Anthony Rapp has carved an entire career out of being cast as the original Mark Cohen, the twentysomething videographer who observes and documents his bohemian buddies in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical Rent.
Rapp, a pale actor with reddish hair who still looks boyish at 41, originated the role at New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, then took it to Broadway, and has slipped in and out of character ever since – notably playing the part in the 2005 movie and a farewell tour that passed through Toronto in 2009.
On top of this, there have been Rapp’s Rent spinoffs: Without You, a memoir about being Mark, and a subsequent one-man musical based on his book. A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, the latter landed in Toronto this weekend as part of the new Off-Mirvish season.
At this point, it’s actually rather difficult to discern where Anthony Rapp ends, and Mark Cohen begins.
Mark, in the rock opera, is a narrator, largely passive. White, middle-class and with loving (if ignored) parents, he’s a safe access point for the audience to his much more interesting friends – transvestites, S&M dancers and a sexy guitar player looking to write one great song before he dies of AIDS.
In Without You, Rapp adopts a similar persona – a likeable, but dull, out-of-work film actor almost inadvertently swept up in a musical-theatre sensation. He discusses with detachment the shocking, sudden death of Larson on the eve of Rent’s premiere and the slow, lingering death of his mother from cancer – only really expressing emotion through songs delivered with the pinched petulance that I associate with pop-punk.
Rapp has a distinctive energy, a stillness punctuated by sudden intense gestures that has been much imitated in the body language of post-Rent rock musicals like 2006’s Spring Awakening – a show that is all Marks, no drag-queen percussionists. His semi-repressed whine of a singing voice verges on the irritating, but it’s probably easy to relate to for Rent’s most fervent teenage fans, mimicking the way many of them actually process intense feelings – half-embarrassed and almost against their will.
Despite his perfect fit with the genre, rock opera was “a phrase that didn’t fill me with a tremendous amount of hope,” Rapp says, recounting his audition for Rent. As he relives his younger self’s journey, however, he argues compellingly that Larson’s musical – based on the lives of his Lower East Side friends, and written in the memory of those who had died – was significant.
The song La Vie Bohème, in particular, is praised for its toast “to people living with, living with, living with/ not dying from disease.” It’s useful to be reminded that this is not how AIDS was always seen in the mainstream, and that Rent not only anticipated that view, but helped it gain wider acceptance.
Rapp sings that song – as well as other fan favourites from Rent, mixed in with a few jarring originals, accompanied by a five-person band – and yet his main focus is not Larson’s musical, but how performing in it helped him deal with his mother’s illness.
Cy, a counsellor brought in to speak to the cast, advises him that the only way out of grief is through it: “That’s what hearts do. They break. But if you let them, they break open.” (Though Rapp doesn’t make the connection, this is what killed Larson; an undiagnosed genetic condition resulted in aortic dissection – essentially, his artistic grieving completed, his heart broke open.)
Unlike Mark, Rapp adores his mother and not only answers her calls, but rushes to her bedside and leaves his famous character to his understudy whenever necessary. We don’t learn much about his mother, however, other than how her impending death makes him feel. The tension between the two over his sexuality – another difference from Mark is that Rapp is gay – is brushed over here, unlike in the book; we don’t even learn his mother’s name until near the end.
This leads Rapp to seem a little self-involved – again, a character trait he shares with Mark. And yet, while there is no I in team, there is a me in memoir. Even I, a Rent skeptic, was left moved by Without You and with a greater appreciation for Larson and his musical message of living for the now.