Anthony Rapp Speaks About Larson’s Legacy and His Own at PAC Event “Without You”
By Joanna Reid
Anthony Rapp, an American actor and singer who originated the role of Mark Cohen in the Broadway production of “Rent,” put on his one-man show, “Without You” at Adelphi’s
Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Sunday October 16. The show is based on his autobiography, which discusses his experiences in “Rent” and meeting the play’s creator and Adelphi alumni Jonathan Larson for the first time. The Delphian had a chance to meet with Rapp before his PAC show for a one-on-one conversation in which he spoke about his work in “Rent” and how his legacy will coincide with Larson’s.
Q. In your book, you mention the first time you auditioned for “Rent” and Jonathan Larson was in the room. What was your immediate impression of him and his work?
Rapp: For my first audition I wasn’t familiar with his work per se, but my first impression of him was that he seemed very young, especially relative to other composers that I had met in my work as an actor. So he struck me as being very young, really affable, friendly, warm…and he was tall and he was kind of hunched up in his seat. He was friendly, outgoing and warm and sometimes writers in theater can be a little shy or reserved or formal and he was not any of those things.
Q: What were your experiences like working with Larson? Were you able to go to him for feedback a lot?
Rapp: He was really generous with his sharing of the process. We would have lunch. He invited me to his apartment, would play me songs and talk to me about the process of writing it. I was very touched by that. I thought it was so cool that he involved me to that degree. The way that he spoke, not just to me personally, but the cast about why he was writing it, where he was coming from. He extended himself in a way that I found to be kind of unusual and special and referred to it in a way that he wanted us to become his friends and his family. All of this was so personal to him and he wanted it to be personal to us as well.
Q: In your own words, what does Larson’s legacy mean to you? Do you feel that your legacy and his overlap in any way and what do you hope your legacy will be?
Rapp: I think Jonathan’s legacy is a lot of things. One of the things that stands out to me the most is he considered himself as an artist to have an obligation to talk about the world he lived in, in a way that would shine a light and make a difference, that would shake things up, that would make people think newly or differently about issues that they might be afraid of or want to look away from. He wanted art to confront life and he was unabashedly anti-cynical in his work; he was unabashedly hopeful. If you strive for something higher than just your individual needs, if you strive for the greater good, if you strive to build community… like “Louder Than Words” at the end of “Tick, Tick, … Boom!” That is so authentic to who he was, so his legacy is using art to make a difference, while also always going back to the most authentic principles and core values that animated his desire for a fair and just world. I feel like I share that in many ways with him. That is very much what I would like my legacy to be as well. I'm an artist. I strive for my art when possible to be the kind of art that does make a difference. And that I try to use my platform, such as it is to shine a light.
Q: We have a lot of LGBTQ+ students here at Adelphi. As a queer person yourself, is there anything you wish to tell queer youth who are maybe struggling with their identity?
Rapp: I know the world is better in so many ways in terms of overall acceptance, overall support, especially among young people, so I hope that they can feel that. At the same time the backlash has gotten really intense more recently, so I hope that they can find support systems to keep themselves safe and well in the face of that backlash. Even when there is backlash there is a sign of progress. Living your authentic self is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Q: Do you think that Larson contributed to helping queer people through representaion?
Rapp: One hundred percent. It’s not just queer representation, but also awareness of AIDS and HIV, especially at the time. I remember so vividly a letter from a young woman who lived in a southern state. She wrote that she had never met anyone with AIDS or HIV. She saw “Rent” and she was moved to her core and then she sought out and volunteered at her local aids hospice after that. That’s one person who said that. Any number of people who didn’t write that letter who did similar things in their lives, rippled out over the course of the past 26 years; the impact is incalculable.
Q: Is there anything you wish you could say to Larson? Maybe now that Rent is a hit success or now that the “Tick Tick …Boom!” movie has been released?
Rapp: When I see “Tick Tick …Boom!” I am so heartbroken to know that he was contemplating giving up. I’m so grateful that he didn’t. I would just like for him to celebrate the impact that he’s had.
The day after this interview, Rapp’s “Without You” was performed to a nearly sold-out crowd. The show told a touching story that underlined the theme of letting one go through the death of both Larson and his own mother. Rapp explained that after Larson had written “Rent,” he had completed his life's purpose and he was ready to pass on. Rapp used songs from the play in a new way to highlight Larson’s legacy, repeatedly singing the infamous lines, “there is no future, there is no past” to move through the different times in his life. He also sang the line, “I die without you” to prove that the people who cherish Larson’s work are what allows him to live on.