Anthony Rapp's 'Without You' — Musical musings on love and loss

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday October 10, 2023
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Anthony Rapp in 'Without You' (photo by Russ Rowland)
Anthony Rapp in 'Without You' (photo by Russ Rowland)

From October 19-22 actor Anthony Rapp, whose career took off when he was cast as Mark Cohen in the now classic musical "Rent," will bring his solo musical "Without You" to the Curran Theater.

In 1994, Rapp was broke and working at Starbucks. But his life was about to change when he auditioned for "Rent," a new musical by an up-and-coming writer named Jonathan Larson. This is where "Without You" begins.

Sharing the stage with a five-piece rock band, Rapp tells the story of the early years of "Rent," which includes the death of Larson right before the show's off-Broadway preview. "Rent" went on to become a global phenomenon which Rapp was part of. "Without You" is therefore a story of profound joy and unspeakable loss.

"Rent," which is loosely based on the opera "La Bohéme" by Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa, tells the story of a group of impoverished artists struggling to create a life in Manhattan's bohemian East Village as the shadow of HIV/AIDS hovers over them.

Rapp has over the years had a varied career not only on the stage, but in film and on television. Unfortunately, he was unable to talk about his film and TV roles at present due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike, which is a shame since he is currently starring in another groundbreaking production.

In 2017 he was cast as Paul Stamets in "Star Trek: Discovery," the first openly gay character on a "Star Trek" series. The series, which will soon stream its fifth season on Paramount+, has allowed Stamets to be a fully-fleshed out character.

Stamets is married to a character named Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). The show's scripts allow the audience to see their fully developed relationship. Both actors are perfect for their roles as both are openly gay in real life.

Anthony Rapp's memoir, 'Without You'  

Success and loss
But back on earth, "Without You" is adapted from Rapp's memoir of the same name.

"The memoir was published in 2006," he said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "It took quite a while to write. I never anticipated turning it into a show. We just finished a several-month run here in New York. I felt that this was the most full iteration of it, yet all these years later. It focuses on the period of time in the early-mid '90s when I got cast in the first studio production of "Rent," which was a ten-performance workshop at New York Theater Workshop. A year later I joined the off-Broadway and Broadway productions at the same time that my mom was diagnosed with cancer."

Rapp pointed to how shocking and unexpected Larson's death from an aneurism was. He recalls finding it difficult to go on stage after Larson's death, but he and his co-stars felt that they had to go on.

"'Without You' is a snapshot of that period of my life," he said. "But it really does go between the first auditions and then little snippets of rehearsal moments, focusing on the night that Jonathan died. But it also goes back and forth between that story and the story of my mom's diagnosis and going home to visit her during the time that I was in the show."

Rapp recalled that his mother was able to come to the opening of "Rent" on Broadway and that she died a little more than a year later.

"It was devastating," he said. "She wasn't just my mom, she was my biggest champion and supporter. I did not come from a show biz family, she was a single mother of three. As I'm becoming a father myself, I'm now just a few years younger than she was when she died, I feel like I have even more understanding of all the things she had to do to make all of our lives work, which kind of really blows my mind even more now, all these years later.

"I would not have been able to do any of the things I did if it weren't for all her support and making it possible. I don't know how she managed to maintain her work, raise three kids on her own, with very little outside help and to afford me the opportunities to do the work I was doing since I was a little kid."

Anthony Rapp in 'Without You' (photo by Russ Rowland)  

"Without You" is a narrated show, but there are also portions when moments of dialogue from Rapp's life are enacted. Sometimes a song comes in to help illustrate the story. Moments recalled include his first audition for "Rent," the first day of rehearsal, and the night Larson died. He also recalls moments with his mom and what it was like going home to visit her during her illness.

As the show progresses he'll be singing pieces of songs from "Rent," as well as original songs. As a solo show it's only Rapp and the band who are onstage. Rapp plays all the characters.

"Back at the theater where 'Rent' premiered on Broadway, there was a wall backstage where people would sign and leave messages for us," Rapp recalled. "And I asked if there was any way we could do something like that for this show. Not just to leave messages for me but to leave messages to their loved ones that they've lost.

"People took that on in such a major way that by the end of our run I don't even know how many messages we had. We had hundreds of messages, so that to me speaks to one of my deepest hopes that the response from the audience would be that it would give them access to find ways to healer to be in touch with their grief in meaningful ways so that they could connect with people that they've lost."

Ongoing legacy
Larson's musical was not without controversy. Soon after it opened, writer Sarah Schulman alleged that "Rent" bore striking similarities to her 1991 novel "People in Trouble." She later wrote extensively about it in her book of essays, "Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America."

"It was upsetting to read about it," Rapp said of Schulman's accusations. "It was after Jonathan had died, so he had no opportunity to address it himself personally. I know that he had been working on this text himself for any number of years. So much of the material in 'Rent' was inspired by 'La Boheme,' so I can't speak to it in any way to what she said she felt was stolen. In the time I knew him I never knew of him to talk about any influences other than 'La Boheme,' so I just thought it was a shame that this was being sort of aired after he had passed away."

Rapp feels that "Rent" has left a substantial legacy, and that shows like "Hamilton" could not have existed without "Rent."

"The legacy is that it inspired new generations of writers to take risks and bring their vision of what musical theater can be fully in line with music that speaks to today's audiences as well as stands on the shoulders of the traditions of storytelling that are in theater," he said.

"But I also think that 'Rent' opened many people's hearts and minds to the AIDS epidemic in new ways, and to talking about LGBTQ characters and issues in new ways. I think that 'Rent' is part of the ongoing conversation that has been going on for a while, and it's really been reaching critical mass about income inequality and home insecurity. It's contributed to people thinking about those who are less privileged than others."

Anthony Rapp's 'Without You,' October 19-22, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St. $49 and up

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