Musical Theatre Historian, Kristin Pressley, will lead a discussion before each show to help you view the show from another perspective.
Following Classic Conversations, there will be an exclusive Member Reception for Classic Center Cultural Foundation Members. Enjoy a meal and a private room throughout show by becoming a member today!
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Classic Conversations from the 2016-17 Broadway Entertainment Series
By Kristin Pressley
It’s hard to study Broadway history without bringing up the star of tonight’s show.
Ben Vereen has been around for decades. Born in October of 1946, he grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and knew at a relatively young age that he wanted to be a performer. He got his chance early - enrolling in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts and studying under the likes of world-renown choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins.
At 21, Vereen was cast in the Broadway company of “Sweet Charity.” Two years later, he won a role in the “Charity” film adaptation, playing opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. The two performers developed a friendship, and Vereen danced with and understudied for Davis in several productions.
This led to leading roles of his own. After dazzling in Broadway’s 1971 production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” Vereen was cast as the Leading Player in Stephen Schwartz’s “Pippin” (a production of this musical is scheduled to visit the Classic Center later this season). For his performance, Vereen won the attention of casting directors across the country. He also won a Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Musical.
The world quickly became his oyster. Film roles were offered, as was a role in the television miniseries “Roots.” For his portrayal of Chicken George, Vereen was Emmy nominated.
Vereen has stayed busy ever since.
The singing, dancing, Tony Award-winning actor is now 69 years old. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down. His schedule is as hectic as it’s ever been.
In addition to prepping tonight’s show for a Thanksgiving week run at Manhattan cabaret 54 Below, Vereen is currently starring in two television series - Fox’s “Making History” (opposite Yassir Lester and Adam Pally) and Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete,” which co-stars Giovanni Ribisi.
He also took a turn as Dr. Everett Scott in Fox’s October remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This adaptation of one of Broadway’s best-beloved hits (1975’s “The Rocky Horror Show”) is the next in a series of stage shows being translated for the small screen - among them “The Sound of Music,” “Grease,” and “The Wiz” with “Hairspray Live!” slated to air on NBC next month.
Vereen, long known as an advocate for arts education, thinks this trend is a great one.
“It becomes another pathway to the arts and allows art to express itself and reach people,” he told Caryn Robbins of BroadwayWorld.com. “What that does is stimulate people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to come to New York to see a Broadway show … so it’ s wonderful thing for the arts.”
Vereen took his outspoken arts advocacy to this summer’s Democratic National Convention where he noted the importance of the arts for professionals in all walks of life.
“I’m not saying everybody’s got to be a song and dance man or an artist …,” he told the Huffington Post. “We need our creative-thinking people in politics, in corporations …”
The actor is committed to doing his part to make that happen. Each year, Vereen sponsors a scholarship competition for students committed to pursuing a career in musical theatre. The Ben Vereen Awards are awarded annually to pupils in San Diego high schools.
Vereen also champions the Wellness Through the Arts program. Available to San Diego students, the program awards young people who are seeking a healthier lifestyle through the arts. Competitors create videos that communicate their feelings on obesity, diabetes (Vereen himself is a Type-2 diabetic), low self esteem, and bullying.
He’s somehow managed to accomplish all of this while keeping a frenetic performance pace. In addition to the roles listed above, Vereen has performed on television, with recurring roles on shows, like “How I Met Your Mother,” Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” The roles that have meant the most to him, however, have been in the shows - “Wicked,” “Chicago,” “Fosse,” and “Hair,” among them - that have beckoned him back to Broadway.
As Vereen said, “Theatre’s my first love. It will always be my first love!”
That’s what prompted the development of tonight’s production. A retrospective of sorts, “Steppin’ Out” looks back at his illustrious career and features a few of his favorite things - singing, dancing, and paying tribute to the greats — like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
According to a New York Times review of the show’s premiere, it’s a not-to-be-missed kind of occasion. “In the tradition of his idol Sammy Davis, Jr., Mr. Vereen is an old-school song and dance man who never lets up,” writes Stephen Holden. “He wins you over with his sheer energy, good will, and showbiz know-how.”
For TheaterMania.com, Brian Scott Lipton takes it even further: “The … star is expending enough energy up there to power all of the Big Apple.”
Prepare to be amazed.
A passionate fan of musical theatre, Kristin Stultz Pressley is a frequent lecturer on Broadway shows and their histories. She earned a doctorate in Theatre from the University of Georgia. Learn more at http://www.DrBroadway.com or by following @DrBway on Twitter.
*Ben Vereen is the godfather of R&B superstar Usher.
*Vereen is a member of the Theatre and Dance Halls of Fame.
By: Kristin Pressley
Each year, more than 50 million tourists visit New York City.
With perennial draws like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Fifth Avenue window displays, and ice skating rinks at Central Park and Rockefeller Center, it’s no surprise that the number of guests hits a fever pitch in November and December, as revelers from everywhere flock to experience Christmas in the City.
The theatre, of course, is part of the draw, as well. If there were any question as to whether or not the industry stands ever-ready to meet audience demand for holiday offerings, consider this:
Broadway is a billion dollar enterprise annually. Its theatres routinely turn in their highest grosses of the year in the weeks just before and just after Christmas. Last year alone, the Broadway League reported that the 40-some theatres making up the Great White Way turned in receipts of more than $43 million for the last week of the 2015. Outside of the five-week holiday window (Thanksgiving through New Year’s), the week whose gross came closest was the last week of March when Spring Break’ers dropped $31 million to see the dozens of shows onstage.
In response to this demand, Broadway has historically supplied shows like “A Christmas Carol,” “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” and—this year’s smash hit—“Holiday Inn.” Merry musicals have become as anticipated a tradition as the Macy’s Parade.
It’d probably please a compulsive snuggler like Buddy to know that his “Elf” fits cozily into this milieu.
Adapted from the 2003 film, which starred Will Ferrell in one of his first films after a seven year stint on “Saturday Night Live,” the show was intended to run from November through New Year’s. Producers envisioned it’d recoup its investment with short-runs annually for five years.
Instead, the show spent two Christmases on Broadway (where it broke box office records at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre), one in London’s West End, and the last five on the road by way of several national touring companies.
Bob Martin co-wrote the book of the show with Thomas Meehan. Martin, a Canadian writer/performer who won the 2006 Tony Award for the script of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” was originally invited to audition for the iconic role of Buddy the Elf. Minutes into his reading of the script, however, he knew he wasn’t right for the part.
“I said to them, ‘I really can’t play this part. I’m too old,’” Martin told Richard Ouzounian of The Toronto Star. “There’s way too much singing and dancing involved, and it’s going to be a really athletic performance.”
Still, director / choreographer Casey Nicholaw and his creative team liked the ideas Martin suggested for the script; they invited him to work with Meehan on the script instead.
Meehan, a three-time Tony Award winner with ten Broadway shows under his belt, says the character that Martin felt himself “too old” to play, is precisely what attracted him to the piece in the first place.
“[Buddy] has exactly what I look for,” Meehan said in a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair. “I want a central character who’s bigger than life, a singular character whose story you follow.”
Having written for characters like Little Orphan Annie (“Annie”), Max Bialystock (“The Producers”), and Rocky Balboa (“Rocky the Musical”), Meehan has gotten that chance on more than one occasion. In “Elf,” that central character is bolstered by the music of Matthew Sklar (composer) and Chad Beguelin (lyricist).
Together, the pair penned the songs for the musical adaptation of “The Wedding Singer,” as well as the Broadway-bound “The Prom.” When lead producer Mark Kaufman approached them with the idea for a musical “Elf,” they couldn’t say, “Yes” fast enough.
“It was just so great, because Buddy’s singing throughout the movie. It’s just so musical,” Beguelin said in an interview with Broadway.com. “You never feel like it’s artificial for these characters to sing …there were all of these great ways to integrate music into the storytelling.”
The story told is largely the same one that David Berenbaum wrote for the film. There are a few changes - Papa Elf is replaced by Santa Claus as the narrator of the piece; brother Michael doesn’t bond with Buddy over a Central Park snowball fight but a science fair project, instead - but for the most part, fans of the film will see their favorite moments; they’ll just be translated to the stage and set to some of the Great White Way’s most merry-making music.
“It was all about creating up-tempo, catchy, kind of jingly songs,” said Sklar. “… everything should feel like it would fit right into a holiday Christmas sampler but still function as a musical theatre song.”
Director Sam Scalamoni, whose “Beauty and the Beast” visited the Classic Center last season, has reimagined Nicholaw’s Broadway production for the national tour. It remains largely the same; his primary changes serve to make the show more accessible to non-New York audiences the tour will see as it crosses the country.
The result is a production that The New York Times called, “A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment.”In other words, if “smiling’s your favorite,” “Elf” is the musical for you.