Exactly 200 days ago, on November 10, 2017, I was contacted by a young woman coming forward about the abuses she suffered under the hands of actor Ben Vereen, during a show he directed in FL, two years prior.
Over the next couple of days, I heard from another cast member of the same production who had been abused in the same way. And then another. And then another.
When all was said and done, five actresses from the same show had come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment by the American Theatre Hall of Famer. Each provided detailed written descriptions of what had happened to them.
In the coming days, I also received four additional corroborating statements from other cast members who had witnessed many of the incidents brought forward by these five women.
Given the scope and complexity of this situation, I reached out to a couple of journalists in the New York City area which resulted working with the New York Daily News' Nicole Bitette and Nancy Dillon.
On January 5th, 2018, The Daily News published their report on the abuse allegations again Ben Vereen during a production of "Hair" he directed at the Venice Theatre in FL in 2015. The article included portions of the statements the women gave to me and also others that were given to the Daily News.
For his part, Ben Vereen didn't deny any of the allegations. He admitted his actions and apologized for them in a statement to the Daily News,
"While it was my intention to create an environment that replicated the themes of that musical during the rehearsal process, I have since come to understand that it is my conduct, not my intentions, which are relevant here. So I am not going to make any excuses because the only thing that matters here is acknowledging and apologizing for the effects of my conduct on the lives of these women," he said.
That was 145 days ago.
That number is important because it's apparently how long it takes for Broadway to overlook admitted sexual misconduct and welcome back its perpetrators into its elite circles.
Even though Vereen admitted to using his stature and position of power as a director to sexually manipulate female performers in his cast; there he was, smiling and presenting, a couple of weeks ago at the 2018 Chita Rivera Awards.
Even though Vereen admitted to making all the actresses kiss him on the lips at the end of rehearsals (one refused which led to a disciplinary conversation about how she wasn’t “opening myself up to love”); there he was, smiling on the red carpet at Stephen Schwartz' birthday celebration last month, being interviewed by Playbill. Does the Ruthie Fierberg, a senior editor of the publication, dare bring up the sexual misconduct issue? Of course not, she basically fan-girls all over the man. Here's the complete video.
Even though Vereen admitted to hugging an actress in the cast, pressing himself up against her and texting her later that night saying, "You felt so good tonight..", there he was a couple of weeks ago, being welcomed backstage at "Once on this Island" taking pictures with the cast including Lea Salonga.
During rehearsals of "Hair" in 2015, Vereen told an actress that her not "having children must make her feel worthless as a woman", just so she would emotionally respond in a scene. He did the same to a young man he perceived as gay by announcing to him in front of the rest of the cast "Admit it. You like dick. You're a faggot." Despite that, here he is being embraced by Broadway A-Listers Stephen Schwartz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
It would seem all is well. Mr. Vereen is back to being the legendary performer many love and admire. No one seems to remember his past. No one seems to care. Everyone in the Broadway community is ready to move on.
And it only took 145 days.
I'm surprised that it was this soon before Mr. Vereen would be embraced by this community but I'm not surprised he's being embraced again. Broadway has a terrible history when it comes to dealing with sexual misconduct and those who perpetrate it. The Actors Studio apparently ignored reports of misconduct against Israel Horowitz for years before finally he was finally exposed for incidents at another theatre. They welcomed back convicted sex abuser James Barbour by giving him the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera" just seven years after his conviction. Even Harvey Weinstein, the man whose terrible actions led to the #metoo movement, while rumors swirled about his actions for years, Broadway was courting his producing skills for shows like "Finding Neverland" and "The Elephant Man". I've even spoken to numerous journalists who received calls from lawyers and producers asking/demanding/threatening them not to publish pieces exposing their clients.
For an industry that one might assume would care for the individuals that populate it, Broadway is no better than corporate America or college campuses or the clergy. Instead of exile and prevention, perpetrators are protected or welcomed back after a given amount of time. In this case, 145 days.
There are some that believe that once debts are paid, then forgiveness should be granted. I would agree with that in some instances depending on the offense. But that also means that punishments need to be handed down for debts to be repaid. In the instance of Ben Vereen, what punishment was there? What debt was repaid? Yes, his name was removed from the San Diego High School theatre awards. But other than that, all Vereen did was stay off of social media for three months, remove the lengthy apology he had posted on all of his accounts and it would seem everything is back to normal. He's still listed in the American Theatre Hall of Fame. He's still booking gigs. Apparently, the Ridgefield Playhouse in CT has overlooked his past and will host him this December.
If the excuse for Vereen's embracement is ignorance or not knowing what he did, I don't believe that and neither should you. When the story broke in January it was picked up by every major news outlet in the country. Everyone from the New York Times, USA Today, Variety, even Playbill themselves, reported on this. Vereen's exposure has been one of the few of this types of stories that was related to the Broadway community. So for anyone to say they didn't know is just a silly excuse.
In the coming year, an inevitable result of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements is going to be how industries "welcome back" or give second chances to its perpetrators. My question will always be, "why do they get a second chance?" and "why aren't their victims getting their first chances?"
Do I think that James Barbour, Ben Vereen, Louis C.K. should have jobs? Should they be afforded a livelihood? Sure, but do those jobs have to be the exact same roles they used to perpetuate their misconduct? Absolutely not. Ben Vereen doesn't have to become a recluse hermit, but there's a vast difference between that and being asking to present awards or walk red carpets or allowed backstage at Broadway shows. Because by doing so, Broadway is giving him back the stature he used to victimize others, and that's wrong.
My disappointment in Broadway's reaction and handling of sexual misconduct has come up more and more this year. I find it ironic and sad that those who rail against the misdeeds of others in entertainment and politics, seem to go quiet when it happens within their own community. Test this theory by watching to see how many Broadway performers share this article. Female Broadway performers who champion other women who have been victims of sexual assault in other industries but refuse to champion their actual colleagues who share the stage with them. Producers who claim they want to encourage safety for their casts but protect perpetrators which allows them to keep working and continue to abuse. And months later, we clearly see how long intolerance for those who perpetrate sexual misconducts lasts.
While the Broadway elite may be able to easily forgive and forget when it comes to these issues, the countless victims of people they embrace and smile with on red carpets, never will. Do better. They must do better.
Title Photo: Marc J. Franklin