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Jacques Smith '93 finds success as actor in Broadway show 'Rent'

Few Princetonians make it from the stage at Theatre Intime to those of Times Square.

So next time the city beckons, check out the Netherlander Theater on 41st St. between 7th and 8th Avenues.

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Jacques Smith '93 is there – and he isn't behind the scenes.

Smith, who once sang with the Nassoons a cappella group and danced with the Black Arts Company, has taken his act to Broadway where he has been playing a major role in the hit musical "Rent" for six months.

As Benny the landlord, Smith plays a role open for interpretation. "I try not to portray him as negative," Smith said of his character who threatens poor tenants with eviction. "His intentions are positive."

Six months into his Broadway career, a combination of city culture and the show's popularity continues to enamor him.

"This is my passion," said Smith, 26, whose schedule demands eight performances per week.

As Smith launches his career as a professional actor, his duties require more than just showing up for the job.

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With the fast-paced choreography and loud music of "Rent," Smith must maintain his high degree of physical fitness at all times, he said.

"I can't afford to get hoarse," he said. "And I can't be winding down at nine o'clock."

The newly transplanted New Yorker hails from the outskirts of Chicago. After graduating from Princeton almost five years ago, Smith returned for a job near his hometown of Harvey, Ill. teaching at a private high school, a stint that earned him recognition in "Who's Who Among High School Teachers."

Religion major

But Smith, a religion major with certificates in the African-American and theater programs, saw his career buoyed more by his supplementary degrees than by his major and felt he could excel outside the classroom.

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His vision led him back to the stage. After two years of teaching, Smith left his job in Harvey and entered graduate school at the University of California at San Diego. Since UCSD is affiliated with La Jolla Playhouse, the renowned regional theater in northern California, Smith saw an opportunity to revisit talents left untouched since his days at Princeton.

At this point Smith's life took a turn from hometown teacher to Broadway hot commodity.

Last summer, Smith performed Moliére's "The School for Wives" at La Jolla. By chance, Michael Grife, the director of "Rent," also serves as the artistic director at La Jolla.

"Michael had seen my work and liked it more than I realized," Smith said.

Therefore the suburbanite flew across the country to Manhattan for a "Rent" audition. He got the job that day.

Heidi Marshall, a casting director for "Rent" said Smith's audition was unique among the many fame-seeking, self-absorbed actors who her agency, Bernard Telsey, constantly reviews.

"Jacques is someone who doesn't bring the ego into the audition room," she said, contrasting him with the bulk of some 10,000 actors she has auditioned for "Rent."

Hype and glory

For Smith's lifestyle, though, it may be hard not to have an ego. The "Rent" cast has appeared on NBC's "Today" show and the "Rosie O'Donnell Show."

And what about the 1,200 audience members per week? The standing ovations?

"It's one of the biggest rushes," Smith said, adding that he has enjoyed every one of the more than 200 shows.

The "Rent" casting directors are confident that Smith will sustain his surge within the Broadway acting community.

"He's getting recognition from people who need to see him in New York," she said.

For now, Smith likes his job and doesn't plan on switching shows or careers any time soon. "If I can continue to support myself, and eventually a family, by being an artist, I will do it."

He also continues to keep up his relationship with friends from Princeton. In fact, Smith said he is happily dating Shaifali Puri '95.

In the meantime, this Princeton alum wants to reap the benefits of a promising Broadway career.

"If I can produce art that affects people I can just live it and enjoy it."

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