Take Five with Benjamin Velez ’10

Benjamin Velez ’10 is a composer/lyricist for the theater and was the writer of the 114th Varsity Show. His musical Kiss My Aztec, a collaboration with John Leguizamo, premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in June and will open at the La Jolla Playhouse in September. Borderline, a collaboration with Aryanna Garber BC’10, recently opened the National Musical Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was a dewy-eyed, fresh-faced Miami boy who’d never gotten drunk, signed up for way too many activities, and was constantly in need of a haircut. Growing up in the tropics meant I had the most ridiculously puffy winter coat imaginable in order to weather my first experience with New York seasons. Since I was deep in the closet, so much so that I wouldn’t even admit it to myself, I avoided any kind of sexual or romantic awakening and instead threw myself into joining an a cappella group, doing a musical, producing a TV show, joining the board of a scholars’ program and being in the Varsity Show. Needless to say I did a lot of Spark Noting during Lit Hum that year and caught much needed shut-eye during my intro to film class.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Three cheers for The Living-Learning Center! I could lament missing out on the more classic first-year bonding of a Carman or John Jay floor, but being with upper classmen was an experience that immediately helped connect me to a wider range of campus life. The most memorable boon was meeting Jason Bello ’08, a junior with an affinity for cooking. Me being an overachieving freshman film major led him to seek out my help to make a show for CUTV called “The Careless Cook,” which happened every few weeks in our suite. Jason would invite friends over and they’d all follow his orders and cook something delicious while I tried to get it all on tape, then we’d edit it into something entertaining. If we ignore that I’m not a cooking show person and that no one watched CUTV, I’d say it was a win/win! Plus, it meant our suite often smelled obscenely delicious.

What class do you most remember and why?

I came to the College for the Core, so it’s no surprise that CC was my favorite class. There’s something cleansing about resetting all of your preconceived opinions about society, politics and humanity by studying the philosophical writings of people a millennium before you. Despite the centuries of progress since, those writers homed in on the primal nature of humankind in a way that is contradictory and messy, but timelessly relevant. My first musical, Afterland, was directly inspired by Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the notion of questioning our own reality. Those philosophers continue to influence every show I write.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

In an attempt at capturing the harmonic juxtaposition of a single space, I’d say the lobby of Hamilton Hall. It both encapsulates the frenetic chaos of crashing atoms during the morning rush to Core classes, as well as the most peaceful stillness at midnight on a Tuesday after emerging from a late-night study session. There was nothing better than descending into the empty lobby to belt out a Beyoncé song because of the unmatched acoustics and reverb.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I think I was so in love with my on-campus experience that I was afraid leaving for a semester might leave me with a debilitating “Fear Of Missing Out.” But I’ve since realized that studying abroad is exposure to another culture at an age when your brain is still absorbing at an astounding rate, and once you’re burdened by the finances of adulthood, similar opportunities are few and far between. I ended up marrying a Frenchman and I constantly find myself wishing I’d spent a semester in France for the sake of fluency, as well as what I might have learned from living further outside my comfort zone at that age.