As Anthony Rapp reflects at the start of his poignant one-man show Without You—breaking from the opening bars of “Seasons of Love”—it’s been half a lifetime since he originated the life-changing, career-defining role of videographer Mark Cohen in Jonathan Larson’s Rent. The seminal La Bohème-inspired “rock opera” (a phrase that Rapp admits initially “didn’t exactly fill him with confidence”) by the self-professed “future of musical theatre”.
Based on his 2006 New York Times bestselling memoir, Rapp weaves songs from Rent and his own original numbers with tales of the excitement of being involved in something that sounded so fresh, edgy, and meaningful, along with the concurring grief in his life. He takes us right back to his first audition for the future Tony and Pulitzer-winning musical—which he was twenty minutes late for and sang R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” at—peppering the scene with details like Larson saying that he recognised Rapp from his role in the movie Dazed and Confused. Rapp goes on to take us through the early workshop performances, to Jonathan’s untimely death on the eve of the Off-Broadway opening, and carrying on with the show to its triumphant Broadway run, which coincided with the devastating loss of his mother to cancer.
It’s a thrill to hear Rapp describe listening to Larson’s now iconic songs for the first time on demo tapes in the cramped East Village apartment that he shared with his brother, while he was working a “survival job” at Starbucks. “A party erupted out of my tiny boom box” at a line in “La Vie Boheme”, Rapp recalls: “To faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross-dressers too“, which, as he notes, “You wouldn’t hear in Andrew Lloyd-Webber”. Lyrics that were reclaiming those words in a song about celebrating “Being an us for once / Instead of a them“. Rapp reminds us of the significance and impact of Larson addressing HIV/AIDS in a musical in 1994, with lyrics like: “To people living with, living with, living with Not dying from disease“, which was for that time “a revolutionary idea: that it was possible to live a full life in the face of AIDS or cancer, that being ill didn’t mean being dead”.
There’s so much emotion in Rapp’s richly expressive, versatile, and powerful voice; gorgeously smooth at times and with a real biting edge to it at others. He’s supported on stage by a dynamic five-piece band with Clerida Eltime on cello, Paul Gil on bass, Jerry Marotta on drums, and Lee Moretti on guitar, led by musical director Daniel A. Weiss on keyboards. The songs from Rent take on new meanings as Rapp contextualizes them within his own narrative—making us really pay attention to the lyrics like we’re hearing them for the first time—culminating in Without Out, which he performed at his mother’s funeral. Among Rapp’s original songs is the defiantly dark humoured “Wild Bill”, inspired by the name that his mother gave to her malignant tumor.
At times, Rapp’s performance is quite an introspective one, but he never for a moment shuts us out, even as he closes his eyes in concentration he always warmly invites us in to his most personal thoughts. A skillful and engaging storyteller, along with some evocative language and atmosphere setting, Rapp pictures what he’s talking about so vividly that it conjures the images for us too. Like the touching scene of his mother’s acceptance of him being gay, saying what many of us long for everyone in the world to feel, especially our parents; “it’s no different from having blue eyes or brown eyes, really”.
Without You isn’t about showy costumes. Rapp looks like he could’ve stepped off the sidewalk on to the stage—intentionally of course thanks to the work of costume designer Angela Vesco—which contributes to the overall stripped back, raw feeling of intimacy; a casual “this is me” quality that’s echoed in his performance. Rapp’s words, both spoken and sung, keep us enraptured throughout, enhanced by Steven Maler’s crisp direction and lighting design by Eric Southern, which draws the audience in and helps sets the shifting tones beautifully. David Bengali’s elegantly simple projection design is a work of art in itself, as the bare brick wall set is used to illustrate the journey Rapp takes us on. Without it becoming distracting or the photography being overly literal, it’s affecting to see images of some of the people who Rapp talks about so lovingly, and we feel like they’re in the room with us.
Having lost my father last year, it was hard not to think about the last time that I saw him as Anthony described taking in the face of his mother, not know if he would ever see her again. I’m sure every one in the auditorium was picturing someone they’d lost, as Rapp evokes those feelings of grief—with the accompanying anger and despair—so eloquently. Although this might sound like a potentially heavy show, it’s not. It is a deeply personal and moving one, but ultimately it’s life-affirming and healing. It’s a tale of profound grief and pushing through it back to love. Like Rent, which was written as a tribute to the friends Larson had lost in his life, Without You keeps the spirits of Rapp’s friend Larson and his mother alive, while celebrating his theatrical chosen family. This is a special, truly memorable evening of musical theatre history beautifully told by someone who lived it.
By James Kleinmann
Anthony Rapp’s Without You had its official opening night on January 25th, 2023 and its limited run ends April 30th, 2023 at New World Stages, 350 West 50th Street, New York. For more details and to purchase tickets head to WithoutYouMusical.com.