'Rent' actor finds acceptance through show's messages in his youth

Carol Rosegg photo

The 20th anniversary tour of #x201c;Rent#x201d; will power up the Hancher Auditorium stage in Iowa C
Carol Rosegg photo The 20th anniversary tour of “Rent” will power up the Hancher Auditorium stage in Iowa City on Friday night (10/4) and Saturday afternoon and evening (10/5).

For Juan Luis Espinal, the first Latino actor to play landlord Benny in “Rent,” learning the show in his native language was harder than learning it in English.

His best friend introduced him to the show’s soundtrack during his midteens in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean nation that shares Hispaniola island with Haiti. It was about the time the 1996 hit musical’s 2005 movie version was coming out, and the showstopping “Seasons of Love” became the most-played song on Espinal’s iPad. So when the movie came to his home city of Santo Domingo, he couldn’t wait to see it.

“Of course, I went crazy about it. I loved it so much,” he said by phone from the musical’s recent 20th anniversary tour stop in Vancouver, British Columbia, before coming to Hancher in Iowa City on Friday (10/4) and Saturday (10/5). “I felt so connected.”

The movie was a revelation to the still-closeted teen, who is now 29 and openly gay, living with his boyfriend in New York City. He moved there six years ago to further his theatrical training and pursue a professional career with a living wage — opportunities that wouldn’t be possible in his home country at the time. After dealing with visas and permits, he now has his green card, so he can breathe a sigh of relief about living and working in the United States.

Worries about past, present and future are mirrored in “Rent.” But ultimately, the message lies in living in the moment.

The story, a 20th century take on the opera “La Boheme,” looks at a year in the life of seven young artists determined to follow their career dreams without compromising their principles. Themes range from drug use, sexuality and AIDS to relationships and rebellion.

While his friends eke out a meager existence squatting in a warehouse that Benny manages, he starts playing hardball with collecting their rent. They see him as a sellout to the business world.

Espinal calls Benny “a visionary.”


“He’s not an artist like his friends. He’s also a businessman,” Espinal said. “He’s trying to see a bigger picture. He wants to do well and wants his friends to do well. I think he’s just trying to convince them to move on to a better a life, and with that better life, they can do all the things they want to do. But the thing is, his friends can’t see it that way, because he’s just now part of the system, and his friends refuse to join the system.”

Espinal likens Benny to a producer, focused on money. And while his efforts to move on with his life put him at odds with his friends, he comes through for them in the end in very tangible ways.

“I don’t think he’s mean,” Espinal said. “He seems very cocky and only thinking about himself, but not really.”

Seeing the movie for the first time, Espinal felt drawn to the story and its implications for his own life as he struggled with his sexuality in his adolescence.

“I was able to understand that everything I was seeing was OK,” he said. “But I was still back home and hadn’t come to terms with me being different from what I learned growing up there.”

At age 21, he would get to translate all he had learned in English into the role of Benny in a Spanish-language production in Santo Domingo. Fast-forward to this past June, when he was cast as Benny in the Broadway musical’s 20th anniversary tour.

Again, he had to transfer his knowledge into another language.

“It’s also a challenge in English, because English is not my first language,” Espinal said. “As a foreign actor, I have to work in diction and accent-reduction to be understandable and be in line with everybody else. The accent is something I will always have, but as an actor, I need to remain as neutral as possible to embody a character.”

He’s exploring Benny and the show with more training and more maturity than in his first foray into the role, and finds the show’s messages and music just as relevant and embraced today as when the groundbreaking musical first rocked Broadway.


“I feel like ‘Rent’ is an ageless piece,” Espinal said. “It’s a story about love, and that is something the world nowadays is lacking. A world that needs to be more tolerant and more respectful about everybody else’s differences and beliefs.

“I come from a Third World country where the LGBTQ community still (is) not well seen. I’m openly gay and still have struggles in my country. That’s why places like maybe in the U.S., maybe in the countries in Latin America — maybe the entire world needs to see ‘Rent’ and needs to understand ‘Rent’ and the good thing that ‘Rent’ has: ‘Hey, this is what it is, but I won’t judge you if believe in a different way.’

“Because it’s not about judging ourselves or about accepting ourselves, either. Yes, I have to accept myself as who I am. I don’t have to accept everybody else, but I have to respect everybody else with their differences.

“It’s not about me trying to change you,” he said. “Even with members of my own family, you don’t have to accept the fact that I’m gay, but you have to respect me. With respect comes love, and if everybody understands that, we will be living in a better world.

“And ‘Rent’ gives us that: living in the present, living in the moment, no day but today. Forget about all the things that happened in the past, and let’s forget about the things that are going to happen tomorrow, because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’re only granted 24 hours and let’s make the best out it.

“That’s also the most important message ‘Rent’ gives everybody. Be present, be in the moment, love the people around you — and love yourself, of course. Love yourself. Love yourself as you are,” he said.

“It’s simple, but yet takes time, too. It is what it is,” Espinal said.

One of the lyrics in the finale is especially near to his heart: “Give in to love or live in fear.”

“I felt immediately drawn to that line,” he said, “because it just resonates with me and my story — when I made the decision of accepting myself as who I am, and to respect myself as who I am and not judge myself for who I am.


“I decided to give in to love. That day, I feel like I was born again.”


WHAT: “Rent” 20th anniversary national tour

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (10/4), 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturday (10/5)

WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

TICKETS: $50 to $80 all ages, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1- (800) HANCHER or hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/RENT

SHOW’s WEBSITE: Rentontour.net

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