If Christian Thompson ’15 seems taken with his role of portraying Benny, the landlord and de facto bad guy in the musical “Rent,” that could be because he’s been preparing for it since he was a senior at Penn State. That’s where School of Musical Theatre musical director Beth Burrier encountered him and felt he fit the role perfectly.
“She said, ‘You’re the most Benny-est Benny I’ve ever seen and one day you’re going to play this so you should know the solo,’” Thompson recalled. “And so she taught it to me and who would think that two years later I’d be coming back to Penn State playing that role.”
But Thompson won’t have much time to reminisce once he gets to Dear Old State. “Rent,” the late Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical that debuted 20 years ago and has been revived for a multi-city U.S. tour, comes to Eisenhower Auditorium for one night only on Thursday, April 6. Thompson and company might not even have time to tour the Creamery—“We may just have to walk by it and be like, ‘That’s it. It’s really good. If you’re not too cold, make it happen.’”—before heading out for three nights of performances in Providence, R.I., starting April 7.
“Rent” chronicles the lives of starving artists in their close-knit community in New York’s East Village bound by a collective energy they summon daily in their struggle to make ends meet, all while dealing with the hardships brought about by discrimination, AIDS and—most visibly—a demanding landlord.
Thompson plays that landlord, Benjamin Coffin III, trying to collect the rent from his one-time friends—filmmaker Mark and AIDS-stricken musician Roger—who haven’t kept up with him financially and are now living in one of Benny’s East Village buildings, facing eviction.
When we caught up with Thompson by phone, it was a few hours before the show opened a six-night run in downtown Detroit’s historic Fisher Theater last month. As he prepared to partake in one of his favorite activities—exploring a new city for some good local coffee—he reflected on what it’s like to play the bad guy, taking on the added role of being the understudy for Roger, the importance of diversity in the arts, and his near-miss at landing a role in another landmark musical, “Hamilton.”
What did you think when you saw University Park on the schedule of performances?
It’s one of the reasons why I picked the tour! It’s always been a dream of mine to be able to come back to any of what I consider my homes, and this tour actually hit my hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Penn State. The only thing I was sad about was the fact that we’re only there for one night.
What’s it like to be in a different performance space almost every night?
It’s incredible because you get to see what the theaters look around the country and how much care people across the country and across the world put into their theaters, and how much they appreciate theater. It makes you just realize how important the arts are, no matter where you are, whether you’re in Pueblo, Colo., or you’re in L.A.
What’s it like playing Benny? He’s sort of the bad guy.
Sort of. The way I always say it is Benny has all the right intentions, he just goes about it kind of the wrong way. It’s a lot of fun playing him. I think any actor that truly loves the craft and loves the work always looks for a character that’s going to challenge you in some way. The challenge with Benny is to make people remember that he is not the bad guy in this story. It’s to remember that he has humanity and he loves all of the people on that stage so much, and that’s why he did what he does.
How do you know when you’ve gotten that across?
If I can get—and I’ve gotten it a couple of times—if I can get someone to go, “Ya know, I didn’t hate your Benny tonight.” I’ll take that. I’ve gotten, “Ya know I really liked Benny.” We were fortunate enough to meet Tracie Thoms, she’s one of the original cast members, she also played Joanne in the movie, and she said, “I wanna be Benny’s friend. I feel like we could talk this out. I wanted to be Benny’s friend.” And that’s one of the biggest compliments you can get, when you’re faced with the character I play, and from someone that I’ve looked up to and watched my entire life.
And you also are the understudy for Roger, who is kind of the opposite of Benny.
I am one of the two (understudies). I was fortunate enough to go on two times, now, as Roger, and it’s the funniest thing, because any scene that Benny has, Roger is a part of, so it’s really funny to sit there and basically watch what is my usual self do something and then have to react in a completely different way than what I’m used to doing.
Again, it’s an actor’s dream. It’s been my dream to play Roger ever since I saw the musical. I wasn’t your typical Roger, being an African-American, that might mean that I wouldn’t get the chance to do it. So I’m really thankful for the casting and the selection team and the creative team that took a chance and let me step into this role.
What other types of roles do you seek out?
I always love a good challenge. I hope to originate a role—a scene—I scripted at Penn State which is beautiful. So I love the creative process. So I definitely want to be originating roles in the future. And as always, the hot button word nowadays is “Hamilton.” I would love to play any of those men in that show. I trained in both hip hop and musical theatre since I was about 8 or 9 and that show is near and dear to my heart.
(Ed. note: He says he made it to the final callbacks in auditions for two of the main characters in “Hamilton” as it was transferring from the Public Theater to Broadway in 2015.)
If you had a choice, would you rather play the lead in “Rent,” or be in the ensemble of “Hamilton?”
See, you can’t do that. [laughs]
I couldn’t tell you. I really couldn’t tell you. I think that’s two very different projects. They’re both equally important. I know Lin-Manuel Miranda, who of course wrote “Hamilton,” has often said how influenced he is by “Rent” and what “Rent” did. So in a way, they’re both very similar and very dear to my heart in the way that they deconstruct the roots of what musical theater has to be. And then on top of that, both have messages of inclusion and love and what’s important in life. So both of them are shows that I would love to tell. And I’m fortunate to tell this one right now.
What do you do for fun?
I choreograph. I’m still a dancer. I love to choreograph. I love listening to new music, which is nice because when you get these long bus rides it’s always good to just have a new album and just zone out and listen. Also, I love finding community coffee shops. Honestly, hanging out with this cast. We’ve got a great group so we know how to make some time go by in rehearsals. Hanging out with good people like this cast is probably one of my favorite hobbies.
What do you do together?
We were lucky enough to see a couple of shows when we were in San Francisco, and that was a great time. Sometimes if we can find the time and we have a day off we’ll find a local bar that we can just sit down and unwind and share stories. A lot of times we’ll branch off and come back together and be like, “Oh my goodness, you don’t know what I just experienced.” So that’s always fun. So things like that, it’s just about the community.
How important is it to you to seek out roles that highlight diversity?
I think it’s everything, I think it’s so important, especially in today’s climate, to remind people of our humanity—our collective humanity. I think every time I’ve gone as Roger I’ve had people come up to me and say, “That was phenomenal and this is the first time I’ve ever seen the show.” So what that means is that their first Roger, and what will forever be in their minds as Roger, is an African-American male. And that’s mind blowing. Because at 13, 14, when I saw it, I was like, “There’s no way I can do that,” because no one’s doing it. You can’t look at someone that looks like you doing what you want to do.
I think “Hamilton” does a great job of letting in minorities into American history, whereas before you sat in the classroom and after the slaves were talked about for two seconds you’re like, “Well, I mean, I’m not really in this story.” And to remind everybody that, no, this is just as much your story as it is everyone else’s. And to allow the permission to tell those stories and to tell your own.
Are the themes of “Rent” (which debuted 20 years ago) still relevant for today’s audiences?
Absolutely. I think some of them are more applicable than they were then. Talking about race relations, I think it’s amazing that the two successful people on stage are both African-Americans. We’ve got Joanne who is a successful lawyer, her parents are successful politicians in the law system; and we have Benny, who’s a landlord and is in development. Everybody else is starving artists. Jonathan Larson, 20 years ago, said no, these people, these successful people, that are helping and are part of the community are going to be people of color. That’s phenomenal.
We’re still in a time where we’re still having trouble with African-Americans only getting slave roles, or Latinos only getting the hooker role, you know what I mean, instead of having an Angel—who is just love and light throughout the entire show. So to have things like that and to know how important that would be 20 years ago, and to see it now in today’s climate, it’s almost shocking how relevant it still is, but I think that’s why it gets such good response. I think that’s why people love the show so much because they can come back year after year after year and still feel the embrace and the love of the show and feel the importance of all the little things as well as big things in the show.
What are you looking forward to doing when you get to Penn State?
We will be in State College for one night only on April 6, and I am just hoping and praying I get to hug a couple of my professors; see a couple of my old friends that still haven’t graduated yet. I just want to maybe stand in front of Old Main for a little bit and just take it back in and take a deep breath and kind of just remember, basically, where this whole journey started.
B.J. Reyes, associate editor