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Tuesday January 16, 2001

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Paying the 'Rent'

Headline Photo

Maggie Benjamin

Maureen Johnson

By Maggie Burnett

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Critically acclaimed Broadway hit opens tonight at

The winner of both a Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, "Rent" returns for a second time to Centennial Hall tonight.

"Rent" is the story of the ultimate highs and harsh realities faced by a community of struggling artists in New York's Lower East Side.

"It's strange. (This show) helps you listen to people who at first glance don't seem to have it all together," said Maggie Benjamin, who plays the role of Maureen Johnson, a spirited young lesbian coping with life as a struggling performance artist.

"Maureen is like me because she's very spirited and I'm very spirited," Benjamin said. "She's a drama queen - that's a bad characteristic we have in common."

Even so, Benjamin said she felt there are also distinct differences between herself and her character.

"She's very oblivious, and I think I'm more aware. She's not very talented," Benjamin said with a laugh. "I think the spirited thing is what we most have in common. We both have an appreciation and eagerness for life - we're both very passionate."

Although productions of "Rent" have toured all over the world, the North American company known as the "Benny tour" will be the one Tucson audiences see at Centennial Hall.

Even though Benjamin is Christian, she said playing the role of a gay woman was not a hard act to conquer.

"I'm playing a lesbian and that doesn't bother me at all. I'm not a conventional Christian," she said. "It's inspiring seeing artists in ("Rent") so full of life. This is about the struggle to be heard and believing in what they do."

Much like her character, Benjamin said she found her niche in the performing arts at a very young age.

"I started (acting) in community theater at nine and loved it," she said. "After my first play I totally found my thing."

Benjamin said she eventually went on to study at the Austin College and Conservatory of Music before she was finally cast in "Rent".

"I got into the Canadian company when I was 18," she said. "I didn't expect it. I thought I was too young. I was lucky."

She went on to explain that after the Canadian tour ended, she went back to college with a heavy heart.

"It was different. The teachers treated me like a kid when I had been treated like a pro," she said. "I was sad. I hadn't done it long enough to be burnt out."

Eight months later, Benjamin was back on schedule with "Rent", this time cast in the Broadway production.

"I did that for nine months and then I was cast as Maureen (in the Benny tour)," she said.

Benjamin explained that although Maureen is not one of the main characters in the show, she provides the audience with a different view of the struggles happening on stage.

"She's a performance artist - she has friends going through struggles and problems," she said. "She's basically not a main lead but presents things from a playwright's point of view. She's a lot of fun."