Sunday, August 15, 2010

Without You, A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent, by Anthony Rapp

"Anthony Rapp captures the passion and grit unique to the theatre world as he recounts his life-changing experience in the original cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent."

This description, taken from the flap copy of the book, does not do it justice and does not let the reader know what kind of emotional ride he is in for.

Rapp gives fans and readers a glimpse behind the scenes of the evolution of a Broadway musical and his professional journey with the show. We begin, through his words, to understand the relationship among the cast, and the relationship that Rapp and the others shared with writer Jonathan Larson. The cast truly becomes a family, a group whose whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. This is evident when Rapp describes the feeling he gets hearing all of their voices and individual talents blending together perfectly to sing the songs from Rent: "And we sang, our bodies pulsing to the rhythm of the song, our voices hushed and rich. The progression of the song felt perfect... our voices growing in passion and volume, the melodies and harmonies taking us to new notes and new heights of emotion."

These deep connections with loved ones and new heights of emotion are evident in Rapp's personal life as well as his acting career. While Rapp is "making it big" in the Big Apple, his mother is back home in Illinois, slowly dying of cancer. Rapp struggles with the demands of his newfound fame, juggling work and family to make repeated trips home. It seems he feels a certain disconnect from his mother and the rest of his family, due in large part to Rapp’s un-addressed sexuality.

Rapp shares with the reader his first homosexual experiences as a teenager and his mother’s unwillingness to accept it as more than a passing phase. Even as an adult, when Rapp begins acting in many small-bit performances in which he plays a homosexual character, his mother tells him she doesn’t understand why he can’t choose to play a “normal person” for once.

Again and again throughout the book, Rapp discovers parallels between Mark, his character in Rent, and his own life. Mark hides from his problems and grief by detaching and documenting life on film rather than immersing himself in it; Rapp does the same by pretending to be someone else in an endless string of plays and acting jobs. Each has trouble speaking up for himself and relating to the people he loves most dearly.

When Rapp’s mother loses her battle with cancer and passes away, and when Jonathan Larson, writer of Rent, passes away as well, grief and loss become another parallel that Rapp and his character Mark must share. As the characters in Rent deal with the loss of their friend Angel in the play, the cast members deal with the loss of Larson, who dies suddenly, at age 35, of an aortic aneurysm on dress rehearsal night—the day before the play is to begin its off-Broadway run.

The most moving scene in the book by far is when Rapp and the other cast members cancel the show’s opening night performance and instead perform privately for all of Larson’s family members and friends, who had come together for this night in celebration but ended up gathered in mourning instead. Here, Rapp uses the grief he feels over his mother’s illness, the loss of Larson, and the grief that is a part of the play itself and blends it all together onstage to carry Rapp and his fellow cast members through the performance.

Rapp describes singing “Seasons of Love,” a song about joy and loss performed at a funeral in the play, for Larson’s parents and loved ones that night: “As we sang ‘Seasons,’ its lyrics resonating through me in a thousand new ways, I began to cry, and my throat began to close up, and then I could hear others in the cast crying as they sang, which made my tears run even faster and hotter. But somehow we all managed to keep singing, we all managed to open our throats back up, and let our hearts up and out through our voices, and we sang about love and joy and remembrance. Gwen Stewart miraculously led us through the final chorus, her voice wailing up to heaven for Jonathan.”

Rapp’s two lives—onstage and off—conflict, overlap, and intertwine with one another until finally they cannot be separated, and Rapp must learn to reconcile the two to become one whole person. Both stories recount a tale of love, loss, grief, conflict, fear, hope, success, uncertainty, and joy. While readers who have seen Rent may be more drawn to the story as fans for the inside look it offers, it is ultimately a story of learning to make sense of life and to find happiness in the world, which all of us can relate to.

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