RENT: 20 Years Later Still Making an Impact

By Leah Parodi

In 1996, a truly original rock musical opened on Broadway and its impact changed musical theater then and decades later. Jonathan Larson, then a relatively unknown composer, created a musical about a year in the lives of seven struggling artists in a loosely, reimagined Puccini’s La Boehme. Rent tells the dynamic story of the artists as they desperately try to hold onto their dreams as fear and heartache are ever-present, but equally so are the joys and that come from friendships and love.

Larson began working on Rent in 1989, wanting the play to take place in Manhattan’s East Village, not far from where he lived. Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Larson’s characters include the impoverished, homelessness, gay life, drag queens and struggling artists of all kind, many of whom he saw each day. Coincidently, while working on Rent, Larson supported himself by waiting tables. On January 24, 1996, Rent had its final dress rehearsal before its off-Broadway opening. Sadly, Larson died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm on the morning of January 25, 1996 and did not see Rent premier. The show went on and to rave reviews and gained popularity ever since.

Rent focuses on a group of friends that struggle to build their dreams. Some are broke, others are abusing drugs, and HIV and AIDS are stark realities of their world that test friendships and love. But the challenges faced are dealt with head-on as these characters learn about acceptance and love of self and each other. Rent is a rock opera with bold characters, moving music and powerful lyrics. Songs like “Seasons of Love”, “I’ll Cover You”, “Christmas Bells” and “On the Street” will move audiences long after the show ends.

Rent is alive and powerful, celebrating its 20th anniversary of touring. This Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning smash hit will be at the Orpheum Theater for a limited engagement on Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4 only. Christian Thompson, in his national tour debut, stars as Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III. Benny is one of those iconic characters’ audiences love to hate as he has become a sell-out, turning on his friends, once roommates. And Thompson could not be happier playing this conflicted, complex character.

Thompson himself, is a delightful young man with a budding resume. He has performed in such shows as West Side Story, Syncing Ink, Dreamgirls, Guys & Dolls, Smokey Joe’s Café and, of course, the national tour of Rent. He graduated from Penn State University with a BFA Musical Theater in 2015, although his passion for musical theater started many years before.

Thompson said that his love affair with musical theater started when he was just 6 years old. My mother took me to see Cats,” he said. “We sat close to the aisle, and being so close I could see the eyes of the performers. Here was this cat, no wait, it’s a human being a cat! That’s a job? I want to do that! I knew I could do that.” Thompson went to a performing arts high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida before attending Penn State University.

Thompson was thrilled to be cast in Rent, originally in the role of Gordon/ensemble.   But just two weeks in, the role of Benny/support and Roger/lead understudy became available and Thompson was recast. “I was offered the role of Benny and I was ecstatic. I loved the role, it really was a dream come true.”

Thompson said that the role of Benny had been a draw for him for some time. “Taye Diggs played Benny in the movie version of Rent. I looked up to Taye Diggs and the movie was the first time I experienced Rent.” Thompson added that the complexity of Benny was what really attracted him to the character. “I am always looking for roles that challenge me and the people watching. Every night I get to make people watching the show second guess not liking Benny.” Thompson said that is easy not to like Benny, but he has great ideas. “Benny is an interesting character. How can I make Benny human? That’s so exciting as an actor. The best compliment I got at the stage door after a show was; I didn’t hate your Benny.”

Rent, according to Thompson, is an iconic musical that is just as meaningful today as it was 20 years ago. “I think people don’t realize how important Rent is today. Many think we have new medicines for AIDS and HIV, but they are still issues. There is no cure. And other issues are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago; inclusion, love, acceptance of other people. Rent shows us the power of love and friendship, and will never stop making an impact.”

Rent, as previously mentioned, will have limited performances at the Orpheum Theater on Saturday, June 3 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, June 4 at 1:30 p.m.   Tickets start at $40 each   Contact or call 402-345-0606 or stop at the Ticket Omaha Box Office inside the Holland Center, 12th and Douglas.

Rent is matured themed and parents should take note.