Anthony Rapp had already achieved some fame on the big screen in movies like “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Dazed and Confused” when he was cast in the pre-Off Broadway workshop production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” But his role as videographer Mark Cohen in the groundbreaking 1996 rock opera proved a transformative one for the young actor.
Rentheads will have much to savor in Rapp’s 90-minute musical memoir “Without You,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s New World Stages. The monologue-slash-cabaret performance focuses on two of the biggest influences in his life and career: Larson, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 35 the night before the first Off Broadway performance of “Rent,” and his mother, a divorced nurse from Joliet, Illinois, who raised three kids and succumbed to cancer just over a year after attending the opening night of “Rent” on Broadway.
Condensing his 2006 autobiography, Rapp offers snapshots of the development of “Rent,” re-creating his audition song (REM’s “Losing My Religion”) and recalling a birthday party that Larson attended where he answered someone asking what he did for a living with the apparently unironic boast: “I’m the future of American musical theater.”
The actor becomes more heartfelt in discussing his mom, who drove him to auditions in Chicago as a kid and who was slow to accept his coming out as gay at age 18. (Rapp makes no mention of his teenage encounter with Kevin Spacey, against whom he filed, and lost, a civil suit alleging sexual misconduct.)
Rapp intersperses his recollections with songs, mostly standards from “Rent” along with a handful of originals (some co-written by Rapp himself) that he performs with a five-member band. His baritone voice seems tentative at first, and some of the keys seem to have been lowered a bit, but he comes into his own in the final numbers, particularly the title song “Without You” that he recalls delivering at his mother’s funeral. Here, he belts out long, sustained notes that stubbornly resist cracking despite the obvious emotion behind them.
Even after 25 years, he can still tap into the raw emotions of his grief — though his account of his mother, and of Larson, sometimes lacks the particulars to fully bring them to life as individuals. (His attempts to mimic her voice are awkward, weakened further by an intrusive sound effect that makes it seem like we’re overhearing a tinny phone conversation.) Indeed, the final third of the 90-minute show mostly recirculates basic maxims of coping with grief and loss (“the only way out is through”) that will seem familiar to anyone who’s stumbled on the self-help section of a book store or library, or spent more than an hour or so watching daytime talk shows.
Whenever things threaten to get too mawkish, Rapp invariably starts up another Larson tune — and the “Rent” song list proves surprisingly resilient for the star’s repurposed ambitions. How can you measure the life of a woman or a man? Larson long ago offered the key: “Measure in love.”