‘Rent’ Boy: In ‘Without You,’ Anthony Rapp recalls early career with grief and gratitude

Anthony Rapp’s Without You. Photo by Russ Rowland (12)
Anthony Rapp’s “Without You” is at New World Stages through April 30.
Russ Rowland

Anthony Rapp has led an extraordinary, drama-packed life onstage and off. In 1996, the actor/musician originated the role of videographer Mark Cohen in the Broadway megahit “Rent,” and reprised it in the film version. He gained further acclaim in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “If/Then” opposite “Rent” alum Idina Menzel, also on Broadway. Plus countless other roles on stage and screen.

Currently, he plays one half of the trailblazing married gay couple on “Star Trek: Discovery” (Wilson Cruz plays the other half). At age 51, he recently became a first-time father with partner Ken Ithiphol. And of course there’s that headline-grabbing, $40 million sexual battery lawsuit against Kevin Spacey which was dismissed last October.

And now a particularly soul-stirring segment of the actor’s life has found its way to the stage. Rapp is starring in his solo musical, “Without You,” which recounts when, at age 22, he landed the role of a lifetime in “Rent” while navigating his mother’s battle with cancer. The show, which he wrote, has taken up residency at New World Stages Off Broadway, chosen for its intimate setting. By chance, a revival of “Rent” was staged there a decade ago.

“Without You,” based on the bestselling memoir of the same title, vividly brings to life the highs and lows of Rapp’s journey through the show’s march from workshop to Broadway to global juggernaut. Directed by Steven Maler, the keenly affecting show features iconic hits from “Rent,” as well as original songs by Rapp himself, in the rock-infused style of legendary “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson. He even croons REM’s “Losing My Religion,” his audition song for the fledgling musical. Rapp, in fine voice, is backed by a five-piece rock band under the musical direction of Daniel A. Weiss, that’s prominently visible onstage.

The bio-musical grabs audiences from the get-go with a snippet of “Seasons of Love,” a paeon to the power of love and the fragility of human existence. The themes of joy and grief wrestle throughout the briskly paced, 90-minute drama. At times, however, grief gets the upper hand.

The specter of death hangs heavy over “Without You.” In New York City in the mid-1990s, tens of thousands of young lives were being cut short by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including close friends of both Larson and Rapp. Out of the blue, the dramatist died of an aortic aneurysm days before the Off-Broadway debut at New York Theatre Workshop. He was 35 years old.

And then there’s Rapp’s dear mother, who faced numerous surgeries and chemotherapies with gentle stoicism, not unlike her response to Rapp’s declaration that he was in love with a guy. She was mortified her son might contract AIDS.

Rapp is a natural storyteller and does a solid job portraying the various friends, castmates, and family members in his orbit — more of an approximation than a full-on impersonation. What comes through is his intense desire to share his story. The connection with the audience is electric.

Eric Southern’s set is an arrangement of brick walls that serve as screens for David Bengali’s dynamic projections. The collage of New York cityscapes, portraits of the playwright, the theaters, and actual photos Rapp took behind the scenes add much-needed context to the proceedings.

While it’s not a requirement to have seen “Rent” to enjoy “Without You,” it certainly supercharges the experience. When Rapp belts out “La Vie Boheme” and “Seasons of Love,” it’s easy to imagine the spirited ensemble right by his side, adding the glorious harmonies.

Perhaps the most poignant scene is Rapp’s recounting of the first “Rent” performance after Larson’s death. It was a stripped down, concert-like version presented exclusively for friends and family. Fittingly, the shows finale included the lyrics “No day but today.”

As masterfully articulated by Rapp, the retelling brought the audience to muffled sobs. As did the scene where he said farewell to his mother. A compelling case for theater as catharsis, not just for a valiant actor, but for theatergoers as well.

Anthony Rapp’s “Without You” | New World Stages | 340 W. 50th St. | Through April 30 | $79-$149; https://withoutyoumusical.com/ | 90 mins, no intermission