NEW YORK, NY.-
Anthony Rapps show Without You is, in part, about the genesis of Rent. It is opening off-Broadway on a symbolic date: exactly 27 years after both that hit musicals first public performance at New York Theater Workshop and the death of its creator, Jonathan Larson. Thats 14,201,280 minutes gone by, 14 million moments so dear.
As Rentheads will know, this number riffs on a famous lyric from Seasons of Love, the runaway anthem from Rent and now from Without You. That song pops up a few times over the course of the new show, and it still has the power to spur a Pavlovian lacrimal reaction, especially in the context in which Rapp (who originated the role of aspiring filmmaker Mark) employs it here. Some of the moments he reminisces about are not so dear, because Without You is largely about death brutally unexpected for Larson and gruelingly protracted in the case of Rapps mother, Mary, who had cancer.
For decades now, seeing Rent has been something of a coming-of-age rite, a gateway for young fans not just into the wondrous world of musical theater, but into adulthood exposing them to gritty subject matter, helping them come to terms with who they are or might be. It played a similar role for Rapp, as he explained in Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent, which came out in 2006. He turned the book into this play with music in 2008, performing it in other cities before finally making its way to New York, where its playing at New World Stages, directed by Steven Maler.
Before getting to the last two elements of the books subtitle, its worth noting that the theatrical version mostly skips the romantic side of the love part. The memoir did not offer much by way of introspection on the subject, but there were glimpses into a personality that appears more complicated, darker even, than the one we get onstage.
It is clear that being cast in Rent was a turning point in Rapps career, even if he was not quite the bumbling beginner he suggests. Yes, he was a 22-year-old actor with a day job at Starbucks, but by the time director Michael Greif cast him in the Rent workshop, he had already been in three Broadway shows and a few movies one of the first things Larson told Rapp was that hed liked him in Dazed and Confused.
Without You is at its most engaging when delivering a quasi-documentary look at the musicals early days. Rapp performs the song he did for his audition, R.E.M.s Losing My Religion, and we hear a snippet from the demo cassette that Larson gave Rapp so he could learn a number for his callback. Hearing the late composers own voice is quite affecting, and there is a surreal quality to the scene.
Backstage stories have a built-in entertainment factor, and Rapps reminiscences have an in-the-room immediacy and enthusiasm. Add the very real artistic and commercial impact of Rent, and its easy to forgive him for overstating how edgy the show was for its time. After quoting a lyric from La Vie Bohème that reclaims slurs for gay men and lesbians, for example, Rapp quips we wouldnt hear it from Andrew Lloyd Webber. Maybe not, but Hair was no slouch when it came to profanity, slurs, drugs and sexuality. And at least that show did not rhyme curry vindaloo with Maya Angelou, as Larson did.
The composers abrupt death from an aortic aneurysm after the first dress rehearsal has entered musical-theater legend, and although Rapp was understandably devastated, Without You is, just as understandably, more poignant when hes dealing with his mothers yearslong decline. The actor recounts frequent trips to Joliet, Illinois, where Mary lived, and reenacts phone calls in which he plays both parts of the conversation (although, in general, he struggles to differentiate womens voices, which all end up sounding the same). He also punctuates his mothers side of the narrative with songs he co-wrote, mostly in an amiable indie-rock vein (music director Daniel Weiss leads a punchy five-piece band from behind the keyboards). But it is hard to step away from the shadow that Rent casts, then as now, on Rapps life: He circles back to that show with a rendition of the number Without You at his mothers memorial. You would have to be made of stone to not be moved.
Through April 30 at New World Stages, Manhattan; withoutyoumusical.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times