525,000 moments so dear
How do you measure… half a lifetime? That’s how long it’s been”
This is how Anthony Rapp begins “Without You,” his solo show at New World Stages, opening tonight, the 27thanniversary of the death of “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson. Rapp is of course tweaking the lyrics of “Season of Love,” one of the most beloved songs from “Rent,” which Rapp sings at the very beginning, at the very end, and also in the middle of “Without You.” The show, based on Rapp’s best-selling memoir, recounts the exhilaration of his having co-starred in Larson’s hit musical while simultaneously dealing with the traumas of Larson’s abrupt death and the slow death of Rapp’s mother.
Actually, though, the story of Rapp’s involvement with “Rent” begins more than half his lifetime ago. Rapp auditioned for “Rent” at the age of 22. He’s now 51.
And he’s been telling the story for a long time too. His memoir,“Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent” was published 17 years ago. He’s been performing versions of this stage adaptation for some 15 years; he released a “Without You” album in 2012.
Before I saw “Without You,” Rapp’s longevity with this show led me to think about Eugene O’Neill’s father, or at least James O’Neill’s stand-in character James Tyrone from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” James was a promising actor who in his twenties starred in a stage adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which became a huge hit; his son felt he became trapped in the role, squandering his talent by playing the role some 6,000 times over the next forty years.
The analogy is inexact and unfair, for several reasons. Rapp has been on two shows on Broadway since “Rent,” including ‘If/Then’; he launched BroadwayCon, the annual fan convention; he’s been a regular in “Star Trek: Discovery” since the TV series debuted in 2017, costarring as Lt. Commander Paul Stamets, the first openly gay character in the Star Trek franchise.
More to the point, I found “Without You” both moving and entertaining. Yes, without question, this is a feast for nostalgic Rentheads, and for those largely unfamiliar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical but who are simply curious about its composer (perhaps having seen Andrew Garfield portray him in the movie “Tick, Tick…Boom,” based on another Larson musical.) But “Without You” is as much an exploration of grief.
On a set that nods to the one from “Rent” (tenement walls with graffiti/murals; vaguely similar color scheme from the “Rent” posters), Rapp sings many songs from “Rent,” backed by a five-piece rock band, and tells some backstage stories. At one point, Rapp portrays Jonathan Larson introducing some of the musical’s songs at a presentation before the Off-Broadway run:
“I’ve always loved La Bohème, and I’ve also always loved Billy Joel and Elton John and the Who, and I’ve loved Stephen Sondheim and the medium of musical theater. And I wanted to write something that could incorporate all of those influences. Well, a few years ago, several of my friends told me they were HIV-positive. And then a couple of them died. And I realized I had to write something in response….”
“Rent,” we learn, was in part Larson’s effort to deal with his grief. Rapp recreates a meeting that Larson arranged during rehearsals for the cast to meet the head of a support group for those affected by life threatening illness, caregiving and grief. The woman eventually becomes Rapp’s grief counselor when he deals with his mother’s terminal illness.
Among the original songs in “Without You,” by Rapp and three other songwriters, is one called “Wild Bill,” which is the name his mother gave to her cancer, and is more or less a country-western song.
Not all the scenes with his mother are about her illness: We see his awkward coming out to her when he’s 18; there’s a humorous exchange about his downtown theater career (“Why can’t you play a nice normal person sometimes?”) And not all the scenes about Larson are the reaction to his death. But the scenes that deal with mortality and grief are the most affecting, and feel much closer to timeless than the rehashing of the story of “Rent.”
Given how long Rapp has lived with this show, he gives a remarkably in-the-moment performance, as if it’s all unfolding as we watch it, even though he speaks in the past tense. Still, it feels something of a missed opportunity that the show doesn’t reflect the passage of time. Anthony Rapp is a husband and a father now, a middle aged man who is trying to replicate his youth, rather than looking back at it. Such a sense of reflection might have made “Without You” deeper, and even more rewarding.
Anthony Rapp’s Without You
New World Stages, extended to June 11, 2023
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Written and performed by Anthony Rapp
Songs by Jonathan Larson, Anthony Rapp, David Matos, and Joe Pisapia
Directed by Steven Maler
Scenic design by and lighting design by Eric Southern, costume design by Angela Vesco, sound design by Brian Ronan, projection design by David Bengali
Musical Director & Orchestrations: Daniel A. Weiss
Band: Keyboards Daniel Weiss, cello by Clerida Eltime, bass by Paul Gil, drums by Jerry Marotta, guitar by Lee Moretti
Additional Orchestrations by Tom Kitt