About a quarter century ago, the musical Rent became a cultural phenomenon for reasons that far exceeded its considerable, if admittedly imperfect, artistic merits. Although the show’s lyrics and melodies still linger in my head from the touring production I attended in the late 1990’s, the sound I recall most clearly is the sobbing I heard all around me as people who lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic collectively mourned loved ones taken by it. For those who had felt alone in their grief, Rent gave them the humane gift of realizing that wasn’t true.
Adding to this emotional weight was the widely held knowledge that Rent had lost its 35-year-old creative force Jonathan Larson to an aortic aneurysm just before its world premiere Off Broadway, a tragedy that, in effect, continues to turn every performance of the show into a de facto tribute to a man whose heart failed his body but never his work. That homage is made explicit in Anthony Rapp’s Without You, a musical adaptation of the actor’s 2006 memoir, which, especially in its trimmed-down theatrical form, more aptly can be described as a memorial to not only Larson, for whom Rapp auditioned to secure his spot as an original cast member of Rent, but also Rapp’s middle-aged mother who died from cancer roughly a year after Rent transferred to Broadway. Rapp lightly details the show’s development and eventual accolades, along with some other aspects of his youth, including living as an openly gay man in New York after relocating from Joliet, Illinois. But, for Rapp, the personal is largely the lamentable, as he affectingly remembers two people fate cheated out of so much time.
While sifting through his memories in Without You, Rapp essentially creates a coda to Rent, not in regards to plot or characters but, rather, in spirit. Visually, that’s mainly accomplished through Eric Southern’s gritty scenic design that, like the sets traditionally associated with productions of Rent, evokes both the dingy reality and romantic myths of post-industrial East Village living, a vibe David Bengali embellishes with projections built around Rapp’s faded snapshots from the years when he was enjoying tremendous professional success while constantly in the midst of tragedy.
But the strongest connection between Rent and Without You is aural as the latter’s score is mostly an assemblage of songs from the former that Rapp and composers David Matos, Joe Pisapia, and Daniel A. Weiss augment with their own rock-opera inspirations. To be sure, it takes chutzpah to invite side-by-side musical comparison between yourself and a Tony winner, an act for which Rapp and his fellow collaborators would merit some biting criticism, if the entire endeavor didn’t spring from such a well-meaning place. Although there’s not much director Steven Maler can do to hide the seams in the score, keeping them visible is actually the appropriate choice.
As his fans know, Larson could express his sorrows buoyantly, with “Seasons of Love” representing the pinnacle of that rare ability. Rapp, on the other hand, lyrically sinks into the darkness with songs like “That Is Not You,” a broken wail about seeing his mother for the first time after she’s passed away that includes the lines “This is not me that’s screaming/This is not me that sounds like an animal.” Early on, Rapp manages some levity in “Wild Bill,” imagining his mother’s cancer as if it were an Old West gunslinger, but that was when Rapp thought she might win the duel. To glimpse the light in the neverending wake of his mother’s death, Rapp now needs to continually return to Larson’s songs, almost meditatively. One senses that will never change.
Even though Rapp is the only person speaking and singing during Without You, to call it a solo show misses the point entirely. That’s not because Rapp has some mystical notion he is summoning Larson and his mother onstage. Rapp reveals his belief in the finality of life when looking back on the moment he learned Larson had posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Rent: “I felt so stupid for caring about an award…As much as I told myself he lived on in his words and music, the truth was he was dead.”
And that’s the agonizing tension in Without You; in his lyrical responses to Larson, Rapp is well aware that it’s not a back-and-forth, that Larson can’t say anything more than he has already. But, just as with Rent, there is still solace, because I’m sure Rapp, the show’s impressive five-member band cozily tucked into Southern’s set, and the production crew could hear what I did in the audience: lots of crying. It came with a palpable feeling of not being alone in your thoughts for the dearly departed, especially those taken much too soon. A generation or two removed from having attended Rent, it was an unspoken bond not only worth revisiting but, if I’m being honest with myself, desperately needed.
Without You (extended through June 11, 2023)
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.newworldstages.com
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission