We all know about how Jonathan Larson, the author of Rent, died suddenly the night before the show premiered Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop. It's the stuff of theatrical legend, and probably the most heartbreaking theater story since Gower Champion died on the opening night of 42nd Street.
Anthony Rapp, who originated the role of Mark in Rent, was going through his own personal tragedy amid the tumult of the show's headline-grabbing debut and subsequent Broadway transfer: Rapp's mother was becoming increasingly ill with cancer. In 2006, Rapp published Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent, a book about how the three events - Larson's death, the heady success of Rent, and his mother's illness - came together in an emotional whirlwind.
Well, Rapp is after all a musical theater performer, so naturally the idea arose of turning the book into a stage show, and that show - called Without You and featuring songs from Rent and additional music and lyrics by Rapp, Joe Pisapia, and John Keaney - was presented two years ago at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
The show is currently playing a one-week engagement at Boston's recently renovated Modern Theatre, under the direction of Steve Maler of Boston's Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and I had a chance to see it a few nights back. I was really impressed, both by the show itself and by Rapp as a solo performer. I've always found the character of Mark in Rent to be rather underwritten, and I don't think Rapp really had a chance to show what he was capable of, at least not either time I saw him in the role.
In Without You, Rapp has a chance to shine not just as a singer - and Rapp is one hell of a singer - but also as a sincere and appealing performer. Particularly remarkable is the way he personifies, even embodies, the various people in his life, including his family members, Rent director Michael Greif, Jonathan Larson, Larson's mother and father, his Rent co-star Daphne Rubin-Vega, and most movingly his mother. Rapp portrays these various personalities with humor and compassion as he effortlessly shifts among the various personalities in telling his tale.
Without You is extremely heartfelt and for the most part well-crafted, at least for the first 60 minutes of the 90-minute show. Given the somber subject matter, it's also refreshingly free of treacle and bathos. The new material is never less than serviceable and frequently inspired, including a delightful song about Rapp's burgeoning love affair during the run of Rent. However, the show becomes somewhat attenuated toward the end, using three songs to convey the story's denouement, where one or two would probably have sufficed. The evening could easily be 10 to 15 minutes shorter and just as effective, if not more so. Still, Rapp overcomes any repetition with great heart and honesty, and by the end I was actually honored that he had allowed me to share in his journey.
Without You plays through Sunday, June 24th at the Modern, after which it will play the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Unless you're planning on hopping the pond, you might want to catch one of the remaining Boston performances.