CONFRONTING his experiences of bereavement head-on and getting in touch with primal emotions, Anthony Rapp is reducing audiences to tears with a musical adaptation of his menoirs, writes Lee Randall
YOU might think that a man buffeted by loss would choose not to revisit his distress, but then you haven’t reckoned with Anthony Rapp. In the space of a few years in the 1990s, Rapp lost several friends – including playwright Jonathan Larson – and, crucially, his mother, to whom he was extremely close. Yet these were also years when Rapp became a household name in the US, thanks to the phenomenal success of the musical Rent, written by Larson, who died suddenly the night before its off-Broadway premiere.
Rent, a modern reworking of La bohème, finds its community of artists living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and battling with the scourge of Aids, rather than consumption. The show moved to Broadway, went on to win Larson a posthumous Pulitzer, and then toured the world to standing-room-only houses.
How does one make sense of such a tempestuous era, that truly was the best and the worst of times? Writing slowly, over several years, Rapp produced Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent in 2006. The bestselling book was transformed into an acclaimed show, and has now been given a given a second life by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, who is bringing it to the Edinburgh Fringe ahead of a London run.
When I repair to the ladies after seeing a performance in Boston, I encounter dozens of weeping women. The emotions churned up by the show are intensified by the inclusion of music, which reaches places words don’t always travel to. Some of the songs are original to this show, some come from Rent, and Rapp also sings REM’s Losing My Religion, which he famously fluffed at his audition for Rent.
Up close, Rapp is small and slim. His all-American features remain boyish, though he’ll be 41 in October. He grew up in Joliett, Illinois, the youngest of three. His parents divorced when he was two, and Mary, a nurse, raised the kids with minimal help from their father, working hard to keep her family afloat. Rapp was the artistic one; his older brother Adam, now a writer, was a successful athlete. From an early age Rapp knew he was gay, but theirs wasn’t a family given to touchy-feely conversations.
Mary took great pride in her youngest son’s achievements, including work in films such as Adventures in Babysitting, Dazed and Confused, A Beautiful Mind, and Six Degrees of Separation. And then there is Rent, for which he originated the role of Mark Cohen, reprising it in the 2005 film which starred most of the original cast.
Despite their lifelong closeness, there was discomfort between Rapp and his mother about his sexuality. Both were adamant that there be no unfinished business between them when she died, so it was much discussed during his visits to her bedside.
To give this concern some context, in his memoir he recounts a story about a terrifying drive in 1972, when the family was chased down a highway by a band of joyriders who, they later discovered murdered several people that night by bumping their cars off the road, taking them into the nearby cornfields and shooting them at point-blank range. When they pulled up alongside the Rapp’s they saw the infant Anthony asleep in his car seat, and drove off. Convinced that the sight of a baby touched something in their hearts, Mary forever after referred to her “Tonio” as the family’s savior.
“I don’t know if this makes sense,” he tells me, “but I grew up held in extraordinarily high esteem by my mother. She gave me credit for saving our family’s life. The potential for disappointing her was pretty heavy. She really got sad when she found out about an older boy I’d fooled around with [as a teenager]. And it was really hard to make my mom sad. I felt terrible. I guess you could call it an obsession, but I wanted badly for her not to be sad about my sexuality any more, and to have her blessing – I had her blessing in every other way.”
Without You opens with that classic counterpoint, death juxtaposed with new life: Rapp was late to his Rent audition because he’d been to his friend Bill’s memorial service. In the course of the book Jonathan Larson dies of an aneurysm, and others perish from Aids. Those are enough blows to send anyone reeling, but when he wasn’t performing, Rapp was also clocking up the air miles to spend time with his mother back in Illinois.
It cannot be easy getting up on stage and reliving her death night after night, I speculate. Rapp says: “When I wrote the book I had no intentions of it being a show. When we started rehearsing, there were moments when I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ It was so hot to the touch. But what I’ve discovered is that ultimately what I feel is incredibly close to my mom. I feel like I’m talking to her. Those times were extremely painful, but they’re also extremely rich, and vivid. It was a time when I felt the most alive in my life – even the moments of losing my mind. I feel close to something that has a lot of power to it, so I don’t feel depleted by it in any way.”
A friend of Rapp’s pointed out that when someone dies, we don’t simply grieve the loss of the individual, but also their vision of you, which no longer exists. “Bill, Jonathan, my mom, and in his way, [my friend] Ben, were like angels to me. Not like cosmic angels, but people who were totally in my corner, completely, 100 per cent supportive. They had done so many things to provide opportunities for me, or to help me with things. So taking a step back, I realised I didn’t just lose the people, I lost that support network as well.
“My mother bore witness to my earliest experiences as an actor. That thing of witnessing is something I’ve thought about so much. They’re the ones keeping alive those experiences you shared, so that time is gone – not gone utterly, but a piece is missing.”
But relationships do not end with death, he says. “I don’t believe in afterlife or ghosts, but relationships are between two people, and I have a relationship with Mom even though she’s dead. My memories of her are part of what’s alive. There are people in our lives we still have relationships with even if we don’t see them for years. It’s that kind of thing. And the amount of grief is relative to the amount of love.”
Through his involvement with the charity Friends In Deed – which figures in Rent – Rapp came to accept that there’s no right way to grieve, or an “appropriate” length of time. “At the meetings I attended what came through was that ‘It’s all OK.’ Whatever you are going through is OK. There’s no perfect scenario. You have to give yourself permission to go through what you’re going through.”
Still, he wasn’t expecting that his bottled-up emotions would erupt in violence – stretched to the limit, he wound up having fist fights with both his then-boyfriend and his brother. It’s telling that although the siblings shared an East Village flat and were losing the same parent, they never, up to that point, discussed their mother’s dying. “I had these explosions of grief. I lost my mind. Before then, part of me thought I could never do that, because I’d ruin something. But forgiveness is possible and repairing things is possible. Death is not scary. It’s sad to lose someone but it’s not something to be afraid of, or to be afraid of talking about. It’s all part of living.”
Rapp’s not sure how British audiences will react to Without You – he’s all too aware of the redoubtable stiff upper lip, and reminds me, as well, that while audiences loved it, not all the London critics were kind to Rent when it arrived in the West End. “I don’t know why, but some people are kind of allergic. I feel that if I’d seen Rent and wasn’t in it, I would have loved it. It’s too full of everything I love when I go to the theatre.”
Returning to Without You after some years off has been rewarding, though. “It settles in different ways, and steeps, like a good marinade. I am enjoying the joyful parts even more. When I first put it together, part of me wasn’t sure how people would respond, but now I feel freer to go full bore and things have more rise and fall and more colours.”
One moment with special resonance for him this time around comes during the impassioned song That is Not You, which describes the moment he was brought in to see his mother’s body, for she passed while he was on his way back to see her. “That whole chunk of the show is intense for me right now. It’s a part of grief that we don’t talk about as much. We talk about sadness but not about the crazy meltdown and everything collapsing. It’s not rage, but it is primal, and finding a way to express that musically was challenging. So it’s hitting me hard, but in a good way.”
The most misunderstood aspect of grief, he says, is its rawness. “Irrational, inarticulate, nerve-ending exposed craziness. That’s what I’ve tried to give voice to.”
Through the years, numerous people have approached him, or written, to express how much Rent has meant to them during tough times. “Looking back on how it became a success, I think it filled all sorts of voids, and when things fill a void, in the world of physics, it creates tremendous energy.” Judging by the reaction in Boston, the same can be said for Without You, and its star, Anthony Rapp.
• Anthony Rapp – Without You is on at Underbelly, Bristo Square,Edinburgh, 1-26 August.
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