One-man stage shows are often vanity productions.
But Ben Vereen's autobiographical one-man show, which he'll present Friday at the McCallum Theatre, got a little extra cred last month when he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame as one of the premier triple threats of the past half century.
Liza Minnelli, who presented Vereen at the ceremony at the Gershwin Theatre in New York, called the 65-year-old singer, dancer and actor “a man who changed my life.”
She recalled seeing him in the Broadway musical, “Pippin,” and said, “He was so specific and so sharp. That raised the bar in singing and dancing for everyone.”
For Vereen, who was inducted with fellow stage legend Tyne Daly, the evening made him feel accepted as a rightful heir of Sammy Davis Jr., who he was the understudy of in the international touring production of “Golden Boy” in 1968.
“You look around the walls at the Gershwin Theatre,” he said in a telephone interview. “My God, all these people. I'm now official.
“I told a story about the first time I was nominated for a Tony (for “Pippin” in 1973). I didn't know who Tony was. Then I realized my peers were saying, ‘Hey, kid, you've got something.'”
After winning a Tony for “Pippin,” Vereen received another nomination for his portrayal of Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and an Emmy nomination for his role as Chicken George in the mini-series, “Roots.”
He'll cover all that territory in his show, which he plans to take to Broadway later this year as an expansion of a production that yielded his recent album, “Stepping Out Live.”
He'll also pay tribute to the artists who influenced his life, including Davis, Frank Sinatra, Bob Fosse and Shirley MacLaine. He may even include material from his stage roles as Louis Armstrong and Lincoln Perry, who was best known as his infamously stereotypical screen character, Stepin Fetchit.
He's hoping to bring the stage production that featured him as Perry, “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” to a wider audience.
“It's important that we recognize and give homage to those who paved the way for so many,” said Vereen.
“It's a shame we don't recognize our heroes. At times we like to tear our heroes down before we lift them back up and that's so with such heroes as Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Sammy Davis and even myself and Michael Jackson.”
Vereen is a staunch advocate of arts education, including a well-balanced history of the arts.
“People are ignorant of their history,” he said. “There was a time when black performers were not allowed on the American stage unless they wore black face. We don't teach that in schools. We don't understand where that came from. That was part of our history, our holocaust.”