Anthony Rapp explores his life and work, his triumphs and his tragedies, in the solo show Without You at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Photos by Russ Rowland
In the blockbuster musical Rent, Anthony Rapp originated the role of Mark Cohen, a filmmaker who uses his camera as a sort of shield to protect himself from the pain and drama that seems to overwhelm the world he’s documenting. As Rapp points out in his deeply moving musical solo show Without You, now at the Curran Theatre courtesy of BroadwaySF, when he was involved in the first off-Broadway production of Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop, like Mark, he started documenting the process through his own camera – a detail that didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by Rent creator Jonathan Larson.
In Without You, Rapp further cements his role as a documentarian by taking us through those incredible, tumultuous early days of Rent, from a first workshop to that off-Broadway production and, most notably, to that fateful night of the final dress rehearsal when Larson, only 35, died suddenly. It’s a tragic tale, told often, but its emotional impact only seems to grow. Rapp relates a funny incident that happened at a party when a friend met Larson, who told him (probably half-jokingly, half not) that he was the “future of musical theater.” And in many ways, he was. He just wasn’t here to enjoy it or take it another step further.
Rapp was in his mid-20s when Rent changed his life – changed the lives of all the original cast members – and he recounts that time with the measured temperament of the 50-ish seasoned veteran he is, but he captures that youthful joy and then sudden grief with dazzling power.
The tremendous loss of Larson and the subsequent mega-success of his show create a highly emotional journey and give Rapp the opportunity to sing a number of songs from Rent accompanied by a five-piece band.
As if that weren’t emotional enough, Rapp’s exploration of loss and grief extends to his own family. Concurrently with his ever-intensifying Rent experience, Rapp’s mother was dealing with cancer and its various treatments, hospitalizations and life intrusions. He flies home to Joliet, Ill., when he’s able, and (happily), his mom is able to fly to New York for the Broadway opening of Rent. Her section of the story involves original songs, including one called “Wild Bill,” which is the name she gave the first round of cancer, and the wrenching “Visits to You,” a tense, tear-jerking musing on whether a visit will turn out to be the last.
From where we were sitting at Thursday’s opening-night performance, the sound mix in the Curran leaned far too heavily on the band and not nearly enough on Rapp, but in spite of that balance, Rapp’s performance kept the audience, well, rapt.
So much of the show, both the Larson side and the mom side, are about the weight of grief and the ways we can choose to move into it and, if we’re lucky, through it. That weight never goes away, which is probably why Rapp’s story from nearly 30 years ago still feels so potent and powerful. To borrow words from Rent, we seem to need a constant reminder that
There’s only us, There’s only this
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss
No other road, no other way
No day but today
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anthony Rapp’s Without You continues through Sunday, Oct. 22 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 95 minutes (no intermission). Tickets start at $49 (prices are subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.