Anthony Rapp learned that his mother was terminally ill just as Rent became a huge success.
WITHOUT YOU written and performed by Anthony Rapp, directed by Steve Maler. Presented by Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge). Previews to Saturday (December 15), opens Sunday (December 16) and runs to January 6, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday 2 pm (except December 16 at 5 pm). $45-$69, rush $29. 416-872-1212. See listing.
When Rent became a huge Broadway hit in 1996, it changed not only the lives of millions of fans, but also those of the cast, including Anthony Rapp, who starred as filmmaker Mark Cohen. In addition to his whirlwind rise to theatre celebrity, which was tempered by the tragic death of the show's young writer, Jonathan Larson, Rapp was simultaneously dealing with his mother's steadily declining health.
This tumultuous time is the subject of his bestselling 2006 memoir and of this eponymous solo show he's been fine-tuning for the better part of five years.
"I feel like bearing witness to this history is important" says Rapp on the phone from New York City. "Rent was a really revolutionary moment in lots of people's lives, and for me it's been really important to keep the truth of the legacy alive."
Set amid Rent's meteoric rise, Rapp's tale offers backstage glimpses of his struggles with losing Larson and then his mother.
"It's split pretty evenly between my time with Rent, and Jonathan Larson and his death, and time with my mom. There's my audition for Rent, the first day of rehearsal, the day Jonathan died, and when we did the performance for this friends and family, my mom getting diagnosed with cancer, and then, of course, her death and the aftermath."
(Bring kleenex, folks.)
Rapp's real-life story of being a struggling young artist surrounded by tragedy mirrors key themes in Rent, and fans of the musical can rest assured that Rapp reprises lots of tunes from the show with the help of a five-piece backing band, though with new arrangements and in new contexts.
"Most of the songs I sing from Rent are reworked as excerpts, but I do sing a few in their entirety, including Seasons Of Love. I put a new spin on some: when I sing Another Day, I sing Mimi's part, and when I do What You Own, I revisit when Adam [Pascal] and I were first rehearsing it and Jonathan collapsed right when we sang the lyric ‘dying in America,' which was a really crazy moment."
The show, which Rapp admits is equal parts intense and cathartic, also includes five original songs he's written, and REM's Losing My Religion, which he sang for his Rent audition.
For Rapp, it was initially unclear if reliving this insanely emotional time onstage through a set of award-winning tear-jerkers would be too much to bear.
"At first I didn't know if making the book into a stage show would be too painful or overwhelming or weird," he says. "But what I've felt during all the runs so far is a feeling of being closely connected to those people I've lost. Every night I was having conversations with my mom in the show, and it was like getting to hear her voice again. She seemed more present than ever.
"So on a sort of selfish level, it's turned out to be comforting and wonderful."