WELLESLEY — “How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?’’
Those resonant words from “Seasons of Love,’’ one of the songs from the musical “Rent’’ that gets under your skin no matter how many times you’ve heard it, shape the implicit question that runs through “Without You,’’ a solo show written and performed by Anthony Rapp.
Rapp, who had a lead role in the original production of “Rent,’’ tries to measure the life of a woman and a man who were dear to him, and his own as well, in the 80-minute “Without You,’’ which is poignant and heartfelt though subject to periods of drift. He explores the experience of loss — an experience whose universality offers little consolation when it inevitably arrives for each of us. Directed by Steven Maler, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production runs through Sunday at Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater.
Rapp originated the role of Mark Cohen, the filmmaker and narrator of “Rent,’’ which premiered in the mid-1990s and went on to become the defining musical of a generation. Casually attired in sneakers and jeans for “Without You’’ and backed by a five-piece band, Rapp blends recollection, reenactment, and song (including tunes from “Rent’’) into a meditation on two major losses in his life: one shockingly unexpected, the other predictable but still devastating.
The former was “Rent’’ composer Jonathan Larson, who had labored on the musical for years while waiting tables to support himself, only to die suddenly in January 1996, at the age of 35, just as previews of the show were about to begin. (The cause was later determined to be an aortic dissection.) The latter was Rapp’s mother, Mary, who battled a protracted illness before finally succumbing.
Rapp’s love for and devotion to his mother are touchingly apparent, and her gentle spirit comes through in his reenactments of their conversations, including her initial qualms about, and eventual acceptance of, his homosexuality. But the sections of “Without You’’ that focus on her are considerably less engrossing than Rapp’s discussion of the early days of “Rent.’’
Then in his mid-20s, Rapp was living the classic struggling-actor life, hoping for his big break. He got it when he was introduced to Larson and asked to audition for a musical the composer was working on, inspired by Puccini’s “La Boheme’’ and set in the East Village amid the specter of AIDS (a disease that had claimed the lives of many of Larson’s friends).
Rapp was dubious at first — “The phrase ‘rock opera’ didn’t exactly fill me with confidence,’’ he admits — but it became clear that he was part of something special on the first day of rehearsal, when he and other cast members sang “Seasons of Love.’’
“I had never heard a song like it,’’ says Rapp. Switching to present tense as he takes us back to that rehearsal, he adds: “Our voices blending, the sound exhilarating . . . Jonathan was grinning like a little kid.’’ Larson was certainly not lacking for self-confidence: “I’m the future of musical theater,’’ he told a friend of Rapp’s. But Rapp also describes how moved Larson was as “Rent’’ took shape, thanking the cast for “bring[ing] my friends to life.’’
He didn’t live to see the blockbuster his creation became. When Larson died, “Rent’’ director Michael Greif canceled the scheduled preview. Instead, the cast sang through Larson’s score for an audience of the composer’s family and friends. In one of the most emotionally powerful moments of “Without You,’’ Rapp performs a snatch of “One Song Glory,’’ from “Rent,’’ which was sung (by another cast member) at that special performance, including the lyrics: “One song/ Glory/ One song/ Before I go/ Glory/ One song to leave behind.’’
Adapted from the book “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent,’’ by Anthony Rapp. Featuring songs from “Rent.’’ Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Additional songs by Rapp, John Keaney, David Matos, and Joe Pisapia. Directed by Steven Maler. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley. Through Sept. 13. Tickets
$25-$60, 866-811-4111, www.commshakes.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.