“All I knew about ‘Rent’ was from the description in the casting sheet — a new rock opera based on ‘La Boheme’ about a group of friends in the East Village. The phrase ‘rock opera’ didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. My character, Mark, was a ‘videographer.’ There was also a drag queen, a rock musician, and a drug-addicted, HIV-positive S&M dancer.”
So explains actor Anthony Rapp in “Without You,” his uneven but heartfelt and well-meaning one-man show based on his 2006 book of the same name, which interweaves his experience in the original cast of the groundbreaking 1996 rock musical “Rent” with the simultaneous illness and loss of his mother. It is as much a monologue as it is a eulogy.
I first saw Rapp perform “Without You” back in 2010 at the now defunct New York Musical Theatre Festival. (At some point, I also listened to a recording of the show, which is accessible via music streaming services.)
In November, just days after the conclusion of a highly-publicized trial involving Rapp and another famous actor, and right before Rapp and his partner became parents via a surrogate, it was announced that he would star in a new Off-Broadway run of “Without You.”
As Rapp took the stage at my performance, he received vigorous applause and cheers from the crowd, which I must assume consisted of many former “Rentheads.” I myself am a former “Renthead” who listened to the cast album virtually every day at the age of 14.
As I once told Rapp during an interview, whenever I went to see “Rent” later on during its long Broadway run, I could not get his voice from the cast album, so vibrant and driven and nerd-chic, out of my head. It was as if Rapp was still in the show. (I finally got to see Rapp play Mark when he and Adam Pascal returned to the production in 2007.)
“Without You” is at its best when Rapp relives his journey with “Rent,” including his audition (singing “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.), the workshop and rehearsal process, the loss of writer Jonathan Larson on the eve of the first Off-Broadway preview performance, and the show’s acclaim and fast transfer to Broadway. Backed by a five-piece band, Rapp also sings through a generous portion of the “Rent” score.
The show is less compelling when Rapp focuses on his relationship with his mother (frequently recreating their one-on-one conversations) and performs original songs by himself and others (which easily suffer by comparison, being shoehorned next to “Seasons of Love” and “One Song Glory”).
One comes away from “Without You” feeling appreciative of Rapp’s vulnerability, direct narrative storytelling, and sweetheart persona — and longing for a revival of “Rent,” which ought to take on new meaning and urgency following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Without You” is on view now at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street. More info at withoutyoumusical.com.