Joyful Chats with Ben Cameron

img_5137-editBen Cameron was part of the original Wicked cast, but these days he is best know as Ben D, creator and host of Broadway Sessions. His latest project is Dance Captain Dance Attack, a new series on Ben’s vibrant and quirky personality is irresistible, and we had a great time chatting with him about his career.

Joy: What was your first exposure to musical theater and what made you want to pursue a career in it?
Ben: I grew up in Orem, Utah to a nice Mormon family. I was in a children’s choir when I was like eight years old and through that, I got information about a community theatre production of a world premiere musical called the Lord Fauntleroy. I auditioned and I got the lead part at the Lehigh Community Theatre and that was it. It was such an innate part of me, from that point on I was in, like, 20 community theatre productions.

J: What was your favorite show that you did as a kid?
B: Well, the Lord Fauntleroy with the world premiere was always very special. I did a musical version of The Hobbit and I was Gollum. Gollum sang a hoedown song and it went like this: “Fiddle, diddle, Gollum hissed, riddle, riddle, riddle me this” ga, ga, ga. So that was special and I got to wear a nice silver unitard for that one and some pointy Spock ears.

J: Like they do in Cats.
B: I just saw Cats the other day.

J: Did you like it?
B: I loved it and I didn’t know what to feel or think about it, but I was so blown away by the talent. Because when Cats first came out and even when I was dancing – the level is so much higher. Like these are the kids who are on So You Think You Can Dance but they all sing great.

J: What’s your favorite Broadway show?
B: Oh, this is too hard. I love things. I am one of those people that likes everything. I just saw The Color Purple a couple of days ago too with Cynthia [Erivo] and Heather [Headley] together and I feel like was blessed to see a once-in-a-lifetime special moment happen on stage.

I did Aida with Heather years ago and I remembered then what that power is. She is a volcano.

J: When Cynthia sings “I Am Here” –
B: Oh, forget it. Standing ovation.

J: Every night.
B: Every night standing ovation. It’s nuts.

J: I think it’s pretty cool.
B: That was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had in the theater and I was by myself for that. I like going to shows by myself.

img_5104-editJ: Who were your role models growing, and were there any teachers who made an impression on you?
B: Number one role model theatrically in my life, Terrence Mann. I was obsessed with Terrence Mann. When I was in junior high school, we had to write a paper on who our hero was. I wrote a three-page essay about Terrence Mann and all of his shows. I listened to my Beauty and the Beast soundtrack and my Les Mis soundtrack and my Assassins soundtrack and I loved Terrence Mann. And so one of the coolest moments I ever had in Broadway Sessions – I have friends who knew my feelings about Terrence Mann. We had Pippin night at Broadway Sessions

J: And he came?
B: Yes and I didn’t know what was going on, blah, blah, blah. But my friend Colin Cunliffe who is in Pippin– I don’t know how they pulled this off but I am skipping through the room and I am throwing my flowers, singing “Everyone Knows It’s Ben D“. Everyone is clapping and out of the corner of my eye I see a body rushing the stage. I am like “what’s going on?” and I turn around and it’s Terrence Mann standing on stage and he grabs me and he kisses me on the face and walks out the door. And like what?? Didn’t slow down. He grabbed me, kissed me, hugged me, and then was gone and I fell apart and that was my first time.

J: He didn’t stay for the whole thing?
B: No. I guess my friend just told him what a huge fan I was of his, what an impact he had on my life and he wanted to come up and just freak me out. Those were those magical moments. But Terrence Mann was my guy always and I had some good teachers. I had a woman named Kathleen who directed a lot of the children’s theater and community theatre productions I did when I was a kid. She was a big part of my life and was a great voice teacher that I love to this day back in Utah. Which weirdly, there is a lot of arts in Utah which you wouldn’t necessarily think so.

J: Your first Broadway show was Footloose. What was that like?
B: That was my Broadway debut. I was 19 years old when I got that, so of course, I freaked out. I was just out of my mind. It was a very weird situation for me because when I was 15 years old, I started going to dance competitions. I started training as a dancer and I had taken class through those competitions and conventions with A.C. Ciulla who choreographed Footloose. So when they finished the workshop the directors and producers said to A.C., we need people who can sing. He is a short old guy and the choreography is really physical. He had all these short, short people who couldn’t sing in the show and so I came in and auditioned and A.C. just vouched for my dancing. I went in twice for under two minutes each time and just sang like three lines of the song and got the show which was crazy. So it was huge.
I remember when I got the call I was on tour with State Fair and I had flown in for my final callback and I just jumped up and down like a lunatic. So I was with the original company in the out of town and I was a swing.

J: But that’s still cool.
B: Oh, of course. I have the most respect for swings ever. I am not a good swing and I didn’t know what a swing was and so I was disenchanted with that. Two months after we opened up on Broadway, I left to go on the road with the show.

J: I think swings have the hardest job because you have to remember so many tracks.
B: Oh, it’s crazy. It’s completely insane. I love the experience of being on stage. I don’t have the clerical skills that you need to be the super secretary which you have to be as a swing. You have to have notes and a book and have a brain that compartmentalizes things.

J: There are kids that do it on Broadway. I don’t know how the School of Rock kids do that.
B: That’s crazy. That’s nuts. They shouldn’t be able to do that. All of those kids are insane. They are from outer space.

J: They are.
B: They are aliens from another planet, and they are going to wow us with their guitar-playing skills and then eat our planet.

J: After Footloose you were in Wicked?
B: Yes. I was in Aida after Footloose, and I left Aida to go into Wicked.

J: What were those shows like?
B: I was in Aida for two and a half years. Maybe two and a half years of the happiest time of my life because it was my second Broadway show. So I got kind of had this big relief, all right, it wasn’t just luck that I got into a Broadway show and it was a hit so it wasn’t going anywhere and I had such beautiful castmates. It was just a really happy time of my life. I was also drunk a lot. But I was 22 years old so what are you going to do? And then Wicked – I mean, it’s forever changed – it’s changed everything.

J: You were in the original cast?
B: Original cast.

img_5044-editJ: So you got to work with Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth?
B: Sure. Idina and I had done Aida together as well, so we were pretty good pals for a little bit of time. We would go watch American Idol in her house and drink wine and talk about them.

Wicked just – I mean, that’s something that I will be able to say for the rest of my life, because Wicked became – it still is. It’s a legend in its own time. It will be one of the biggest hits Broadway has ever seen always, always, always, always. You will never be able to talk about any of the biggest shows of Broadway in history and not include Wicked.

J: Right. That’s true.
B: At some point. You know, so I still get play out of being Wicked’s B Cameron and I think it’s so funny I say that one line on the CD. I think that is the funniest joke because it’s such a horrible line reading even on the CD. But Wicked changed me. It was an amazing, amazing experience.

J: Have seen it a couple of times since you left the show?
B: The producers invited the original cast back for the ten‑year anniversary and that was very, very cool because the energy was just electric and we were sitting fifth row, center and they treated us – there was a great party and I got to see people that I hadn’t seen for years. Some of the people are still in the show since I was in it, which is a very long time.

J: I can’t believe people have been in it the whole time.
B: Oh, yes.

J: But they probably switched parts.
B: Yes. A couple of them haven’t. A lot of them have been able to leave and come back, and Wicked has been really loyal to their cast members. They do other companies and they come back in. They have got the rotating Elphabas that are on the tour– now they are on Broadway and now they are standby here, now they are going to Australia.

Oh, the one thing about Wicked, I remember the first table read. I had never done any of the workshops so I was one of the few people that was hired just for the Broadway production. I remember when we all sat around the table and did the first read, I wasn’t very familiar with what it was. When I got all the fun spoilers and the things that make Wicked what it is, I was just blown away. And I called my mother on our lunch break and I am like Mom, this is going to be huge. And from our first performance in San Francisco, line around the block.

J: That’s really cool.
B: You know, there is a part of me that just felt like this cool kid on campus. Anyway, Wicked was cool. Wicked is a cool thing.

J: Broadway Sessions; what made you start that?
B: I left Wicked to go on the road with Sweet Charity just because I got three and a half years. It was time to go and I got to play a role on Charity. I came back and I was in this place where my feelings about show business had been kind of revamped and revitalized and renewed and so I just knew I needed to have a creative outlet. And I was like but what are the things I know? I knew that I had a lot of friends and I knew that I –

J: Are you friends with everyone who performs at Broadway Sessions?
B: I know multiple people in every show and always will, so my base of my contacts in the community just keeps growing every time. I am able to reach out directly and personally to everyone for Broadway Sessions. I do that all myself.

J: Today you announced Dance Captain Attack –
B: Dance Captain Dance Attack. It’s real baby. It’s happening. Dance Captain Dance Attack is my brand-new series that is exclusively on Every episode I go into a studio with a dance captain from a Broadway show and we talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a dance captain, what a dance captain does, and then they teach me choreography from the show.

J: But you can dance.
B: I can dance, but there is a comic skin on it, of course. I am doing my shtick but when we release the videos, we encourage the viewership people who watch it to then record themselves doing the choreography. So you are supposed to learn it with us and then send videos back into BroadwayWorld and BroadwayWorld makes the best compilation video and gives a shout-out to everybody. So theater troupes or just fans or whatever can do it.

The teaser launched on BroadwayWorld today. Did you watch it?

J: I was here already and I don’t have wifi, but I saw the announcement.
B: It’s on the front page of BroadwayWorld right now, but it’s super fun. We filmed three episodes already, so just one episode a month, but we worked with Lulu Lloyd at School of Rock, Eric Giancola from Something Rotten, and Nathan Peck of Kinky Boots and I do put on heels.

J: Aren’t the swings or the understudies usually dance captain?
B: Oftentimes a dance captain is also a swing in the show because they have to maintain the show. Its easier for them to have the time to watch the show and make sure it’s tight.

So Dance Captain Dance Attack #DCDA. Get into it. Watch it, learn it, dance it.

img_5113-editJ: Do you have a favorite moment from Broadway Sessions?
B: Oh, my gosh. There are so many favorite moments. Speaking of highs – well, when we started Broadway Sessions way back when, we started it as a bar show. It was at Therapy on 52nd Street and I think my first guests ever were Eden Espinosa and Titus Burgess. You know, that comes with its own set of challenges because the audience is super loud and it’s in a bar. So I was there for a couple of years and then when they stopped doing the show there, I am like “I am not letting this die.” And now we are eight‑plus years later. Here we are.

J: How did you find the current venue?
B: I had hosted some things at the Beechman during that time and as soon as I knew that I needed a new venue, I went straight to them. And I love it there. It’s exactly where we should be. As far as favorite moments go, getting kissed by Terrence Mann, Hinton Battle came one night and sang “Sophisticated Lady” and that was such an honor. Way back at Therapy we had Julia Murney and we had her actually make a pie on stage that we put into the oven at Therapy. By the time the show was over, we could all eat the pie that she had made.

J: That’s cool.
B: We had the cast of The King and I. We made them do what we like to call a sloppy plots synopsis. I ply them with lots of alcohol really fast and then they have to tell us the story of the show under three minutes and they ended up acting it out. It’s really fun. Maybe I will do it tonight. You wait and see.

We do so many wacky things. What I love about Sessions is the live – people feel like they are willing to let their hair down for us.

J: How long does it take you to organize each show and how do you decide who to ask?
B: Well, it all comes down to who I know.

J: Are you going to have the School of Rock kids again?
B: We were talking about doing another kids’ night, so possibly maybe we will have some of them back, but yes, I just – I figure out who I know in the show and then it takes me a long time. Now I have a formula. The show runs in a way but it takes me hours. What takes a lot of time is just the promotion. Booking it, setting up rehearsals. I don’t think people realize how many hours it takes to do.

I sometimes see friends who are like “I am putting together a concert, it’s a one‑night thing, oh, my gosh it’s killing me.” I am like “you try doing it every week for eight years.” I am a beast. It’s a lot of work.

J: So you already have next week’s show lined up?
B: Next week is all open mic night. Then on October 20th we are doing a big Rock of Ages reunion show. We are going to do a live screening of Rocky Horror right before the Rock of Ages cast and then October 27th is the second annual Elphaball which is –

J: All Elphabas?
B: All Elphabas, all night long. Were you at Elphaball last year?

J: No, but I love Wicked.
B: We have another open mic night on November 3rd, November 9th is Cats, and then we are trying to get a Shuffle Along reunion together.

J: When you have open mic at Broadway Sessions, has anyone ever surprised you–
B: I am blown away by our open mic people every week. I can’t believe the level. I don’t know if there is something about Sessions that gets that level of –

J: You donate the money from Broadway Sessions to Broadway Cares?
B: I donate a portion of it, yes. We donate a percentage every week to Broadway Cares.

J: Why did you choose that organization?
After we left Therapy and started the show up again, I just wanted to have some sort of tie into the community that made a difference and mattered. Broadway Cares is so much the life blood of the community that it just seemed like the right fit.

J: How do you feel social media has helped your career?
B: Oh, my gosh. Well, here is the thing. I am just this side of too old to really get the social media thing.

J: Well, you have interns, you have a camera guy, all that.
B: Yes. I need help. I need help from younger, smarter people than I, but it’s invaluable. You have to do it. I think a a real tipping point for us was our YouTube channel which is so popular. The videos are so great and I am kind of iconic and everybody knows a Broadway Sessions video when they see it.

J: In one sentence, describe Broadway Sessions.
B: Broadway Sessions is a live, interactive, musical theater variety show which is like Ellen in the middle of the night if I was Ellen with a mustache and gayer.

J: That’s awesome.

J: A lot of people wanted to know about BroadwayCon. Are you going to do it again this year?
B: Yes. I am already confirmed back at BroadwayCon. It’s bigger and better. It’s at the Javits Center this year. I hosted a lot of the main stage stuff last year and it was a crazy time because of the blizzard and everybody was locked in and Broadway shows got cancelled so we just started making stuff up. At one point they actually threw me on stage and called it Avenue Q & A and just kept sending Broadway stars to me.

J: What shows have left a lasting impression on you?
Color Purple was an incredibly moving experience. I love – I loved Miss Saigon. I am so excited that’s coming back.

I like everything. I truly liked American Psycho. I liked On Your Feet. I cried more at On Your Feet than I did at Fun Home.

img_5138-editJ: Strangest and worst job you ever had?
B: Strangest and worst job I ever had was definitely either handing out Special K cereal bars outside of Grand Central Station at 6:00 in a snowstorm after I had already been in Wicked for three years. That was a nightmare from hell that I will never get over. Other than that, getting dressed up as Santa Claus for a Christmas party on Long Island. I was very hung over and had already had a ten‑year Broadway career and had to go and sit in these people’s home and be sweating profusely and smelling like gin and pretending to be Santa Claus while all these kids sat on my lap. I am in a fat suit and I am thinking to myself “what did I do wrong, what was the moment in my life that came to this,” and then I had to leave. And so I created this whole walk where I walked off. I was like all right, kids, I will see you later and I walked up the street and was like “where the fuck am I going.” I am in the middle of the neighborhood in the wintertime in Long Island and I walked for a while and realized I am still in a fucking Santa suit – I am just outside and I have got to get back to the train. So I changed my clothes behind a hedge in someone’s yard and they caught me. Sweating and cold and freezing and taking out my beard and my pants in the fat suit and they turned on the light and I am like” I am sorry, I am just Santa.” That was the weirdest one.

J: That’s really funny. You talk a lot about Golden Girls at Broadway Sessions.
B: I am obsessed.

J: Which Golden Girl is your favorite one?
B: Dorothy.

J: Favorite cast album?
B: Oh, favorite cast album? Well, why do you hurt me? Why do you say hurtful things? It’s like Sophie’s Choice. I love The Who’s Tommy.

J: Favorite Disney movie?
B: I think it’s probably Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin.

J: Dance move?
B: Favorite dance move? This, and I am going to tell you why. Because it involves the upper body, the lower body, and it’s an optical illusion.

J: Can you say what’s that called?
B: I have no idea what it’s called. It’s like from the ’20s, and it’s like a shaky knee and shifty eye and a switchy hand.

J: Guilty pleasure food?
B: Kentucky Fried Chicken without question. I crave it. And then I sneak there and I won’t order it if somebody sees me and I walk out and be like “I am so lost. Do you know the way to the vegan place?”

J: Favorite website?
B: Favorite – I don’t think we should talk about this. Well, that’s not my favorite because it’s not even up to date. I am on Facebook constantly. Oh, this is good. Bam.

J: You should have had said
B: Oh, darn it. But I have two features. We are working on a new series with them as well.

J: Favorite book?
B: My favorite book? Well, I like The Four Agreements, and I like The Alienist by Caleb Carr.

J: Best thing about NYC in general?
B: It’s the best city in the world.

J: Why?
B: Why?

img_5027-editJ: I just asked that.
B: Because it’s the best city in the world because there is an energy here that exists that is not replicated anywhere else in the world. You go anywhere else and everything feels like it deflates. Life feels like it deflates when you are not in New York City. Everything gets slower and doesn’t seem to have as much purpose or meaning. That being said, I love getting the fuck out of city sometimes. Sometimes you just have to get out, but every other life deflates if you are not in New York City.

Interview by Joy & Serena  //  Photos by James 

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