Penn State graduate Christian Thompson returns to his ‘Rent’ roots

While a student at Penn State, Christian Thompson unknowingly began training for his current touring Broadway gig when School of Theatre Musical Director Beth Burrier taught him the vocal line for Benjamin Coffin III from the Tony Award-winning musical “Rent.”

“I looked at Christian after class one day and said, ‘You are the Benny-est Benny that ever was. I should teach you the track,’” Burrier said. “So we got together, and I taught him Benny in ‘Rent.’ … And here he is, doing Benny on the national tour.”

The 2015 graduate returns to campus as a part of the 20th-anniversary tour of “Rent” April 6 at Eisenhower Auditorium. Thompson plays the role of the landlord—and former roommate—of the main characters who threatens to kick them out of their apartment if they don’t pay their long-overdue rent. He also understudies the role of Roger Davis, an ex-junkie and HIV-positive musician who struggles to find the right notes for his next song.

While embodying two characters could be daunting, Thompson found that balancing the roles comes naturally for him.

“I think both Benny and Roger live in me in a very special and unique way,” he said. “I had the great fortune of having the training from Penn State to be prepared to do something like this, and to have two major roles in my head at one time and not be overwhelmed.”

Thompson credited much of his success to his alma mater. Penn State’s Musical Theatre program is known for providing a superb education of the core fundamentals such as acting, singing and dancing. But Thompson attributed his greatest lessons to the “little things” he learned throughout his four years.

“How to be collaborative with people, how to talk to your cast mates, how to respect everyone’s process,” he said, “those are the things that are so vital, and those are what make or break a tour. They are all things I started to claim at Penn State.”

Although Thompson was only a toddler when “Rent” made its Broadway debut in 1996, he said the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical remains a powerful and iconic show.

“The beautiful thing about “Rent” is it centers around a lot of universal themes of love, of inclusion, and of community and finding your community,” he said. “I think those types of things are so timeless that it really doesn’t lose much steam.”

Thompson said he is thrilled for the opportunity to see the country while touring with “Rent” and has learned a lot along the way. His biggest tip for surviving the tour lifestyle?

“A sleeping bag makes a great pillow on a tour bus,” he said with a laugh.

Listen to a Center for the Performing Arts interview with Thompson.

Thompson had another piece of advice for those who hope to pursue a career in theater:

“Just keep going with everything you have,” he said. “A playwright, Dominique Morisseau, said [to me], ‘If you serve the art, the art will serve you,’ and I think that is the most true statement I have ever heard.”

Anna James, a Penn State junior majoring in advertising and public relations, is a Center for the Performing Arts marketing and communications intern.

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Last Updated March 20, 2017