Anthony Rapp, who is probably best known for originating the role of Mark Cohen in both the stage and film incarnations of Rent, is one of the many Broadway stars who is participating in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, running September 27-October 17, and featuring 27 musical productions, a developmental reading series, and various special events. "NYMF provides a great opportunity to have the support and infrastructure needed to put up a new musical and to be part of this festival atmosphere," says Rapp.
His entry is Without You, a solo musical based on his 2006 bestselling memoir of the same name. Not only does it chronicle the beginnings of Jonathan Larson's landmark musical Rent -- including the composer's premature death -- it also interweaves the story of Rapp's relationship with his mother, who was battling cancer during this same period.
The writer/performer admits that the task of adapting the piece was initially daunting. "In a book, you can get much more expansive and discursive, and fill in all sorts of back story and side story," he says. "But if you're going to be successful in a theatrical setting, you have to be much more economical." The key to his adaptation was music, both well known tunes from Rent -- featuring some new arrangements by Tom Kitt -- and his own songs, written in collaboration with composers John Keaney, David Matos, and Joe Pisapia.
He views it as the highest compliment that one of Rent's original producers told him that Rapp's original songs -- which are primarily pop-influenced, with a bit of rockabilly and other styles thrown in -- fit in so well with Larson's music from Rent. "Jonathan himself was a very diverse songwriter," says Rapp. "The style of his music has lots of flavors, even in the context of a rock opera. And so it was exciting to try and find a way to bring that same broad palette to the musical vocabulary that we're using."
Tom Hewitt is not only another Broadway performer who's participating in this year's festival; the actor is currently starring as Billy Flynn in Chicago, even as he rehearses for the NYMF production of The Great Unknown. "What was I thinking? Put down the cocktails before you make the phone call," he jokes.
The Great Unknown features a book by Tony Award-winning librettist William Hauptman, with music and lyrics by Jim Wann of Pump Boys and Dinettes fame. Hewitt stars as John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who leads a daring expedition down the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon, in the spring of 1869.
The show is based upon a true story, but Hewitt cautions that "theatrical context is often so different from historical context. For instance, John Wesley Powell was 35 years old, and weighed 110 pounds at the time of the play. That's half of me." According to the actor, "you have to do some research with the knowledge that you have to let some of it go to tell the story the playwrights are telling."
The reason he committed to a rather crazy rehearsal and performance schedule has everything to do with the people he's now working with -- particularly director Don Stephenson and choreographer Liza Gennaro. "I worked with the two of them last summer at The Muny in St. Louis," says Hewitt. "Don directed Titanic and it was a remarkable experience. Plus, I'd worked with Don a couple of times as an actor. He was Renfield to my Dracula on Broadway, and we did a production of Travesties at the Long Wharf. I'm thrilled and inspired by Don and Liza. They're so imaginative, and the show is really fun and unapologetically theatrical."
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