During a visit to Rider University’s Lawrenceville campus on April 19, legendary Broadway performer Ben Vereen was welcomed on to the stage of the Bart Luedeke Center Theater with an enthusiastic round of applause. Immediately, Vereen sat down on the stage, facing the audience composed of students, mostly from the School of Fine & Performing Arts, faculty and staff.
“How many here want to be in show business?” he asked. Almost all of the students seated in the front of the theater raised their hands.
“Why?” Vereen continued. “Most of you won’t make it. Be prepared for that.”
However, Vereen advised the students to follow their passion and “stand up” for the arts, a reference to the recent funding cuts seen in many school and theater programs.
“It becomes our responsibility to fight for the arts,” Vereen said. “We are the keepers of the culture.”
Performers, novelists and playwrights all reflect on society and have the ability to change one’s life, he explained. For example, someone who suffers from depression may attend a show and an actor’s performance might prevent them from taking their life.
“Do you know what power that is?” he asked the audience in his deep melodic voice. “You are more than you think you are. You are greater than you think you are. The only thing that keeps you from being great is the committee inside your head.”
In addition to answering questions from the audience, Vereen also gave constructive feedback to Samantha Penick ’14 of North Brunswick, N.J., a Music Theatre major, who was selected by Rider faculty members to perform a song from Catch Me If You Can. Penick said performing and receiving one-on-one training from Vereen was the “most amazing experience of my life.”
“When I first found out that I was going to sing in front of him I was nervous. He’s such an inspiration -- such a legend. I just couldn’t believe I would be singing for him,” Penick said. “My voice teacher told me right before I performed that I had nothing to prove. Just to enjoy the moment working with him and appreciate the whole experience. I found I was really in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about anything else while I performed.”
After listening to Penick sing, Vereen coached her as she sang the song a second time.
“He told me that I need to be naked on stage -- really be vulnerable. I thought that was great advice. A lot of times I’m not that way,” she said. “This time I let everything go and performed. I thought his advice really helped.”
Vereen’s manager, Pam Cooper, arranged the April 19 visit to Lawrenceville with Rider’s School of Fine & Performing Arts to coincide with his one-man show Steppin' Out Live with Ben Vereen at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, Pa., during the weekend of April 20 to 22. Cooper told the students that a performing arts career requires an ongoing education and offered advice in going about the job search and understanding contracts.
On Broadway, Vereen has appeared in Wicked, Fosse, I’m Not Rappaport, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin, Grind, Jelly’s Last Jam and A Christmas Carol. He received a Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for “Best Actor in a Musical” for his role in Pippin. In January 2012, Vereen received the highest honor in theater when he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. His television credits include Chicken George in Roots and Louis Armstrong in Louis Armstrong - Chicago Style.
Vereen told the students to follow their passion throughout their careers. Whether they are public relations writers, politicians or bakers, he told them to strive for their best.
“When you have a passion, hold onto your passion. That’s all you got at the end of the day,” he said.