BWW Interviews: Anthony Rapp on Love, Loss and WITHOUT YOU
Anthony Rapp is perhaps best known for originating the role of 'Mark' in the Tony Award Winning Musical RENT, a show that focuses on a group of friends suffering through the perils of homelessness, disease, drug addiction, grief, loss and love. Anthony dedicated many years of his life to the music of RENT in one way or another, and in 2006 he wrote a bestselling book titled 'Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical RENT.' The poignant novel examines Anthony's life both before and after RENT, but uses the show's powerful themes to explore some of the more difficult events he experienced, including the death of his mother from cancer and the death of RENT author Jonathan Larson on the eve before opening night.
About a year after sharing his story with the world, Anthony began the process of turning the some three hundred and fifty paged book into a theatrical experience. The resulting show is 'Without You' and has just landed on stage in Toronto after very successful runs in Edinburgh and London's Menier Chocolate Factory. BWW caught up with Anthony to talk about the process of turning his book into a show, what life is like after you lose people you love, and why 'Original Cast Member of RENT' will always be the lead line in his obituary:
Congratulations on the success of Without You! When did you first decide to write the book?
I was encouraged and asked to consider writing it by a publisher. I said yes immediately not really knowing how I was going to do it, or how hard it was going to be. It ended up being the hardest thing I've ever done creatively speaking.
Writing 'Without You' took place over a number of years, with long periods of time where I wasn't writing much at all. And then near the end it all came out in a gush. I had tried so many things over the years, scheduling time to write, making goals or not making goals, but there really wasn't any rhyme or reason to it. It was like a marinade, it was ready when it was ready.
How did you decide to turn it into a show?
The book came out in February of '06 and in the summer of '07 a young producer asked me if I had ever thought about turning it into a show. I didn't even know where to begin so I contacted a good friend of mine and asked what he thought. He did me the great service of helping take the 300+ pages and condense it to around 100 pages. I didn't know where to begin chopping it up and had no objectivity whatsoever.
Once it was condensed I began to see how the show could possibly take shape. We did a reading which was open to the public and I invited people I really trusted like my brother Adam and Michael Greif - people I knew wouldn't bullshit me. I honestly didn't know if it could work as a theatrical event because it's a very different animal, but the response was so positive and every person encouraged me unequivocally to keep going.
What was harder, the book or the show?
The book. No question, it's not even remotely close. I think writing is very lonely, and not just in the 'I feel alone' sense but in the sense that it's a lonely process. As an actor there is a lot of collaboration and having those other minds and hearts helps shape your work. When I was writing Without You I would share some of the material with other people, but it was much harder to get clarity and just go for it. It was a very solitary experience.
You mention in your book how you felt very similar to the character of Mark in your real life - did writing this book help you come out of your shell?
I'm not sure it was a question of coming out of my shell, I don't think I was ever shy. What I meant when I said that was that I often struggled with talking about emotional stuff and I didn't find it very accessible. I was afraid of those types of conversations and feelings more than I am now. When I was writing the book I was never afraid to share, and there was even a certain amount of liberation to the whole experience.
I think the only thing I was afraid of was that I know I have a lot of younger fans and there are some darker moments in the book that I was concerned they might not completely understand. For instance, I once read someone on a message board say in reference to my book that 'beating up your boyfriend doesn't make you cool'. I knew that, I didn't include that because I was bragging or glorifying what I did. I put that material in to show that sometimes we can do horrible things, and have awful things happen and we can still heal, make amends and forgive. So sometimes I'm afraid of misunderstandings, but overall I think people have embraced and understood the material.
The subject matter is very heavy, how do you handle addressing the death of Jonathan Larson and your Mom in your show every single night?
The fact of my Mom's death or Jonathan's death are facts of my life. They're things that I have to live with every day whether I'm on stage or not. There are days where I feel the sadness more keenly and there are days where I just feel fondness, love and gratitude. Sadness over the loss of someone is commensurate with the love that you had for them. Because of that, I'm not afraid of the sadness, it is part of what it means to be alive. Losing people is part of loving people, and I think it's incredibly rare to go through life and never lose anyone.
There are certainly moments where it is heavier than others but I weather that storm, move through it and come out on the other side. It's nothing to be afraid of and doing the show never really feels 'heavy'. It feels intense and rigorous but I feel like it's alive and the people in it are alive to me for those eighty minutes. It brings them to life when I tell their story and I evoke them when I share their voice and their words. I feel close to them and the audience response is enriching and gratifying.
Do you think that the losses you experienced made you more driven? Did it ever make you acutely aware of how short life is and make you want to make sure you accomplish certain things?
Not really, I've always been a very driven person. For me RENT was in many ways the culmination of everything I've worked for my entire life. That's not to say I haven't done other things that I'm very proud of, but I feel like in a way everything after RENT has just been gravy. If I were to die right now, or even twenty years from now, I feel like the lead line of my obituary is likely always going to be 'Member of the Original Cast of RENT'. It will probably go down as the most notable thing in my life.
And does that make you happy?
Sure. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The original cast members of A Chorus Line have gone on to other things but I imagine people will always remember them for that show. I don't think people think of Gilmore Girls when they think of Kelly Bishop - they remember her for being a Tony Award Winner for A Chorus Line. It had a huge cultural impact and was transformative and RENT was as well.
So in that sense the losses I experienced in my life never made me feel like I had to write this book before I died, I feel like almost anything that happens to me from this point onward is just a great thing I get to do. I'm sure other amazing things will happen in my life, but if I died tomorrow I would die happy.
How about regrets? Do you purposely try and live the message of 'forget regret'?
Absolutely. I try hard not to have any regrets. My life is pretty hectic in terms of travel and work and when I'm in these periods where I'm working a lot it can be hard. When I got RENT it was the first time in my adult life where my world became really crazy, and it filtered out people who were more casual acquaintances than true friends. Even now with this path that I've chosen there are certain sacrifices in terms of the amount of time I can spend with my core group of friends, but they understand. The life we live in this business is very different from most human beings in so many ways. I understand that more and more the older I get - the landscape of the world that I live in is very different from 'average'. And sure I've made mistakes and I've hurt people and I've screwed up, but I don't think I have any real heavy regrets.
As you get to have all these amazing experiences in your life, do you ever have a niggling feeling of sadness when you think about things your Mom would have loved to experience?
Sure. I think about her a lot when I travel. She didn't express a lot of regrets before she died but one thing was that she wished she had traveled more. So in those situations I think of her, and certainly around the holidays. She loved cities and she loved to walk, and most of the places I go are great walking cities.
I remember on the first anniversary of her death I was in London doing RENT and that day was in many ways harder than the day that she died. I think that's true for a lot of people who lose someone, because you become acutely aware of how much life has carried on in their absence. Plus it was hard because she wasn't there and I know she would have loved it.
We were also starting to become adult friends, and starting to talk more and become closer. I'm sad that we didn't get to continue that and I think we would have been able to become even more open had she not passed away.
She was with you in Toronto when you filmed Adventures in Babysitting. Now that you're back in the city do you have specific memories of her time here?
She loved it in Toronto. She loved to walk and this is a great city for that so she explored a lot. I didn't have a lot of free time when I was here but I do remember going to those big record stores on Yonge Street and hanging out in arcades at night playing Super Mario Brothers.
For people who don't know the musical RENT or anything about Jonathan Larson or your book, what would you say to encourage them to come and see the show?
When I go to the theatre what I want to experience is heart, soul and truth. I want to feel like life is being reflected back at me. That I can find a mirror of human experience on stage. I feel like my show is that, so if that's something that someone goes to the theatre for than I think they will enjoy my show.
Musicals often don't do that, they're more focused on the glitz and the entertainment value. I think my show is entertaining, but we use music to help tell a story in a way that many musicals don't. I think we are successful in doing that in an effective, moving and meaningful way. I met a couple in Boston when we workshopped there and they had never heard of RENT, didn't know that Jonathan had died and they were very taken with the whole show. They were interested and engaged in the entire story, not just the parts they assumed they could relate to. I think that's encouraging.
When and Where?
The Panasonic Theatre
On now until January 6th
Tickets are $25 to $79 and can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at www.mirvish.com
Without You is the second show in the Off-Mirvish Season. For more details please visit their website here
There are a limited number of $20 rush tickets available in person at the box office two hours prior to the show.
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