In a one-man show based on his memoir of the same name, Anthony Rapp relives both the glory and pain he experienced while starring in Rent.
When the curtain falls on Without You—the next offering in the inaugural Off-Mirvish Series, following the critically adored Terminus—you’ll leave the theatre with a mix of emotions, but one thing, at least, will be clear: Jonathan Larson was an amazing writer. He even makes Without You‘s only performer, Anthony Rapp, pale in comparison.
Larson’s is one of the most legendary tales in modern musical theatre. In the early 1990s, he wrote a contemporary rock opera based on Puccini’s La Bohème, inspired by the AIDS epidemic, and in honour of the friends he lost to the disease. At the time, both the style and subject matter were unheard of. But the night before Rent was to open off-Broadway in January 1996, Larson suddenly died from an aortic dissection at the age of 35. Now, of course, we know that the show earned Larson a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, would go on to a Broadway run lasting 12 years, and would effectively change the way the world thought about both musical theatre and AIDS. And after seeing Without You, we also know that its heart-wrenching ballads can still yank the tears right out of an audience’s eye sockets, even when performed by a single member of the original cast.
Anthony Rapp has made almost an entire career out of his starring role in Rent as Mark Cohen, an indie documentary filmmaker. Rapp played the role since an original staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop, then off-Broadway, on Broadway, in the 2005 movie, and on the national tour that came through Toronto in 2009. In 2006, he wrote a memoir titled Without You, after one of the musical’s songs, and now he’s touring with a one-man show of the same name, directed by Steve Maler. (It was a hit in Edinburgh and London.) In both the book and the show, Rapp uses Rent to link the experience of losing Larson with the death of his mother, with whom he was extremely close, of cancer.
Backed by a live band, Rapp takes us through his journey, from his first audition in front of Larson to his mother’s funeral. Initially, Without You is captivating because of the clash between the skepticism Rapp (and the rest of the world) felt about Rent and our knowledge of what the show became. When the part with Larson’s death inevitably arrives, Rapp’s insider details and first-hand account of opening night are deeply moving. And all of this is punctuated with his performances of cherished musical-theatre classics like “Life Support,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Halloween,” “Finale B,” and “Seasons of Love” (complete with the signature spotlights across the front of the stage). It’s a Renthead’s dream come true.
Rapp is equally—if not more—passionate when it comes to his personal loss and the original songs that let his own emotions take centre stage. It’s not hard to empathize with his pain and be moved by his story. But his straight delivery is subdued, even as he puts his songs into emotional overdrive. This places a lot of pressure on his songwriting skills, which, unfortunately, don’t measure up to Larson’s.
While imperfect as a standalone production, Without You is a must-see for any Renthead or Larson-Lover in the GTA.