nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 29, 2010
Longtime readers of this website will likely remember that I was a big fan of Rent; I saw it more times than I can recall, at least three of those with the original Broadway cast, including Anthony Rapp. So I was really looking forward to seeing Rapp's new autobiographical solo show, Without You, in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It's based on his memoir of the same title and tells the story of a two-year period in his life when two momentous events happened. First, he starred in Rent, from its workshop to its off-Broadway mounting at New York Theatre Workshop and then its triumphant Broadway run; famously, the author of Rent, Jonathan Larson, died just a few hours after Rent's final dress rehearsal at NYTW. And second, just a year after that, Rapp's mother became ill with cancer and passed away.
So Without You is, as its title suggests, a musical about grief. But, true to the legacies of Larson and his mom, Rapp's show is also very much a celebration—of them, of his own talent, and of life itself.
Rapp narrates these chapters of his life directly and more or less chronologically, with disarming sincerity and simplicity. I particularly enjoyed his account of the genesis of Rent, though I wonder if someone who's never seen it (or didn't see it with Rapp in the cast) will get as much out of this part of the show as I did. For me, the streamlined tale of Rent's journey from a quirky masterwork by an unknown composer to a bona fide phenomenon was fascinating and full of very pleasurable nostalgia, especially as Rapp recreated various moments from the show—the title song (here with original lyrics that were later discarded), "La Vie Boheme," "What You Own," and the show's signature songs, "No Day But Today" and "Seasons of Love." Rapp's performances, often just snippets, nevertheless pressed all my buttons and made me remember, vividly, the original production 14 years ago. He's in great voice and his renditions of these still feel fresh and electric, especially "La Vie Boheme"; even the opening bars of the show's score deliver goosebumps.
Rapp is backed by a fine five-member band, led by musical director/keyboardist Daniel A. Weiss. The arrangements recreate the original sound of Rent exquisitely.
This is not a gossipfest but rather an earnest and touching account of his friendship with Larson and his role in a musical that, in retrospect, feels both revolutionary and hopelessly of a time long past.
The other part of Without You, about Rapp's mother, strives to do something similar, but he doesn't supply a huge amount of back story or context, and though we get the idea that he loved his mother deeply, we don't know as much about his relationship with her and his family as we do about Rapp as Mark, the narrator and key protagonist of Larson's opus. So this part of the show doesn't compel in quite the same way. Rapp has written (with collaborators David Matos, John Kearney, and Joe Pisapia) half a dozen new songs for this part of the show, but they're overshadowed by Larson's work. One of the new songs, "Just Some Guy"—about Rapp's romance with a playwright named Todd—is quite lovely, but this storyline is generally undeveloped. Another, "That Is Not You," contributes powerfully and surprisingly to the narrative.
NYMF is well-known as a laboratory/proving ground for new musicals, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Without You moved on to more life after its presentation here. If Rapp finds himself back on Broadway, I'd certainly want to see him again, because I feel fortunate to have seen him in Rent years ago and felt fortunate again spending some time with him this evening, looking back.