He could have done it with the eyes, the smile, the Sammy- and Sinatra-influenced style.
That’s really all it would have taken Saturday night for Ben Vereen to capture his Buffalo crowd.
Instead, he enraptured them with something more. A still-plush voice. Traces of his famous dance as he paced across the Kleinhans Music Hall stage.
Charm. Just ask any member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra who sits at the edge of their row. Vereen interacted with them all (but none as much as associate concertmaster and violinist Amy Glidden, the recipient of a Vereen serenade and, later, an embrace). And most of all, the message: A plea to support the arts.
Vereen considered not just the crowd, but every occupant of the building – orchestra members included – to be his audience as he delivered a set of nearly 20 songs, sprinkling tales from his storied career in between. The 68-year-old Tony winner regaled the crowd with stories of being a kid from pre-hipster Brooklyn (“the ghetto,” as he called it) gaining admittance to Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts. He talked about “my friend, Bob Fosse,” and “my mentor, Sammy Davis Jr.,” and the legend whose endorsement helped Vereen gain wide acceptance as a talented young black performer, Frank Sinatra.
“I’ve worked with giants, and called them friends,” said Vereen, who began the show in buttoned suit and tie, but soon removed his black jacket, set it atop the piano played by David Loeb, and delivered a passionate set of songs. He sang Sinatra and Sammy Davis, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz, among other classics and Broadway hits, and gained momentum with every number.
Among the crowd favorites were “Defying Gravity” from Schwartz’ “Wicked”; the Lloyd Webber song “Memory” from “Cats”; and Sinatra’s “My Way.” (Vereen also admitted to once accusing a pianist during an audition of not knowing a song. The player? Andrew Lloyd Webber. “He wouldn’t talk to me for 10 years,” Vereen said.)
But no song nor moment, serious or silly, stood out more than Vereen’s adaptation of “Stand By Me,” which he changed lyrically to “Stand Up for the Arts.”
Prompting the entire crowd to rise and clap, Vereen delivered a passionate plea (one he admitted was “preaching to the choir”) to support arts funding.
Vereen, who has long been active on the lecture circuit as a motivational speaker, also spoke about recovering from a 1992 accident that threatened to end his singing and dancing career. He preached a message of taking control of one’s life – as he did, and has.
“Eighty percent of the people you complain to don’t care,” Vereen said, then added with a wry smile, “and the other 20 percent are glad it’s you.”
The evening began with a half-hour set by the philharmonic. Conductor Stefan Sanders led the orchestra through a series of Broadway renditions that included “Chicago,” “Godspell” and “On the Town.”
With Vereen in the backstage wings, Sanders talked about first seeing the legend perform decades ago on “The Muppet Show,” which (probably intentionally) emphasized the pop-culture power of the legend in our presence.
When you have someone like Vereen, who can talk about working with Sinatra and Davis and Fosse, who was trained in dance by Martha Graham, who once unwittingly told off Lloyd Webber, you know the show’s going to be good. And you know he’s the closest we can ever come to still experiencing the art of those who mentored him.
The only thing left to wonder, then, is which legendary performer will say years from now that they were inspired by Ben Vereen? And will the arts remain strong enough to give those performers a stage? It will take decades to know. But in the twilight of his career, Vereen is doing his part to make sure the answer is a good one