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Show Business: Guided Missile

5 minute read

He doesn’t walk, he oils himself across the stage. He doesn’t jump, he takes off like a small but carefully guided missile. If there should ever be another power failure on Broadway, Ben Vereen could light up the Imperial Theater with one or two snaps of his electric, ring-encrusted fingers. In Pippin, a new hit musical (TIME, Nov. 6) with many standout parts, Vereen’s M.C. stands out from all the others.

As Vereen plays him, the M.C. is a kind of failed Mephistopheles, a combination of Joel Grey’s decadent host in Cabaret and vaudeville’s old-fashioned song-and-dance man. His eyes dance, roll, and turn somersaults in an amused self-parody, but they are too bright to be decadent and too playful to be evil. He tries to tempt and waylay Pippin, the show’s Candide-like hero, but it is obvious that he is having too much fun to take the devil business seriously. “It began as a very small part,” says Pippin’s Director Bob Fosse. “It was invented as it went along, and it kept growing with Ben’s ability to take anything and make it into something wonderful. There’s no man like him on the musical comedy stage. He’s hell-bent for somewhere.”

Heaven-bent might sound better, considering Vereen’s background. Not only was his father a deacon at Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church and his godfather a traveling Baptist preacher, but Vereen studied six months in a Manhattan seminary. “I was always being saved,” he says of his upbringing, “getting on my knees and ridding myself of the demon.” Though he quit the seminary and later had what he calls a “little lovers’ quarrel” with the church, he says he went into the theater “because it allowed me to reach people in so many capacities, to build a frame and fill it up with the spirit.”

Baggy Pants. His mother, who worked as a domestic, had spent some of her earnings to send him at the age of ten to something called the Star Time Dance Studios, which gave him just enough coaching to appear at an annual recital at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “You got out there in your silk shirt, baggy silk pants, and the tap shoes your mother had you paint silver the night before,” he remembers happily. “It was a beautiful experience, and if I had to do it over, I’d come up the same way.”

Although his grades in school were poorer than poor—”I was skinning by on my belly,” he says—his talent got him into Manhattan’s famous High School of Performing Arts. That led after graduation to a job as an understudy off-Broadway, and that led absolutely nowhere. For a year, Vereen worked in the mail room of a motion-picture company, vainly hoping that somebody would notice his loud on-the-job singing, then he landed a spot in a small-town Pennsylvania production of West Side Story. There he found his first and, so far, only experience of discrimination in the theater. “I wanted to play Riff,” he complains, “but they said I couldn’t play the part because I wasn’t Polish.”

After that Vereen was once again out of work and hungry. “I’ll never forget it. I didn’t have any money. I was dodging the landlord by climbing up to my apartment by the fire escape,” he says, “and I was eating crackers—you’d be amazed how full you can get on crackers and water.” Fortunately he soon found himself in the Las Vegas company of Sweet Charity and the road company of Golden Boy. Finally, he landed the plum role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. “I’ve never felt that ‘what-am-I-doing here?’ feeling because I know what I’m doing here,” he says with a naive immodesty. “I love working, and I have to create, create, create. Each director pulls something out of me which amazes me. I guess it’s my determination that allows me to do it and my trust in that person.”

At 26 Vereen is hyperdetermined, as well as hyperenergetic. Even offstage, says his friend Manhattan Restaurateur Jean-Claude Pujol, “he can’t sit down at a nightclub; he has to perform.” Yet his success has come so fast that he is a little dazed. Recently he interrupted an interview to ask TIME’s Patricia Gordon, “Am I really a star?” He is trying to take each thing as it comes these days, but still has one further ambition. It is neither to sing nor dance, but—what else would a Brooklyn boy want?—to act in a western movie, where he could ride a horse, shoot a gun, and wear boots “with spurs in the back that jingle when you walk down the street.”

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