By Linda Armstrong
Ben Vereen Is A Wonderful Wizard In “Wicked”
There are certain African American actors who we have grown up with. People who we know have done it all-television, movies, and theater and Ben Vereen is definitely one of those actors that we hold in high regard. Whether people who him as Chicken George in “Roots” or star him on Broadway in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” or “Pippin,” he is an actor who always manages to take a role and make it his own. He performs with such intensity, joy and creativity, that you find yourself smiling from the time you hear his voice. I remember when he played the ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden. He lit up the stage with his positive energy.
I’ve never seen him in a production where he was not at the top of his game. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Vereen over the phone in the past, when he was in “Fosse” and other production, but I recently had the opportunity to actually sit down and have dinner with him at a restaurant near the theater. The sit down meeting was his idea and I really enjoyed it. It was wonderful to speak with him in person. When we had talked in the past over the phone, we had talked about his health problems and how the Lord had seen him through. I came to realize that he is a spiritual and good hearted person. Sitting across from him, this was again obvious. This is a man who has known and worked with some of the greatest performers-Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Liza M! innelli, but he sat across from me with no airs about him. He was friendly, charming and honest as he talked about the great time he is having now, playing the Wizard of Oz in the Broadway musical “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theatre on W 51st Street.
Vereen spoke of his role as the Wizard and how he looked at this character as a victim of circumstance, rather than an evil character. Vereen believes that the head of the school in Oz, Madame Morrible is evil and is controlling both the wizard and the people of Oz. “My back story is she controls the weather and when he was in his balloon in the carnival, she brought him down there. When the people saw the balloon, something they had never seen before, they thought he was like a God. Morrible created the character of the Wizard and keeps him behind a mask. She controls him, because he has no powers, as well as the people of Oz.”
“Wicked” tells the story of the relationship that existed between Glinda, the Good Witch and the Witched Witch of the East, also called Elphaba. We learn why the witch was green and there’s reference to she and the wizard being connected in some way. The production shows that Elphaba was treated very badly because she was green. Contrary to the storyline of the movie, the “Wizard of Oz” that we’ve all grown up with, Elphaba wasn’t wicked at all. It was actually Glinda, the Good, who had issues. Also the animals in Oz can speak. The Wizard is lead to believe by Morrible, that the animals’ speaking is bad and it needs to be stopped. He asks Elphaba to read a spell book and take away their ability to speak. When she refuses and flees on her broomstick, she is hunted down.
When the Wizard sees her again he doesn’t want to hurt her. He’s just glad to see her, senses all along that there is some special connection between him and this green girl. As the musical comes near the end, the audience learns their connection. I’m purposely not saying what we learn about them, you’ll have to go see the musical.
Believe me Vereen is well worth seeing as are his fellow cast members, Shoshana Bean (Elphaba), Megan Hilty (Glinda), Rue McClanahan (Morrible) and Fiyero (David Ayers). This is also an unforgettable musical with such a marvelous original score with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman. Everything about this musical dazzles, from the sets by Eugene Lee, to the costumes by Susan Hilferty, along with the orchestrations by William David Brohn, musical staging by Wayne Cilento and phenomenal direction by Joe Mantello. For tickets to “Wicked” call 212-307-4100.