Legendary, Tony Award winner Ben Vereen was on the UF campus April 2, 2014 talking to students about his career, hosting a master class and performing his one man show Steppin’ Out Live with Ben Vereen at the Phillips Center. Following his performance, Vereen was honored by the School of Theatre and Dance with the Linda Wilson Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Theatre. The award, which honors preeminent theatre artists, was last presented to Tommy Tune in 2011.
During the interview portion of the master class Vereen discussed his experiences working with influential performers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Bob Fosse, and what it was like performing in Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin and All That Jazz with Professor Tony Mata, head of the Musical Theatre program.
The incredibly personable artist had the audience laughing and crying with his stories and inspired by his perseverance. Vereen, who was seriously injured in a car accident in 1992 was told he would not walk for three years and that he should pick another occupation because singing, dancing and acting would not be possible for him anymore.
"It would have been comfortable to stay wrapped up in bed for the rest of my life, but I told myself, ‘Get up!’" With hard work and determination, 10 months later he was performing on Broadway.
"Life is a continuum and you have to work at it," he said. Vereen spoke to the audience as if he knew each person in attendance, explaining the importance of having self-worth, confidence and being able to laugh at your mistakes. He had the audience laughing when he said, "Why take yourself so seriously? You gotta laugh because God is laughing at you!"
After speaking about his life and career, SoTD students had the opportunity to perform for and be critiqued by Vereen. Daniel Fuentes, Annamaria Dvorak, Marcellis Cutler and Yael Reich each performed. After a short time coaching each student the audience watched as their performances were brought to the next level through distinct authenticity.
"Open up that portal in your heart, don’t just hit those notes," Vereen advised during his exercise of feeling and honesty.
"When he looked into my eyes, he was boring into my soul," says Cutler, one of the students who performed. "But he was also nonjudgmental with a warm and paternal light within him."
Reich describes the experience as “breathtaking” and one she will never forget. “He assured me that if I let myself come through my work honestly, without involving pretense, he and everyone around me would be there to catch me and follow my journey.”
This event has been funded in part by a Tourist Development Tax Grant from the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners in conjunction with the Alachua County Tourism Development Council.