Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Ben Bogen

Photo by Ian Johnston

The rock musical Rent has certainly opened many a mind’s eye about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

The play first appeared on Broadway in 1996 then was released to movie theaters in 2005. Unfortunately, the genius creator, Jonathan Larson, suddenly died the night before the Off-Broadway debut, suffering an aortic dissection. Heartbreakingly, he was only thirty-five. His work went on to win three Tonys—and a Pulitzer Prize. Since then the play has had numerous international tours, and continues to touch another generation, twenty-five years after its first professional appearance… and still enlightens about the AIDS epidemic.

One person it impacted was Ben Bogen. He was eleven years old when he saw it at the movies with his father, and it introduced him to the epidemic. After the movie, his scientist dad tried to explain it to him, but, of course, the boy didn’t really grasp the seriousness of the disease. Later on, Ben educated himself about the virus and learned about prevention and is currently on PrEP. When he moved to New York City he became involved with Broadway Cares.

Born in Walnut Creek, California (thirty minutes inland from San Francisco), Ben is now a

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

proud Manhattanite, and a triple threat—actor, singer, dancer. The accomplished musical theater graduate from University of Michigan also teaches master classes around the country.

Mr. Bogen’s first professional job was in the Broadway National Tour of Jersey Boys as Frankie Valli. Afterwards, he was cast in the ensemble of Frozen. Right before COVID hit, Ben was starring in Only Human alongside Gary Busey. Oh my god, I know I’m showing my young age remembering Busey from the 1974 TV sitcom, The Texas Wheelers, with Jack Elam and the pre-Star Wars fixture, Mark Hamill. Wow, I must ask Ben about this new play.

How did I “discover” Ben? Well, I must be honest. I have an addiction. ….TikTok! I was instantly bowled over with his wit and humour. This born entertainer is innovative and goofy. Sometimes he brings his friends in to join him, other times he dances in the streets, and from time to time he just wears his skivvies! Back in August of last year, he danced in front of Trump Tower, shooting the finger. Speaking politically, Ben organized a TikTok account for “Broadway 4 Biden.” We’ll tap (dance) into this later.

More “tea” on Ben: One of his fave films is Lady Bird; a person he’d like to engage in stimulating chat over dinner is Harvey Milk; Cabaret is a film he could watch over and over again; and a word that best describes Ben? Resilient. He does a mean Elvis too. Do I hear Las Vegas calling?!

Ben’s parents could have been Adrian Grenier and Paul Rudd. What a handsome devil.

Well, due to another pandemic (I dread even saying the word as I don’t want to give it any importance)…COOOVIIID, I am connecting with Ben on Skype. By the way, early in March, Ben caught the virus.

Ruby Comer: Shoot, Ben! You caught COVID?! Whaaat?
Ben Bogen:
Yep, right after they announced the Broadway shutdown and told everyone to stay home I tested positive. I was pretty sick for two weeks.

Oh, geez, I …am ….so…. sorry.
I had been coughing for weeks, body aches, fatigue, and no taste. My doctor did a test in March and….

How do you think you were infected?
Not sure, but the week prior, my friend was assaulted on the subway by a man who clearly had mental illness. [His head shakes vigorously.] I had to fight this guy on the subway and he got right in my face as he kept trying to lunge at my friend. [He sees the horror on my puss.] Ruby, this is a true story. I know, it sounds crazy. I’ve never had to fight anyone in my life… [one of Ben’s brow lifts as his cinnamon radiant eyes pop].

Bogen in concert at 54 Below, New York City. Photo by Ashley Chiu

I’m aghast, my dear. [I pause to grab my breath.] So after you healed, thankfully, what have you been doing in all this craziness?
Staying creative! I wrote a comedic Broadway parody with some friends about what theater would look like during a pandemic—performing with face shields, no one touching each other, and so on. I also have been teaching a lot on Zoom, and I’ve been making TikTok videos.

You’ve managed to maintain your sanity. Superior. So switching from one pandemic to another, what immediately comes to mind when you hear “HIV” or “AIDS?”
I think about an entire generation of artists with dreams who lost their lives because of a government that didn’t care about them until it started to take the lives of straight people. I think about how it caused a huge civil rights movement within the LGBTQ+ community.

A most accurate portrayal—unfortunately. [I glance behind Ben briefly staring at the framed black and white photograph hanging on a neutral-colored wall next to a purple and silver grey sofa, of a rebel-looking Marlon Brando informally leaning over his motorcycle in his leather jacket, cap, and gloves. Seems appropriate for this young cutting edge rebel as well.] By the time you came of age, HIV meds had been well established. Even so, having sex could still be dangerous. Here you are in your teens, hormones raging, and you wanna have sex! How did that play out for you?
I was pretty late to the game, Ruby.[Ahem, clearing his throat.] I remember being really hesitant until I found the right person I trusted. I didn’t really have sex until I was twenty-one, then not again for a while. I definitely was nervous. I didn’t know what I was doing. I think it helped being around other gay men in college who were able to give me tips. Many friends had information and knowledge that I had never been taught. In high school they just tell you to wear a condom. That’s it. [Ben ponders, glancing off to the side.) However, I didn’t figure out how to fully explore comfortably until after college.

Hmmm, so HIV education was limited at your Walnut Creek school….
Yes, but while I was in high school, gay characters were finally being normalized on television in a big way. I remember watching How to Get Away with Murder [Viola Davis stars] and seeing two men in a relationship talk about getting tested and then one of them tests positive. They eventually manage to work through it. [He soothingly rubs his cropped facial hair.] I had never seen anything like that on a TV show…EVER.

Leave it to [creator] Peter Nowalk to be the trendsetter. Ben tell me about your first time getting HIV tested.
I was twenty-three and had finished touring the country in a show. I said to myself I needed to finally get tested as a responsible sexually active adult. So I got a primary care doctor and got tested. It was scary simply because…you never know. I had nothing to worry about but I still cried when I was told I was HIV-negative. I thought about all the people who probably had been given the opposite news and how scared they must have felt back in the day.

Oh yeah, Ben. It’s incredibly disturbing. Dating…when you do, how do you broach the topic of STIs?
[He declares smoothly as if it’s a given.] Communication and honesty is important early on. Letting someone know how recently you got tested and if you’re on PrEP, or not, will give you both a peace of mind.

I was lucky to meet some older gay men when I moved to N.Y.C. who really opened my eyes to how common it was to be on PrEP. Being on the med definitely removed a layer of anxiety.

Good going! How long have you been on PrEP and what motivated you to take it?
I started when I was twenty-five, Ruby. I had been told about it a few years prior but I was scared to put a new medication in my body, and (the hassle) to get tested every few months. I was lucky to meet some older gay men when I moved to N.Y.C. who really opened my eyes to how common it was to be on PrEP. Being on the med definitely removed a layer of anxiety.

That’s encouraging. I know you worked with Broadway Cares. Did you have an opportunity to do their annual Broadway Bares?
Unfortunately I never did Broadway Bares. In 2019 I was asked to [participate] but my show at the Hartford Stage conflicted. I was planning to do it this year but…well we all know why that couldn’t happen. [Ben shrugs, with a tilt of his head.]

What in the world inspires you to give back? Why do you care?
In college we did a lot of arts outreach for kids in low-income Detroit areas, with no budget for performing arts programs. Seeing these kids be exposed to theater, acting, and dance for the first time was…magical. [He beams.] It made me want to keep doing it and hopefully change one person’s life. I believe if every kid in America did theatre they’d be more compassionate and creative.

You…said…a…mouthful. I so heartily agree Ben. All my life I’ve said that. Hey, who do you look up to?
[Abruptly and directly he responds] Cheyenne Jackson [A&U, January 2014]

What a great guy, incredible voice, and a humanitarian from the word, “go.” I love his song, “Don’t Wanna Know”! Okay, I wanna hear about your TikTok “Broadway for 4 Biden.”
They’re music videos of Broadway friends who sent me videos with their friends about voting, register to vote, or Biden policies. I combined Broadway style content with political content.

Give an example.
Three of us dancing to the musical Legally Blonde with pop up facts about how the Biden administration would benefit the LGBTQ+ community. My friends Deanna, Rocky, and Markcus really helped out. We had more than seventy-five thousand followers and our vids hit over one million views. I’m very proud of what I’ve done.

Bogen in Mamma Mia in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by Curtis Scott Brown

I’m proud for you, too. [Ben grins.] You must tell me about working with Gary Busey…
Gary is an interesting guy for sure, Ruby. Doing a show with him was a hilarious experience because it was never the same show. You never knew what choice he’d make each night and that kept it pretty entertaining. Sometimes I really couldn’t keep a straight face onstage with him. It was like I was in an SNL sketch.

I can see that…
For whatever reason he and his family took a liking to me. When I tested positive for COVID months and months after our show closed its one-week run, Gary called to check on me and even mailed a get-well gift. He’s a sweet man.

Lovely story, Ben. So…how would you like to close?
[He bows his head in reverence as if a monk then blasts with revved vigor] I want every young LGBTQ+ person to take a course on the history of AIDS! They need to understand what the generation before them had to go through in terms of fighting conservative bigotry in order to make progress. [I beam with gusto urging him on.] I also think that it’s important to know that testing positive for HIV is not the death sentence it once was. The medications out now can shift your status to undetectable and make it unable to spread to your partner. Living with HIV [Ben pauses, stares straight ahead then releases a sweeping exhale)]…you can now live a long and happy life.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].