Dealing with his work on a then unheard of musical, Rent, and how professional triumph was marred by personal tragedy, Anthony Rapp’s bittersweet one-man show Without You is both a fascinating insight into the birth of one of the best known modern musicals, and a quietly devastating exploration of loss.
In the mid-90s Rapp was a struggling actor who, after a string of small film roles, was reduced to working in Starbucks to make ends meet, when he was offered the chance to audition for the role that was to change his life – the part of Mark Cohen in a brave new ‘rock opera’, Rent. Without You tells the story of how that success was tainted by two separate tragedies – the sudden, shocking death of the show’s originator, Jonathan Larson, and then the slow demise from cancer of Rapp’s beloved mother.
Rapp’s insider’s view of the creation of a groundbreaking musical is fascinating in itself even if, like me, you’ve never actually seen the show he’s talking about (I’m sure fans of Rent will get even more from it). Although clearly filtered through genuine affection for both his colleagues and his craft, the actor isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at the rarefied backstage world, gently mocking Larson’s slightly po-faced conviction that he was ‘the future of musical theatre’ (“why would anyone want to be that?” asks one of Rapp’s bemused friends). It’s also a chilling reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that AIDS, now so often relegated to a ‘Third World’ problem, ravaged whole communities, and that much of Larson’s drive to create his masterpiece came from his own sense of outrage at the death of so many friends. The touchy-feely bereavement counsellor spouting platitudinous comfort may seem too excessively American to British audiences, but there’s no getting around the genuine grief with which such people were trying to deal.
Played out alongside this actor’s life are the universally recognisable scenes of family that may have you leaving the theatre guiltily vowing to phone your mother more often: being too busy to call home, even though you know you should; the terrible frustrations of seeing a loved one sick and suffering; those small moments that take on significance when you realise the time for enjoying them is fast running out.
Ably directed by Steven Maler, Rapp is a likeable and personable performer, skilfully conjuring up a cast of characters that includes his increasingly frail mother and both Larson and his shell-shocked parents, and he is affecting and amusing in turn. Timothy Bird and Ellan Parry’s elegantly simple set allows Rapp to fluidly move from his New York apartment to the Rent set to his mother’s sofa, while never losing a deliberate staginess: Rapp is after all an actor, telling an actor’s tale.
Supported by an onstage band, Rapp uses a mix of his own original pieces, REM’s ‘Losing my Religion’ (his audition piece for Rent and a surprisingly effective opener), and songs from Rent – a brave move which doesn’t always work, as the better known numbers highlight Rapp’s own limitations as a songwriter; and though he is a passionate and often very moving singer, his voice is fine, rather than great, so not capable of camouflaging where the songs fall short.
Not that that matters, in the end: by the time Rapp reaches his rousing finale of ‘Seasons of Love’, only the hardest of hearts won’t have melted. It is the perfect note to end on, because for all that this is a story of loss, it is also about love, and its final message is an uplifting one. Rapp’s mother lives long enough to see her son in a successful show, to come to terms with his sexuality and see him fall in love; she leaves him knowing how much pride she took in his achievements. While Larson’s death was tragically premature, he lived to see the story he put his heart into come to life, and the fulfilment of that dream provided at least some solace for his friends and family. It could so easily come across as a trite message – that we should measure our lives in terms of the love they contain, not the years they span – but in Rapp’s capable hands it feels a true and vital one.