Anthony Rapp discusses ‘Rent,’ writing and ‘Next to Normal’

Anthony Rapp in Without You

Anthony Rapp in Without You

Ever since he burst onto the Broadway scene in Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning hit RENT, Anthony Rapp has been a fan favorite and an unstoppable creative force. His memoir, Without You, inspired him to create a one-man musical of the same name. The Tony Award nominee (and the author of Stage Door Dish’s very first book club selection) took some time in between touring with Without You to talk to Stage Door Dish about RENT, Next to Normal, his journey as an artist and that infamous blue and white Mark scarf.

SDD: I hear you have been touring a lot promoting Without You. How has that been going?

AR: It’s been going very well. We weren’t able to do New York for a while because of a couple extenuating circumstances, but in the meantime I was able to get it seen in some really cool places like London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Toronto. It’s going well and it’s been received in a way that has been beyond what I expected, especially in London. You may or may not be aware, but the London critics weren’t totally receptive of RENT back in ’98 when we opened there. I was fully expecting them to be grumpy about my show as well. We did get a couple grumpy critics, but the vast majority was very positive and the audience response was really great. I felt very fortunate for that.

SDD: That’s fantastic. I saw it back in 2010, when it was in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Has it evolved a lot since then, has it been a sort of process, and has it changed over the years?

AR: It has been tightened up and it’s been trimmed. There’s a new design- it’s still very simple and I don’t think there will ever be an elaborate design. For instance, there are more chairs and the chairs are varied. There’s a chair that is essentially my mom’s chair, like a comfy chair that you’d find her house. There is a table for when I do the sing-through of RENT there’s a metal table that’s evocative of the original RENT tables. The band is on risers in a sort of semi-circle enclosing the space. So it’s a little more designed, but it’s still very simple and elemental.

SDD: What inspired you initially to write your story the way you did in Without You and to share it?

AR: I don’t know if you are familiar with the big RENT coffee table book. We all were participating in that book, and that publisher, when he was working on it, talked to me and asked me if I had thought about writing anything. That’s sort of one of the things that he has made his career doing, approaching people that were in the public eye to some degree and talking to them about possible book ideas. For whatever reason, I was one of the people he talked to about that. But I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about. I’ve written since I was little kid, but I never tried to write a book and as we were talking, my mom was still alive, but she was in the last months of her life. The publisher’s father had died of cancer when he was in his 20s, so we talked to each other about that. He asked me if I would consider writing about my experience with my mom and so I said yes, not knowing exactly how I would do it but wanting to try. Then we sort of started figuring out what the structure of it could be. I started writing and it just took forever to finish, because it was really hard. And then finally I finished way too late relative to what my initial deadlines were, but it all worked out.

SDD: Did you find it was a cathartic process?

AR: Yeah, I guess. It was mostly just a painful and difficult process. Once it was done, the rewriting phase was much easier and not as tough. Once it came out, it was very free. It’s out in the world, it’s like a child I helped raise and now it’s doing its own thing. Books live forever in this weird way. At any moment, somebody might be reading it right now. I still get messages from people on Facebook saying they just read it, or on Twitter, and that’s pretty crazy. It was a long time ago, I don’t even remember everything that’s in the book. If I were to reread parts of the book now myself, I would be like “Oh yeah, that!” It’s weird.

SDD: Would you say that seeing your book touch people is one of your most gratifying moments in your career? What has been a really gratifying moment?

AR: I have been very fortunate to have many things that people have taken into their hearts. But yes, it’s a different kind of personal achievement. So its been very gratifying that. With the book, I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of what people would make of it. So I was so pleasantly surprised when we got really nice reviews and the kinds of things people have said to me over the years about how it’s helped them through things. That’s the reason why I said yes when my publisher and I were talking about me writing it. There was very little literature about young people going through something like this. We were hopeful that it would be a resource for other young people who might be facing really difficult circumstances like the loss of a parent. The kinds of things people have shared with me over the years has been really amazing. I am very gratified for that. I never would have expected anything like that, because you just never know what people are going to make of what you do.

SDD: What does it feel like to be such an iconic representation of RENT and this mega musical?

AR: It’s sort of like dual reality. On the one hand, I’m a person that with fourteen other brilliant, talented actors – and with Michael Grief, the director, and with Tim Weil the musical director, and Jonathan Larson and all the staff – we got together for a number of weeks, and we rehearsed it, and we poured our heart and soul into it. We helped make it what it was. So it all feels very real, and it’s like nuts and bolts. It’s like we did the hard work involved, and then we were met with the incredible response. So in that sense it feels like any other part of my life. At the same time, on the other hand, I do recognize that it’s an extraordinary situation. It’s extraordinary what this show has achieved in the world – the difference that it’s made, and the numbers of people that it’s reached, and the amount of time that it ran on Broadway. So there’s this part of it that does feel larger than life. So it’s both. It feels very, very close to my experience and also like this weird, abstract thing. When you start talking about millions of people, it’s hard to contain those numbers in terms of what that actually means.

Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal reprise their original roles in RENT

Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal reprise their original roles in RENT

SDD: As an artist, what has the experience been like to play Mark Cohen at different times in your life? You were in the original cast and you also reprised the role years later. Has it changed your perspective on what Mark is going through? Has it felt like a different emotional experience?

AR: It felt different as a personal experience because of what I was going through with my mom when I was first doing the show. So much of what Mark was going through was so immediately happening right to me right then as well, so it was so close to the bone. It was like all my nerve endings were exposed and it was really raw. And then coming back to the role was like revisiting a younger version of myself in a way too. Its like things had settled deeper into my bones. Part of what I think can happen as an actor is that things continue to sort of marinate. Different flavors emerge and the complexity of the flavor emerges, and what people told me when Adam [Pascal] and I went back to the show in 2007 and then the tour, is that they felt like we both had gotten even better in the roles. That was really meaningful, because we are artists and as artists we want to continue to grow. It was nice to know that we weren’t just repeating something, we were continuing to bring it to life and that was very nice to hear. It definitely also felt less exhausting, because back then everything was happening at such a high pace and it was so crazy and what I was going through with my mom was so intense. So going back, I also felt like it could really be that much more about just telling that story and fulfilling that role and fulfilling the world of the show.

SDD: Do you ever see any of the other productions of the show that are going on right now across the country, like community theatre and school productions?

AR: I have seen a bunch of them. It’s interesting. There are times when I want to punch them and times that I want to hug them. I don’t just mean the people playing Mark, I mean everyone. There have been some really special things that I’ve seen and some things where they have missed the mark, no pun intended. It’s a grab bag but it’s a classic part of the American canon now, so it will continue to be produced for a very long time.

SDD: I know you directed the show in South Africa. What was it like to see it performed in different countries? Does it have a different cultural impact or is it universally received in different countries?

AR: It’s hard for me to say that it’s received in the same way, because each culture probably does have a slightly different response to it but there have been some places where it’s been really, really successful and there are other places where it is not that successful. The only place where I have seen it in another language was Argentina and that was probably the best other production that I have seen of it overall. There was an incredible feeling to it and the singing was fantastic. It was very passionate and very alive and urgent. The musicianship was great. It had something special. I mean, there were things that they did where the staging was kind of weird, but there were other things that they did staging that was cool. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it was really special. I found it very beautiful in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish but I knew what they were saying and what was happening. The music worked really well in that language.

SDD: Do you have the original Mark scarf that you wore in 1996?

AR: I do. It’s got a big hole in it. The first scarf was pretty thin and skimpy. In the years since then, they have made the scarves a little longer and puffier.

SDD: That’s interesting to know that it has evolved. A lot of people consider RENT a period piece. Do you think this is true? Has New York changed since then?

AR: It’s very much a period piece, because it’s about an era in New York when the East Village was a certain way. The East Village has changed tremendously since then. I was living in East Village and I was witness to a lot of the changes, and the HIV/AIDS community has changed tremendously in the wake of the cocktails. RENT came out right before the newest HIV/AIDS treatments that have extended people’s lives by huge magnitudes. That is a very big difference in the face of AIDS and HIV in this country – it’s still much more dire in some parts of Africa and other developing countries where they don’t have access to the medications. It is a document of a time where in New York City, if you were a young person who contracted HIV, sometimes you would die. I had a friend who died when he was 26 years old, and that just simply will almost never happen now. Also the face of East Village – you know, there are condos where there were tenements before. Even if they’re tenement buildings they’ve been converted into condos. So, the economic system and the numbers of artists living in East Village has changed tremendously.

SDD: Benny’s vision was correct?

AR: Yeah, it was.

SDD: What was it like to be a part of Feeling Electric and to see it morph into what it is now as Next To Normal?

AR: I was really honored to be asked to write the introduction to the published version of the Next to Normal script. To be a part of something new and innovative in musical theatre that has a profound impact, not only once in my life, but to do it twice is remarkable. And to know that Tom [Kitt] and Brian [Yorkey] were so directly inspired by the work that Jonathan [Larson] had done on RENT, the full-circle nature of it was wonderful. Next To Normal deals with difficult subject matter and it has an unusual structure. It’s certainly not a happy-go-lucky musical theatre experience. It’s like a play set to music. And for that to have been met with the kind of success that it’s been met with is so gratifying. It just validates that you can go at things with those kinds of artistic ambitions and that they can be met with success. It really validates a very strong set of beliefs that I have that were certainly confirmed by RENT’s success and again by Next To Normal’s success.

Without_You_Selects_04

Anthony Rapp in Without You

SDD: Do you have any unusual or hidden talents or hobbies?

AR: I don’t think this is that unusual, I know many actors who do this, but I really like to play poker. I’ve had a little bit of success at it, but I’m certainly not playing with high-stakes craziness. But I don’t know if many people know that.

SDD: I didn’t know that.

AR: I know a lot of fellow actors who play poker, so I don’t think it’s that unusual.

SDD: On that note, what would people be surprised to know about you?

AR: Maybe that. You were surprised to know that.

SDD: Stage acting or screen acting?

AR: Stage.

SDD: Do you have a favorite word?

AR: No, I don’t have a favorite word. Do you have a favorite word? Does anyone have a favorite word?

SDD: I do not have a favorite word. Do you have a favorite curse word?

AR: Favorite curse word is f**k. F**k or f**king or f**ker – some variation of it.

SDD: What is your current obsession?

AR: I love really good video games. I just played this incredible video game called Bioshock Infinite and I am sort of obsessed. I mean, I am reading everything I can about what went into making it. So that is one of my current obsessions.

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which would you choose?

AR: I don’t know the names of his songs but Justin Bieber’s songs.

SDD: I support that notion. What is the last great show you saw on stage?

AR: Once.

SDD: Who was the last person to make you feel starstruck?

AR: David Byrne.

SDD: If you could trade places with anyone on Broadway, who would you choose?

AR: If I could play the guitar well enough and if I could achieve the kind of performance that Steve Kazee achieved in Once, I would be a happy man. I thought he was so extraordinary.

SDD: If you could play any role in RENT besides Mark, who would it be?

AR: I’d say Roger but I can’t sing it – it’s too high.

SDD: What is the funniest backstage moment you’ve witnessed while working on Broadway?

AR: I don’t have any funny backstage anecdotes. I think it’s more of what happened on stage than backstage.

SDD: Was there a funny on stage incident that’s happened?

AR: There’s several. There was the night that we were off-Broadway in RENT, and “Without You” started. It begins with that very quiet acoustic guitar arpeggio and there’s a scene of dialogue between Mimi and Roger, and then Mimi takes out her drugs and throws them away. It’s this rare quiet moment in the show. So one night the guitar arpeggio’s happening, Daphne [Rubin-Vega] is sitting there looking at her drugs, and the bass player was getting his bass ready and he dropped it. So it clanged against the music stand and everything fell and made this huge noise. I thought that was pretty funny.

SDD: Which Broadway star would you most like to have a drink with?

AR: I’d be really curious to see if Fiona Shaw is cool, because she is an amazing actress. I would love to talk to her.

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less?

AR: Intense, easygoing, passionate, smart, nerd.

About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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