunity,” just the word itself: Here’s an opportunity to you for better health, for a better life. Your whole posture relaxes and you come away with a more positive attitude, in fact, with more zeal… You know, we’re taught that we’re going to “suffer” with diabetes–no, you’re going to live with diabetes.