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How do you measure your life? Broadway, film and TV mainstay Anthony Rapp aims to find out as he revisits the ghosts of the past in a new staging of his intensely personal one-man musical, Without You, opening Off-Broadway next week at New World Stages.
Rapp — who originated the lead role of Mark in the watershed 1996 Broadway musical Rent, as well as appearing in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, If/Then and a five-season stint on CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery — is bringing Without You for its first New York staging after a 2007 initial run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The piece documents Rapp’s rise from a “22-year-old out of money and working at Starbucks” to the lead in Rent, an internationally-acclaimed musical sensation that became indelibly tied with the sudden death of its creator Jonathan Larson as well as Rapp’s mother, who died of cancer at age 55 during the original run of the show.
Directed by Stephen Maler, the creative team includes set and lighting design by Eric Southern, costume design by Angela Vesco, sound design by Tony Award-winner Brian Ronan, projection design by David Bengali as well as a five-piece band. Without You Rapp recalls that time, his recollections intertwined with songs from the musical, original pieces and even REM’s Losing My Religion – his Rent audition song.
“That whole time was probably the most vivid period of my life,” Rapp told W42ST. “It was so intense that practically every day is seared into my memory. It’s why I was able to write a book about it — I have all of these scenes and moments memorized word for word, because it all felt so momentous and important.”
Despite the sometimes weighty nature of the subject matter, revisiting the period has been a positive experience for Rapp: “I get to spend time with people who are gone,” he explained. “I get to have conversations with them and I get to live in our relationships in a present way that feels very meaningful. I wondered if it was going to leave me feeling wrecked, and it doesn’t – it’s the opposite. I feel really close to my mom. I feel really close to Jonathan, and any of the grief that’s there too…it moves through and it’s also washed over with love and joy.”
He’s happy to be bringing Without You to a New York stage, and has taken the opportunity to re-examine the material with fresh eyes. “It’s been a long process,” said Rapp. “I’d always hoped to do a run in New York, but there were all these other projects that would come along to kick it down the road. After five seasons of Star Trek: Discovery, I have a better idea of the time I have between seasons. So we had a short amount of time to make it happen, and thankfully the wonderful producers I’m working with did in fact make it happen.”
A workshop in the spring offered a fresh perspective on the show. “I’ve revisited the material with feedback from an old friend I’ve known for decades, but who had never seen it before,” said Rapp. “We’re not wholesale changing it, but we are re-investigating moments and transitions and characters and ways of structuring it that are really exciting — and even though this period of time was more than half my life ago, it’s still strangely, powerfully resonant for me.”
Rapp hopes the material will resonate with audiences at New World Stages, where he chose to mount the production for its intimate feel. “I love being able to see and feel the audience,” he said. “For me and the band, as the only people on the stage, it’s really cool. I think one-man shows can also work on Broadway, but it has to be the right venue. Maybe down the road, who knows? But for now, doing this in a very intimate space is exactly right. The great thing about New World Stages is that their spaces are intimate but have enough room to really put up a theatrical moment — you’re not in a tiny black box.”
And being back in the Theater District recalls a time when he and his Rent castmates were regular fixtures on what was a very different W42nd Street. “When we first got to the Nederlander in 1996, all of the sex shops and the like had just been kicked out, but the street and the storefronts were empty,” he said. “41st Street [where the Nederlander Theatre is located] was very empty and desolate, and there had been a longtime thought that the Nederlander, because it was below 42nd Street, was kind of cursed. So we were all wondering what it would be like, but it was fun for us – we were going to reclaim it.”
For a contemporary rock musical like Rent to have made it to Broadway was a miracle in itself, added Rapp. “This was before Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, Great Comet,” he said. “This was right after the era of Phantom and Les Mis and Cats and it was kind of absurd to think that we’d make it on Broadway. And the Nederlander felt like it was funky and off the beaten path. But we got to make 41st Street our own, and I think that the character of the street was part of the experience of seeing Rent,” he added. “I’m not saying that 41st Street is the most glorious, glamorous street ever, but it’s all changed. Although Port Authority is probably always going to be a bit rough and tumble!”
And while the original Rent’s intense performance schedule left Rapp with little time to fully enjoy the delights of 9th Avenue, during the run of If/Then he managed to try out some Hell’s Kitchen favorites like Pure Thai Cookhouse. Back in Midtown, he’s also found his way over to the newly minted Museum of Broadway, where he came face to face with a very familiar mannequin.
“It was really cool to turn a corner and see a mannequin with my Rent costume on it,” Rapp said. “It’s surreal, but it makes sense. It was an important show and an iconic costume, and it makes sense to celebrate it.”
And there is a newer joy in Rapp’s life – his son, Rai, with partner Ken Ithiphol. “It’s certainly a life-changing experience in the ways that everyone says it is, but it’s true that you can’t know until you’re in it,” said Rapp.
Could Rai provide the inspiration for another memoir? Rapp said: “I’ll never rule anything out. Fatherhood is incredibly vivid in some ways, but I’ve learned that your brain changes — time is both collapsing and extending in this moment. It’s very different from when I think about the period of time I wrote about in Without You, where everything was so sharp and crystal clear. Maybe I would write something a little more impressionistic!”