The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Anthony Rapp’s Without You
How do you measure this crazy emotional lifetime that Anthony Rapp (Broadway’s If/Then) has formed to tell twenty-seven years since the death of Rent composer Jonathan Larson? The “Seasons of Love” that lives strong in the lyrics, planted beautifully in that epic song, ring true as Without You, his off-Broadway solo show that is being presented with gusto at New World Stages, comes into life before us. It drives forward with a rock opera rhythm and robust feel, sharp but not so subtle from the get-go, digging hard into a past that brought this man such joy, yet also layering in sadness and grief about a man he idolized, and a mother lost to cancer.
It, and every moment when Rapp recounts with pride and exhilaration his involvement with the musical Rent, feels achingly connected and emotionally pure. Tears run down my face as he unpacks his heart about a project that he relishes, from the first audition, for which he dazzles us with a rendition of “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M., to the final chorus of that same song at the end of his 90min one-act show, with musical direction and orchestrations by Daniel A. Weiss (Broadway’s Taboo). But here’s the problem with the show. And I feel somewhat guilty saying this. The most moving parts are pretty much only about Jonathan Larson, their friendship, work relationship, and his untimely death, and when Rapp tries to shift the focus onto his own grief, around his sweet-sounding complex mother who most sadly died of cancer, the effort feels forced and almost uncomfortably so. He’s a fine storyteller, but not an elegant or complex writer, especially when he formulates and sings the country song “Wild Bill“, the name he has assigned to his mother’s cancer, against a backdrop of projected cowboy imagery and disconnecting graphics.
Based on Rapp’s memoir, “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent” which was published 17 years ago, he is gunning to tell us the tale of his participation in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning, Rent, and his connection to Larson, while also unpacking and layering in the advancing illness of his mother. Anthony Rapp’s Without You finds engagement, quite profoundly, on a deep emotional level whenever he voices the words and ideas of others. But doesn’t exactly connect when using his own. Like when Rapp delivers Larson’s beautifully touching speech made at a dinner table with all the newly formed company of Rent. That reenactment and all the other Rent/Larson moments elevated the emotionality of Without You, coerced tears of sadness from my eyes, breaking my heart and taking me back to that moment when I first saw this beautiful show in 1996 at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre. Larson’s story is moving and as utterly sad as Rapp delivers this tale forward, particularly when he portrays Larson introducing some of the musical’s magnetic songs at a gathering before the legendary 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.”
A completely moving moment, that is for sure, registering grief and loss from the first bars of the score. It makes sense, that Without You, as directed by Steven Maler (Commonwealth Shakespeare Co’s Birdy), is formed around loss, and in that safe, nostalgic framework, with a set etched from the same handbook of the musical, designed solidly by Eric Southern (ATC’s Tell Hector I Miss Him), who also did the lighting, grief can be revealed and worked through. Pointed moments are brought forward. Some threads are exposed, with a few never finding their way back in, like many of the other actors who also were in the show, and that is a shame, but the focus is on Larson, and Rapp, without any of the other fine actors that graced that stage. With pointed costumes by Angela Vesco, an uneven sound design by Brian Ronan (Broadway’s Some Like it Hot), and some historic projections by David Bengali (Broadway’s 1776), those engagements and constructs around Rent are everything and more, even with those holes. The sadness and loss are complete and powerful, even as we are aware that it is Larson who we are connecting to and feeling for, with Rapp being the conduit, one step removed from the beating core. And when it veers off the nostalgia track into a wider exploration of grief and familial loss, the piece loses its inventive rhythm and connective tissue.
The story of mortality, loss, sickness, and the death of his mother is tender and heartfelt, but, and I feel terrible saying this, as the loss of a loved one is forever terrible and heart-breaking, remained one step emotionally removed. As a storyteller, in this arena, the writing felt overly simplistic and without nuance or the poetry that is displayed when Rapp discusses Larson and Rent. I feel for him, but within the construct of the show, his personal loss somehow never really enters my heart in the same way as when he utilizes Larson’s words. Even when the woman who eventually helped Rapp deal with his grief and the loss of his mother felt like an oversimplification of a journey that is never that tidy. Holding those two realities the two discussed together is a wonderfully powerful symbol and idea, yet one that feels like it would be harder to hold than what is presented here. It seems clear Rapp’s mother, even inside her tender difficulty with Rapp’s sexuality, meant the world to him, and the loss of a person that dear is devastating, I am not sure he was able to pull us into the uniqueness of that unfolding in the same emotional way he was able to in his rehashing of Rent, which is an uncomfortable thing to witness, fathom, and understand.
I couldn’t help but be confused by this lopsided emotional response, but in those musical Rent moments, when he did a reprise of “Seasons of Love” once again, I longed for the rest of the cast to step out of the shadows and join him in the storytelling of the making of Rent. To return the musical to its originating family, and for the collective to layer their voices once again so that this great song could fill the space with that same magical love, sadness, and celebration that I experienced back in 1996. As a performer, Rapp’s voice is solid and true, but singing a song that was originally sung by a company of actors makes one realize that a singular voice doesn’t do it justice. Nor does Without You, with songs by Jonathan Larson, Anthony Rapp, David Matos, and Joe Pisapia, do justice to his mother or the strong emotional memory of Rent. I am so sorry to say. I think I would rather watch the documentary, 25 Years of RENT -Measured in Love, one more time.