July 30, 2012
On the first anniversary of his mother’s death in 1998, the actor Anthony Rapp was walking from Shaftesbury Avenue, where he was performing in the London production of the hit musical Rent, to his flat on the South Bank,“whenI felt the rug pulled from under me”. Rapp, raised in Joliet, Illinois, had been thinking about how much his mother Mary, who died of cancer aged 55, loved travelling and would have loved London. He sat by the Thames “and her death hit me like a truck. I cried and cried. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like it would never end.”
Now Rapp’s solo show Without You, playing on the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, evokes her loss, as well as that of Rapp’s friend, Jonathan Larson. Rent’s 35-year-old creator died from an aortic aneurysm before the musical, based on La bohème and set in the arty Lower East Side of New York in the Aids-shadowed 1980s, opened off-Broadway. Without You, based on Rapp’s autobiographical memoir, folds words and music, including some famous Rent standards such as Seasons of Love. In Boston, where Rapp had performed to an enthusiastic audience — including a group of “Rent-heads”, nearly all female, who applauded hard and queued patiently for autographs later — he seemed emotional.
He is handsome, reed-slim, with tufty strawberry-blond hair, looking a decade younger than his age, 40: the eternal indie kid. His voice cracks as he recalls performing in Rent with both his mother and Larson absent: a moment of personal success counterposed with tragedy.
Doesn’t Without You reawaken his grief? “Emotionally I didn’t know if it would be overwhelming,” Rapp admits. “But it’s the opposite. The memories are joyful, painful, full of life and love. I don’t feel their absence. IcrywhenIperform,it’scathartic. One of the central themes of the show is that ‘the only way out is through’.”
Mother and son “really opened up” to one another as her death approached, the most significant exchanges concerning Rapp’s coming out. When he was 14 she had discovered he was “fooling around” with a 17-year-old fellow high-school student. He came out to her “fully” at 18. “She was a nurse and mostly concerned about my health. She wasn’t religious or thought there was something wrong with me. She had witnessed first-hand the shit going down with Aids and HIV.
“So we knew, from the earliest days, people who were sick or who died. I know some people’s coming out stories are much worse than mine, but it wasn’t easy. It was important, almost an obsession, that I had her blessing before she died and for her to acknowledge why I was publicly ‘out’.”
The conversation “that made the biggest difference” came when his mother said that being gay was “no different than having blue or brown eyes”; afterwards Rapp felt “a tremendous sense of relief and completion”.
Rapp’s parents divorced when he was two: “They didn’t fight a lot but they weren’t super-compatible.” Brought up by his mother, he recalls, when he was 13, a friend at summer camp saying how much he loved Rapp’s “normal” family life, which “seemed so foreign and mysterious”. As a child he mounted puppet shows with chicken bones, knives and forks. He saw a tap dancer on TV and was mesmerised by the performer’s exuberant expression.
Rapp began his acting career in 1981 at the age of 10 (in the Broadway flop The Little Prince and the Aviator). By 16 he had appeared in a play alongside Ed Harris and a movie, Adventures in Babysitting, a modern US classic. River Phoenix was his inspiration: “We were the same age, he was into every project he did.”
Rent — which, after early readings and performances had its off-Broadway premiere in January 1996, the night after Larson’s death — brought Rapp, who played the film-maker Mark Cohen, fame and success. But afterwards he found “every door closed”. He became depressed, which lifted when he got a part in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He knows that he “lost out” on two jobs because the directors identified him with Larson’s musical, “but I think it’s bullshit. Rent was a million times better than both those shows anyway. If I’m defined by it, so be it. It is a fulfilment of everything I built with Mom. She’d invested decades in helping make it possible.”
Rapp reflects that his mother would have “probably been a little concerned” about him exposing their lives in Without You. As a girl she was “physically and
emotionally abused” by her mother, who told her she wished she had never been born: “The fact she didn’t revisit any of that on us is amazing. She vowed she would never treat us that way.” He wonders whether and how Larson’s musical career would have continued after Rent, “when he was at the height of his powers”.
He has left some events out of the show, including the unsupportive boyfriend he had when his mother died. His father Douglas’s behaviour is also excised: Mary Rapp’s dying wish was that Douglas would become closer to Anthony’s older brother Adam (a playwright, to whom the actor is close) and his sister Anne, with whom Rapp has a more fractious relationship.
“Growing up, Adam was the star athlete, I was the actor and she was an ordinary kid. It goes up and down. I don’t know if our relationship will ever be better than it is now.”
Adam and Anne are three and four years older than Rapp, “so my father’s departure was more scarring for them. I asked him if he was going to respect my mother’s wishes. He got angry and railed about what his parents hadn’t done for him. His behaviour makes me miss my mother more because he is never going to be a parent like she was. He’s a nice, smart, interesting, sociable man but he’s never going to be a father.”
Rapp says, smiling, that the father of Michael Quadrino, his partner of three years, is “the father who would do anything for his family: supportive, kind and strong”. Quadrino is 23 and Rapp has never been in a relationship with such a large age gap, “but I’m young at heart”.
Turning 40 was “low key — it’s bittersweet when you’ve lost someone close”; he only feels his age with “the odd twinge” of joints. It’s “tough” being a 41-year-old actor, he says: “I don’t look old enough to be a doctor. I had to grow a beard when I played a dad.”
While he’s in Edinburgh, Born Blue has its premiere in New York. It’s a musical that Rapp has directed (and in which Quadrino stars) about women’s lives at three key historical periods: the Salem witch trials, a black female slave who has an affair with her owner, and a Native American girl in the 1970s. Rapp is also preparing to appear in a musical alongside his former Rent co-star Idina Menzel (of Wicked fame) by the writers of the Broadway hit Next to Normal.
In Edinburgh he hopes that foreign producers see Without You so that he can tour the show, although not to cities where Rent is playing: because he uses some of the musical’s songs, he cannot perform it if Rent is in town. After appearing in a 2009 revival he won’t appear in Rent again (“I’m done”) and has relished playing against type on TV: “It’s good to play villains, although to appear in something like Rent, which you feel is so true, is special.”
At the end of Without You, Rapp looks upwards to the “present spirit” of Larson and his mother (he doesn’t believe in Heaven) and in sign language spells out “I, L, Y”, pointing to his heart: “I love you.” Rapp misses his mother the most because their relationship was deepening as he advanced into adulthood.
He smiles and says softly: “My brother once wrote in a play, ‘Grief does not expire like a candle or the beacon of a lighthouse: it simply changes temperature’.”