When Pepperdine professor Cathy Thomas-Grant took a group of students to see the musical “Ragtime” in 1997, she told one of the students, Jill Van Velzer, “It will not be very long until you are the lead in a musical somewhere in this country.”
The prediction proved true.
Just three years later, Van Velzer found herself as the lead role of Anna in the national tour of the Big League Theatrical production “The King and I,” a part she played for about a year.
Van Velzer credits Pepperdine with having unleashed her passion for musical theater, which she first acquired as a little girl. Through Pepperdine’s Fine Arts programs, she performed in musicals, operas and as a Songfest host.
Van Velzer also participated in Pepperdine’s London program, spending most of her food money on musicals and plays.
She said that living in London was important to her career because of the world-class theater she was able to see. One night she saw a show and at intermission when the lights came on, the audience remained still.
“That is when I first understood that the people on stage had such an impact on the audience,” Van Velzer said. “I thought I have to do this, or at least try.”
During her senior year, back on campus, she played the witch in “Into the Woods.” Her work in this production landed her an agent and a nomination for a Los Angeles Robby Award.
Director Jon Engstrom worked with her on “Into the Woods” and also on “Meet Me in St. Louis.” He also helped connect Van Velzer to an agent.
“Jill is a very mature, centered person,” Engstrom said. “When I first discovered how young she was, I was shocked.”
After graduation in 1998, Van Velzer got a job through her agent performing on a cruise ship. The job sounded fancier than it was, and once it ended, she returned to Los Angeles and resumed auditioning. For the next two years she was cast in many productions.
She got her big break in 2000, when she auditioned for Big League Theatrical for the musical “1776.” At that audition she was asked to sing a song from “The King and I.”
Unbeknownst to Van Velzer, the company was tentatively searching for an actress to play the lead role of Anna. Three weeks later she was cast for that role, her most important yet.
After the conclusion of “The King and I,” Van Velzer was able to play the role of Amalia in her favorite musical, “She Loves Me.” Her performance won her another L.A. Robby Award nomination for best actress and led to her membership in the Actor’s Co-Op.
Van Velzer attributes her accomplishments to growing up with supportive parents and attending Pepperdine.
“I cannot imagine what my career or life would be like if I had not ended up at Pepperdine,” Van Velzer said. “I owe it all to the place I went to school because of London, and the relationships I made with people like Jon Engstrom and John Raitt.”
She said that Raitt, a former Broadway star and a major donor to the Pepperdine theater program, and his wife gave her a lot of advice along the way through the stories they shared with her.
Van Velzer recently finished a small part in “The Secret Garden” in Redondo and is pursuing performing again in “The King and I.”
“Sometimes I am tempted to get a ‘real job,’ but every time I am in a show I am overwhelmed that I get paid to do this thing I love so much,” Van Velzer said. “It will be a long time until I decide to go and do something sensible.”
January 24, 2002