‘Without You’ Review: Anthony Rapp’s Seasons of Love, and Loss

Anthony Rapp’s show “Without You” is, in part, about the genesis of “Rent.” It is opening Off Broadway on a symbolic date: exactly 27 years after both that hit musical’s first public performance at New York Theater Workshop, and the death of its creator, Jonathan Larson. That’s 14,201,280 minutes gone by, 14 million moments so dear.

As Rentheads will know, this number riffs on a famous lyric from “Seasons of Love,” the runaway anthem from “Rent” and now from “Without You.” That song pops up a few times over the course of the new show, and it still has the power to spur a Pavlovian lacrimal reaction, especially in the context in which Rapp (who originated the role of the aspiring filmmaker Mark) employs it here. Some of the moments he reminisces about are not so dear, because “Without You” is largely about death — brutally unexpected for Larson, and gruelingly protracted in the case of Rapp’s mother, Mary, who had cancer.

For decades now, seeing “Rent” has been something of a coming-of-age rite, a gateway for young fans not just into the wondrous world of musical theater, but into adulthood — exposing them to gritty subject matter, helping them come to terms with who they are or might be. It played a similar role for Rapp, as he explained in “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical ‘Rent,’ ” which came out in 2006. He turned the book into this play with music in 2008, performing it in other cities before finally making its way to New York, where it’s playing New World Stages, directed by Steven Maler.

Before getting to the last two elements of the book’s subtitle, it’s worth noting that the theatrical version mostly skips the romantic side of the “love” part. The memoir did not offer much by way of introspection on the subject, but there were glimpses into a personality that appears more complicated, darker even, than the one we get onstage.

It is clear that being cast in “Rent” was a turning point in Rapp’s career, even if he was not quite the bumbling beginner he suggests. Yes, he was a 22-year-old actor with a day job at Starbucks, but by the time the director Michael Greif cast him in the “Rent” workshop, he had already been in three Broadway shows and a few movies — one of the first things Larson told Rapp was that he’d liked him in “Dazed and Confused.”

“Without You” opens Off Broadway exactly 27 years after the first public performance of “Rent” at New York Theater Workshop.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“Without You” is at its most engaging when delivering a quasi-documentary look at the musical’s early days. Rapp performs the song he did for his audition, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and we hear a snippet from the demo cassette Larson gave Rapp so he could learn a number for his callback. Hearing the late composer’s own voice is quite affecting, and there is a surreal quality to the scene.

Backstage stories have a built-in entertainment factor, and Rapp’s reminiscences have an in-the-room immediacy and enthusiasm. Add the very real artistic and commercial impact of “Rent,” and it’s easy to forgive him for overstating how edgy the show was for its time. After quoting a lyric from “La Vie Bohème” that reclaims slurs for gay men and lesbians, for example, Rapp quips we wouldn’t hear it from Andrew Lloyd Webber. Maybe not, but “Hair” was no slouch when it came to profanity, slurs, drugs and sexuality. And at least that show did not rhyme “curry vindaloo” with “Maya Angelou,” as Larson did.

The composer’s abrupt death from an aortic aneurysm after the first dress rehearsal has entered musical-theater legend, and while Rapp was understandably devastated, “Without You” is, just as understandably, more poignant when he’s dealing with his mother’s yearslong decline. The actor recounts frequent trips to Joliet, Ill., where Mary lived, and re-enacts phone calls in which he plays both parts of the conversation (though in general he struggles to differentiate women’s voices, which all end up sounding the same). He also punctuates his mother’s side of the narrative with songs he co-wrote, mostly in an amiable indie-rock vein (the music director Daniel A. Weiss leads a punchy five-piece band from behind the keyboards). But it is hard to step away from the shadow “Rent” casts, then as now, on Rapp’s life: He circles back to that show with a rendition of the number “Without You” at his mother’s memorial. You would have to be made of stone to not be moved.

Without You
Through April 30 at New World Stages, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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