Ben Vereen may have played the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Broadway's "Wicked," but tech wiz is not a role he ever imagined himself in.
Come Monday, Jan. 25, the Tony-winning star of "Pippin" and countless other Broadway musicals will find out just how much of a techie he is when he begins teaching an eight-week virtual Master Class in acting for Bay Street Theater & Sag Harbor Center for the Arts.
"I'm overjoyed. I get to work with young people and I get to learn from them what I don’t know," said Vereen, 74, by phone from Los Angeles.
The class is just one of many projects for Vereen, who also earned three Emmy nominations, including one as Chicken George in the landmark 1977 miniseries "Roots." He recently shot a television pilot called "Midas," in which he plays the man with the golden touch; appeared in virtual benefits for The Actors Fund, and last spring directed and performed in "Virtual Vereen and Friends" to benefit Care for the Homeless. He's also working on a memoir and wants to do a new album.
Vereen recently spoke to Newsday's Dan Bubbeo about the class, his career and the personal challenges he faced in 2020.
What will students be learning in the class?
I call my classes pathways to excellence. It's singing. acting and movement. It's a combination of one inside the other. If you’re a dancer, you must understand the depths of that story that you're telling and let that story live inside of you in order to relate it to the public.
What else are you planning?
I’m bringing some friends in to teach movement, so there’ll be surprises along the way. I'll have other people giving their wisdom and insight. My want is to have a financial friend come in and talk about how to take care of your money; how to be a real businessperson as well as a great artist. They call this show business, they should have called it business show. [Laughs.] I also want to have doctors and physical therapists come in to talk about what to do if you’re injured. It’s more than a class. It's about developing the whole person. I'm trying to give them what I didn’t get.
You've taught before with Ann Reinking's Broadway Project, but doing teaching virtually is a whole other animal. How tech savvy are you?
I’m about to find out. [Laughs.] The first time I did one of these virtual events, it was a learning curve. I turned to my grandson, who's 11, to help me out. … This is a learning experience for all of us. I welcome it because what we can achieve in this arena is really wonderful for the imagination. How do you teach a class that involves an intimate scene between two people virtually and keep the intimacy real? How do you find a space where you’re comfortable enough in your beingness and have it projected through a technical contraption? This is a wonderful opportunity for doing that.
This has been a very challenging year for you losing your son [Benjamin Vereen Jr.], your brother-in-law and your friend Ann Reinking. How have you been able to keep yourself going?
My heart is shattered, honestly. But it gives me an opportunity to rebuild and pick up the pieces as I examine my life. The pieces that are missing. I’ve lost two children [his daughter, Naja, died in 1987] and my ex-wife two years ago. … Annie Reinking and I were getting ready to do "Pippin" virtually. We were so excited about working together again, and then she went home. So I’ve learned to breathe in the moment, and say it’s just today, and I get up and move on. I’m carrying them in my heart as I go.
You've worked with so many great people. Is there someone you're still especially anxious to work with?
I still want to work with [Martin] Scorsese, I still want to work with Spike Lee. I still want to work with those great directors and learn from them.
Broadway is still closed and there's no live theater right now. What advice would you give someone who's looking at a musical theater career given those circumstances?
Follow your passion, Do not let what you see happening discourage you from your dream, from your passion, Passion will dissolve all of the negativity as long as you’re true to it. … What is going on right now with Broadway being closed, it’s just today. But while it’s close today, let’s prepare for tomorrow.
Ben Vereen's online Master Class
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Mondays through March 15
INFO $300 full session, $50 individual classes; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org