Edinburgh Fringe 2012
There have been plenty of stage and screen stars doing “this is my life” type shows over the years, but not since Elaine’s Stritch’s definitive life story show (which played the Old Vic in 2002 and was recorded for DVD) has there been a tighter written, better directed (Steve Maler), better conceived piece than Rapp delivers here. Like Stritch, it’s a bonus to already know Rapp or Rent, the show that made his name, but it’s not the famous splayed hands, air punches, hops or full body convulsions which Rapp recreates which is the main business of the evening (although it is quite a thing to see him doing them infront of you). It’s a really interesting story well told.
Unlike most musical theatre stars who become icons through one role (Michael Crawford, Michael Ball, Lea Salonga, Patti Lupone) Anthony Rapp is not the kind of person whose voice or presence generates a frisson. He looks, acts and sings like a normal guy: appealing, a little geeky, but kind of like you and me. It was that ordinariness that made his career-defining role as Mark in the 90s rock opera Rent – in New York and London – such a break-through. For the first time since Hair twenty-five years earlier, Rent not only represented youth on the Broadway stage but also ordinary people dealing with the kind of life problems that could happen to anyone, in this case the advent of AIDS. For all its brilliance, like Hair, Rent was never a masterpiece of the genre. But it was an icon. To anyone of the Rent generation, Rapp singing “December 24th, 9pm, Eastern Standard Time” is as distinctive a recording as Crawford whispering “Christine” ten years earlier.
Now, in this invariably fascinating and often touching show, Rapp – supported by a brilliant 5-piece band – tells the story of two near-simultaneous life changing journeys: getting involved with Rent and the death of author Jonathan Larson before it opened, and also the sad demise of his mother from cancer, the slowness of which allowed them to connect at a level they had not previously achieved. The intersection of those stories – seeing his mother sitting watching him in the circle on opening night – is a deeply touching part of the evening.
Constantly underscored with music and with fragments of songs from Rent and elsewhere weaving in and out of his tightly-written narrative (based on his memoir), Without You is much more than a self-indulgent therapy session for theatre geeks or Rentaholics. It is a riveting and moving exploration of the intersection of art and life, the satisfactions of success and the acceptance of tragedy as being an unwelcome but inevitable part of it all.
One could quibble with the big rock number that follows the death of his mother which, although doubtless true to his feelings, deprives us of really engaging with ours; it feels, at least to me, more like a rock response than a human response. But this is a minor doubt in a show which is subtle, sure-footed, tender and fascinating. The only show I’ve seen in Edinburgh this year in which not once did I glance at my watch.
Without You will inevitably receive acclaim when it moves to London next month and doubtless back to America after that. Eighteen years since Rent, Rapp should be able to measure his life in a whole lot more love in the coming months.