It was only a couple weeks ago when I reviewed an overall disappointing production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, so I find with a certain degree of coincidence that I’m reviewing Without You so soon afterward, causing me to reflect deeper on a show that I already know way too well.
By the time I moved to New York City in 1998, Rapp had left the groundbreaking rock opera Rent, but I was already very familiar with his performance, having listened to the cast recording numerous times, imagining how he moved, emoted, and embodied the character of Mark Cohen.
I didn’t see Rapp live on stage until he played Charlie Brown the following spring in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
The Little Round-headed Kid was a bit different than Mark, but after seeing Without You, I get a sense as to why Rapp took on that role as his next major project.
Without You, based on his memoir of the same name, features Rapp giving an intimate retelling of his time in Rent and how his time working on the musical informed him and guided him as his mother, Mary Lee Baird, was slowly dying of cancer.
In telling his story, Rapp layers his honesty and sincerity with passion and fondness. It drips close to the edge of sentimentality, and spends a fair bit of time there, but never so much that it makes the show feel saccharine.
If Rapp had just told his story of being in Rent I probably would have come to that conclusion. But, the inclusion of his mother’s last few years makes the story more personal. Not to say that Rent and Rapp’s involvement in the show isn’t personal. This is a family member, and someone whom Rapp has a fondness and intimate remembrance for.
Still, the stories of Rent are enjoyable to listen to, and any Rent-head will get a kick out of hearing them, from his performing his audition song for the show, singing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” to his first impressions of meeting other Rent alum like Daphne Rubin-Vega and Adam Pascal.
Most important is his meeting the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, and the impact Larson as a person and the show affected Rapp.
He recounts events like the cast singing “Seasons of Love” for the first time, attending Larson’s “Peasants Feast,” a Christmas potluck Larson held every Christmas and how, while preparing for his role in Rent, attending the support group Friends in Deed, which was the foundation of the group Life Support in the musical.
It was these Friends in Deed meetings that hold a certain significance especially as his mother’s health wanes.
There are some dynamic moments in Without You. Rapp’s retelling of Larson’s death and the aftermath is emotionally riveting. Particularly how the first performance after Larson died, instead of a traditional performance of Rent, the cast gave what started as a more intimate seated performance for friends and family of Larson, which evolved over the night.
It’s the small moments, though, reflecting on his mother that hit me hardest, probably because my own mother has COPD and doesn’t likely have more than a few years left herself. It made the show deeply personal to me and as much as I found sentimental attachment to the Rent stories, the stories of Mary Lee Baird were the ones that hit hardest.
Rapp expresses a mix of affection for his mom as well as guilt because his mom lives in Chicago. Of the different characters he embodies in the show, he vocalizes and expresses her with a fragile tenderness.
Musically, you’re going to hear a lot of Rent, arranged by Tom Kitt, with a splash of several other original pieces for the show which thematically fit comfortably in with Rent.
If this had been simply a show of Anthony Rapp talking about his time in the show Rent, I would have said, if you’re a fan of the musical, you’d get a kick out of seeing Rapp relive his memories, and as it did for me, remind me of why I fell in love with the musical half a lifetime ago. With the added emotional layer of his mother added to the story, Without You hits on a deeper level and becomes a story that people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in Rent can still find something to connect with.