Interview: Love, Loss, Rent, and Fatherhood: Anthony Rapp's Solo Show Gets Personal

Original ”Rent” cast member Rapp talks about his musical memoire at New World Stages.

The pressure of mounting a new show is daunting. Creating a deeply personal one while welcoming a newborn into your family? Some might call it a Herculean task, but if anyone is up for it, it's Anthony Rapp. He's now sharing his struggles, triumphs, loves, and losses off-Broadway in his acclaimed one-man musical Without You.

Based on his bestselling memoir of the same name, Without You recounts Rapp's early years working on Rent, the ups and downs of a career as a performer, and lessons learned through his close relationships with his mother and playwright Jonathan Larson. Backed by a 5-piece rock-band, Rapp opened the show at New World Stages on January 25, exactly 27 years after Rent had its first public performance at New York Theatre Workshop. Rapp spoke with TheaterMania about fatherhood, the everlasting impact of Rent, and bringing his most personal project to the stage.

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

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In creating the show Without You, you had to connect seminal moments in your life in a poignant story, while still considering what makes a great night of theater. What was that process like for you?
The book is a different animal in that the story can be told in prose, in chapters and in a 300 page book. It is very different than telling the story in spoken narration on a stage in 90 minutes. We have been working on it for the last 15 years and coming to it now with nice fresh eyes. We have always been using music for the storytelling, but we'll continue to explore the way music flows in and out. I did Without You all over the world — in Seoul, London, Edinborough, Pittsburgh, Boston — but I always dreamed of doing a real run in New York because it's my home and it's where Rent started. It has been a long time coming.

What inspired this iteration of Without You?
Without You is a theatrical storytelling experience. Lisa Kron's 2.5 Minute Ride really informed me in its approach. The way Hedwig uses the band and that kind of music and storytelling spoke to this story. Passing Strange, which is an autobiographical rock musical, also informed it. [Director] Steven Maler, [lighting designer] Eric Southern, and I all love going to live concerts, so finding ways to have that language and lighting used in a theatrical context has been exciting. We have folded in new material and woven music in a little differently while reinvestigating it and using projections in a new way.

What will fans of yours be most surprised to learn about you?
I'm not doing crazy caricature style voices, but I'm playing different characters. I'm not wearing masks, but I am embodying people's spirits. There aren't any revelations per se, but I hope it will be interesting to see how some of the moments in the book are musicalized. When a musical is at its best, songs express story well, and the style and content of the song is married to the emotional life. I hope we achieved that.

What inspired the original music in Without You?
There's a song toward the top of the show that is in the musical vernacular of my mom and the kind of music that she liked. It was a way to introduce her vibe, as well as music that is not from Rent. There is another song that takes a story from her life and it's set to music. There's a pure rock song at one point that is inspired by trying to give voice to an intense, emotional moment. A new song is taken from a letter my mom wrote, using her words and setting it to music. I feel very close to her because I'm spending a lot of quality time with her.

Consider the aspiring actors who are in a similar position to yours when you were working as a Starbucks barista and looking for work. What do you want them to take away from your story?
You have to be willing to experience the ups and downs. Any time I have counted myself down and out, something has come along that has been transformative. You can carve out a path for yourself if you plug away and keep growing and trying to stretch yourself as a human being and as an artist. You must have the talent and the connection to yourself, and to your soul and to what inspires you. When the original Broadway cast of Rent would do talkbacks, if you asked all 15 of us, "What was your path to get here?" our 15 stories would be so different. There's no one formula.

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

Which of Jonathan Larson's and your mother's lessons are you most looking forward to sharing with your son?
Jonathan did not give up in the face of years of disappointment and being told no. He kept going. There's this powerful sense of perseverance that I think he embodies. I will share the lesson that he stayed deeply true to his own voice, his convictions and his beliefs in what he was doing. He also regarded his role as an artist to be somebody who holds a mirror up to the world and to society, and tries to tell the truth, shine a light, respond and make a difference. Those are values that we already have in our family, and hopefully our son will absorb that and take that on as well.
My mom had a very powerful sense of justice and making choices that have integrity. Kindness and generosity were deeply important to her. She was a nurse. I would like to pass those values on.

How is Rent having a unique impact on people in 2023?
In the wake of Covid, Rent had a whole new powerful resonance for many young people because they never experienced HIV and AIDS. There was a new level of awareness of what it means to face a health crisis that affects so many people and communities, and that there is a disparity of response to that. Rent speaks to the awareness of injustice and economic disparity, and what capitalism has done to our society. Now everything gets spoken about much more directly, and I imagine that those themes resonate much more powerfully.

How has being on the Paramount series Star Trek: Discovery affected your already multifaceted fan base?
There's a big Venn diagram of Star Trek fans, musical theater fans, and Rent fans. These two pieces are built around a sense of community and hope. People really take them into their hearts and identify with them on a deeply personal level so there's a lot of crossover. Star Trek has got its eye on living our best selves and it has its heart on its sleeve. There's not a cynical bone in Star Trek's body, nor is there a cynical bone in Rent's body. Those similarities speak to people.

Now that you have had experience telling your own story, might we see you pen a new musical?
I would love to! Without You was made possible in part because it's such a small show and we can do a limited run. Star Trek's production schedule is not the same year to year, so it's hard to slot in these kinds of runs. Maybe I will write another one! This will be the first one in the harsh lights of New York, so we will see how it goes.

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Anthony Rapp’s Without You

Final performance: June 11, 2023

Tickets as low as $54!