A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical "Rent"
By: Victor Cordell - Oct 20, 2023
Anthony Rapp’s arrival on stage at the Curran Theater is met with great enthusiasm by Rentheads and other admirers. For many Gen Xers, the 1996 rock musical “Rent,” drawn heavily on Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” was their gateway into live theater. “Rent” would also win multiple awards from many grantors including a Pulitzer and Tonys; endure as one of the longest running plays on Broadway; and become a theatrical touchstone for a generation. For Rapp, who created the role of Mark Cohen at age 22, it was the inflection point that gave him recognition and launched him to stardom.
Rapp celebrates the years surrounding the early days of “Rent” in a one-man show “Without You,” based on his likewise named book subtitled “A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent.” Premiered to acclaim at New York’s Public Theater in 2013, it has been successfully revived and is now touring.
Accompanied by a five-piece rock band, Rapp regales his audience with poignant storytelling punctuated by songs from “Rent” as well as many original tuneful and sensitive compositions, mostly by the performer. The one outlier is REM’s megahit “Losing My Religion,” which Rapp had sung in his audition.
Those who are not familiar with the play may not anticipate the dominance of dying and death. But for those who know the history, there are really no surprises, so the audience is enraptured by the vignettes and the songs that support them. Although Rapp talks about himself, rather than a narcissistic self-portrayal, he acts more as a vehicle to honor two others who were important to his life. And though there is much sadness, it doesn’t seem morose, perhaps because so much time has passed. Yet, it resonates to those who have suffered loss.
Jonathan Larson wrote the book, music, and lyrics for “Rent.” He was deeply committed with all phases of development including the 1994 workshopping, Rapp’s first involvement, having been offered the role of Mark Cohen by the playwright. Larson felt a kinship with the struggling people that he wrote about and the struggling actors who portrayed them, evidenced by his annual Thanksgiving “Peasants’ Feast” to which Rapp was invited.
Larson light-heartedly deemed himself the future of musical theater and was even mentored by Stephen Sondheim. But tragically and without warning, he died of an aortic aneurysm at age 36 after the dress rehearsal of “Rent.” To a hushed audience, Rapp relates the anguish in having to press on with the opening performance when its beloved creator had just died, and having to give condolences to Larson’s parents.
What Larson left behind was an innovative musical that broke many barriers, having an array of characters who represented real people that were poor, minorities, gay, and HIV-positive. He also left us with its music, including the anthem that recurs in Rapp’s show – “Seasons of Love,” which is so notable for its unique, rhythmic lyrics about measuring life and love in the 525,600 minutes of the year. Rapp also sings another signature song that his character had introduced, “La Vie Bohème.”
Concurrent to the ramping up of “Rent,” Rapp’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and unsurprisingly, she would die from it several years later. Even more of “Without You” is dedicated to the author’s loving relationship with her, which Rapp amusingly depicts by speaking both parts in their conversations.
Although she was in many ways a conventional white bread Midwesterner, she accepted that her son went in another direction. She must have suspected that Anthony was gay. When telling her by phone that he had fallen in love with a man, she offered perfunctory resistance. Her first reaction was to ask if they couldn’t just be friends. When he persisted, her focus turned to ensuring that he wouldn’t allow himself to contract AIDS.
Rapp tells of the trips home to Joliet, Illinois during her decline. Touchingly, his mother asked if there is anything that she can leave to him. His caring response was that her gift would be that there would be nothing left unsaid.
The opening night show met with great and deserved audience support. The fans felt the love. Although the production enthralls, two issues do deserve mention. In Rapp’s recordings, his voice sounds steady and sturdy. In this performance, though he held a couple of sustained end notes with power, his overall singing voice seemed diminished and at times wavering. Perhaps he was a little ill. The other surprise was the sound mix imbalance. Especially in the early going, any time the band was playing while Rapp was talking, the competing percussion and bass made him hard to hear and understand.
“Without You,” written and performed by Anthony Rapp, is produced by Broadway San Francisco, and plays at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA through October 22, 2023.