Review: Anthony Rapp Owns, Not Rents, the Stage in Solo Musical Without You

Rapp explores the deaths of two seminal figures in his life in this new off-Broadway show.

Anthony Rapp in Without You at New World Stages
Anthony Rapp in Without You at New World Stages
(© Russ Rowland)

He had finally received his big break and was starring in a Broadway musical that was on the road to becoming a cultural phenomenon. But in 1996, Anthony Rapp was enduring a pair of tragedies that were happening practically simultaneously: the sudden and unexpected passing of Rent creator Jonathan Larson at 35, and the difficult illness and eventual passing of his 55-year-old mother, pediatric nurse and AIDS educator Mary Lee. Rapp explored his anguish in his 2006 memoir Without You, a title borrowed from one of Larson's best-known Rent songs. Now, he's going through it once again, looking back on these twin losses in a musical version that he's been developing since 2010.

The stage version of Without You, directed by Steven Maler and running at New World Stages through the spring, opens with Rapp's audition for the off-Broadway musical nobody expected to be a hit. Larson had adapted Puccini's La Bohème into a contemporary rock opera set in the East Village, following a group of bohemian New Yorkers struggling to find a place for themselves amid the AIDS epidemic. Rapp would quickly realize how special Rent was, and the world did, too. Unfortunately, Larson never got to see himself become an overnight sensation, dying from an aortic aneurysm on the morning of the first preview at New York Theatre Workshop.

Interwoven through his Rent journey is the story of Rapp's mother and her battle with adrenal cancer, first discovered after a tumor bursts and causes massive internal bleeding. She's fine for a short time, but right as Rent is kicking into high gear, the cancer comes back with a vengeance. Mary Lee makes it to her son's Broadway opening night, but the disease will take her life just a year later.

Rapp is an affable presence, and, remarkably, his 51-year-old voice sounds exactly as it does on the Rent original cast recording, if not better. In a way, it's almost worth it for that alone: If you never got to see him live (whether on Broadway or on tour), now's your chance to hear him sing "Seasons of Love" and "What You Own" in the flesh. (Larson's music is featured alongside several of Rapp's original songs, co-written with David Matos, Joe Pisapia, and musical director and arranger Daniel A. Weiss, who leads a great rock quintet scattered throughout Eric Southern's Rent-esque set).

Similarly, Rapp's performance is beautifully honest. Even though these incidents happened nearly 30 years ago now, there are moments when they still feel he's opening a fresh wound. "That Is Not You," a blistering rock tune in which he recounts viewing his mother's dead body, is devastatingly relatable to anyone who has shared a similar experience. The Rent material is more rote, containing little more than the very well-known stories of the composer's death and the show's posthumous success (but at this point, there's probably not much new left to tell).

And yet, what I found Without You to be lacking was hindsight. It concludes with Mary Lee's passing but nothing that came after. I was curious to find out what Rapp has learned about life and grief over the past 27 years, how his performances as Mark Cohen through the decades has been affected by this knowledge, and what his newfound status as a dad (Rapp and partner Ken had a baby in December 2022) has taught him.

Rapp doesn't go into this territory onstage, and the back half of the show suffers a little bit because of it. But that doesn't take away from the bottom line: Without You is a supremely moving experience, and one that anyone who has loved and lost will relate to.

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