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Role in Sousatzka brings young actor back to Judaism

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Ben Bogen

American performer Ben Bogen is about to take on his first professional role since graduating from college, in the new musical Sousatzka, which is having its world premiere in Toronto.

Sousatzka, based on the 1988 film Madame Sousatzka and the eponymous book by Bernice Rubens, is set in 1982 London.

It follows young South African piano prodigy Themba (Jordan Barrow) who’s caught between his mother (Montego Glover) and Madame Sousatzka (played by Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark), his piano teacher, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto.

Bogen, 23, is a swing, meaning he has to cover multiple ensemble roles (or tracks) whenever he’s needed. He’s also the understudy for Madame Sousatzka’s brother in a flashback to 1930s Warsaw.

Before Bogen got cast in the show, which starts on Feb. 25, he didn’t realize it had any Jewish content.

He soon learned differently. And oddly enough, he recalls that while he was waiting to fly out of New York for his last callback in Toronto –  on Erev Yom Kippur – an Orthodox man approached him in the airport and asked him to put on tfillin.

“It was just this weird sign from the universe that someone was watching over me,” Bogen says, recalling the encounter.

Prior to moving to Toronto in December, Bogen lived in New York City, and in May, he graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in musical theatre.

The Northern California native got into performing at a young age. Along with singing, dancing and acting, he also mastered the saxophone, flute and piccolo, and used to play bar mitzvahs and other community events with a klezmer band.

However, after his own bar mitzvah, he began to back away a bit from Judaism. But that’s beginning to change now.

“I’m starting to become more and more proud of my Judaism and my heritage, because if we can’t recognize when history’s repeating itself, then how can we better ourselves as a society?” he says, alluding to some of the themes in Sousatzka.

Even though Sousatzka takes place in the 1980s, Bogen thinks it’s increasingly relevant now, because it deals with issues surrounding refugees and racism, themes audiences in 2017 need to think about.

During the rehearsal process, which is still ongoing, a Holocaust survivor came to speak to the cast. But Bogen explains how he finds own ways to connect with the show because his paternal grandfather fled Russia at age 15 and his maternal grandfather fought for the United States army during World War II.

Because of this heritage, Bogen says, “it’s my duty almost to be proud of who I am and where I come from.”

As for his physical role on stage, Bogen explains that being a swing comes with its own challenges. He needs to learn multiple ensemble parts and has to transition into them seamlessly whenever he’s thrown in.

“It’s interesting learning how to blend in so nothing seems out of the ordinary,” he says. “But at the same time, you know when you’re in for someone, you are your own authentic person.”

He can play many parts in the show, which features an array musical and dance styles, including a person in the Warsaw Ghetto, an ’80s-era punk and a snobby waiter.

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Sousatzka, produced by Garth Drabinsky, will have its world premiere in Toronto at the Elgin Theatre before making its way to Broadway later this year.