NEW YORK — Landing the role of aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen in the new musical “Rent” represented a watershed moment in Anthony Rapp’s career. Within a year, the young actor went from slinging coffee at Starbucks to starring in the hottest show on Broadway.
But Rapp’s joy arrived in tandem with pain. Not only did he and the rest of the “Rent” company famously have to grapple with the death of the show's composer, Jonathan Larson, on the night of its final dress rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop. But as the downtown musical flourished into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, Rapp’s mother’s health was being drained away by cancer.
In 2006, a decade after the show’s premiere, Rapp chronicled his wrenching experience in “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent.” The book went on to become an unexpected bestseller, its success powered by the rabid “Rent” fan base but also admiring reviews that praised Rapp’s unflinching, clear-eyed candor.
Then Rapp and director Steven Maler, the artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, transformed “Without You” into a solo musical. Its latest incarnation comes to the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University beginning Tuesday.
The still-evolving piece, first staged in developmental productions in New York and Pittsburgh in 2007 and 2008, features both songs from “Rent” and original music written by Rapp and several collaborators, performed with an onstage band. Later this summer, the show will travel to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and London's Menier Chocolate Factory.
In an interview next door to the Nederlander Theatre, where “Rent” ran for 12 years before closing in 2008, Rapp says that the parallels between his own life and what was happening onstage in “Rent” were eerie. A rock-opera update of “La Bohème,” the musical centers on a group of East Village denizens at the height of the AIDS epidemic, as death encroaches.
“Everything was so interlaced,” says Rapp, a boyishly handsome 40. “The night after Jonathan died, we performed that show for his friends and family. And so much of what we were singing and talking about in the show was directly related to what everyone in that room was going through at that moment in terms of this great loss we were all experiencing.”
When Rapp eventually set out to write “Without You,” the pain of remembering was often intense.
“I would feel like my head was going to explode. Because for me to write it, I felt like I had to live it again — this moment-to-moment truth of what had happened. And sometimes I couldn’t go near it; the flame was too hot to touch again so soon afterwards,” says Rapp, a quiet and low-key presence. “I would literally write a page, and then I would have to stop for a long time.”
It took Rapp six years to finish the manuscript, but the process was ultimately cathartic. By now, his once all-consuming grief has receded. Still, Rapp — whose older brother is the playwright Adam Rapp — wondered if performing a stage adaptation of “Without You” would reopen old wounds.
Instead, he says, “I feel like every night that I do the show I get to spend time with my mom. So what I’m left with at the end of the performance is this incredible sense of closeness to her. I didn’t anticipate that. I thought it was just going to be the sadness. And certainly there’s sadness there. I miss her. But I feel very connected to her, and I’m very grateful for that.”
To help him adapt his memoir for the stage, Rapp turned to Maler. Rapp credits the director for taking a big risk back in 2002 when he cast Rapp in the title role in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Henry V” on Boston Common.
When Maler first read “Without You,” he recalls, he was astounded by Rapp’s honesty.
“Anthony is really brutal on himself. He really opens himself up and isn't afraid to show his frailty and his weaknesses. There’s very little artifice, and it’s not sentimentalized in any way,” says Maler. “He talks with incredible honesty about how the excitement of his life in New York and the early days of ‘Rent’ almost let him off the hook in a way from the health problems that his mother was suffering through back home.”
In the memoir, Rapp speaks frankly about other deeply personal topics — his family's longtime avoidance of conflict, his mother’s initial discomfort about his homosexuality, his turbulent romantic relationship at the height of “Rent,” and the tensions between the demands of his professional life and his responsibility to family.
“It was very important to me, for better or worse, that it be very warts-and-all,” Rapp says. “I was not going to let myself off the hook.”
Adds Maler, “What’s so wonderful about what happened between Anthony and his mom is that they decided that they wanted to sort of clear the decks with each other and really come to an honest place of understanding about Anthony’s sexuality. In an odd way, the awareness of her struggle coming to an end allowed them to rip off the veneer and to talk about things that they might not have talked about and come to a sense of peace.”
The challenge in translating the book into a show, Rapp says, is that “there’s not the same kind of language of introspection, because it’s a performance. It has to be fully a narrative. So I’m trusting that those introspective things are in there in different scenes.”
That’s also where music comes into the picture, says Maler. “The songs allow us a way to talk about some things that are very hard to talk about,” he explains.
The show features two full songs from “Rent” — “Seasons of Love” and “Without You” — and REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which Rapp performed at his “Rent” audition. About a dozen other “Rent” tunes are excerpted, including a large section of “Another Day.” Rapp also wrote a handful of original songs in collaboration with David Matos, Joe Pisapia, and John Keaney.
“There's an element of the show that’s like ‘Rent’ in the sense that it sorts of blurs the line between that rock-concert energy and aesthetic [and] a theatrical event,” says Rapp, for whom another downtown musical that went to Broadway, “Passing Strange,” was also something of a touchstone.
“I don’t know if I would’ve made it through everything the way that I made it through if it weren’t for ‘Rent’ — because of what ‘Rent’ is about and the support I had with being part of it and the fact that Mom got to witness it,” he says. “It was such a culmination of everything that I had been working for in my career and in my life.”