Exactly 20 years after his life-changing work in the groundbreaking musical ‘Rent,’ out actor Anthony Rapp — now on tour in the new classic ‘If/Then’ — is older, wiser … and not living in the past
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
For musical theater junkies, Anthony Rapp is American royalty. If Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters are the reining queens, Mandy Patinkin the king and Lin-Manuel Miranda the crown prince, Rapp is an earl if not a duke. He co-starred in the original cast of Jonathan Larson’s Rent — one of those game-changer musicals (like Hamilton! or The Book of Mormon) that impacted the culture at large in countless ways, bringing younger audiences to musical theater while tackling contemporary issues (AIDS, gay romance) in powerful ways.
While Rent certainly transformed Rapp’s life, it wasn’t the beginning of his career… nor anything near the end. He was one of Elisabeth Shue’s charges in Adventures in Babysitting, a colleague of Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and most recently reunited with his Rent co-star Idina Menzel for If/Then, the latest musical from the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning team Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal). While not the huge hit Rent was, consider this: For nearly 20 years, the highest charting Broadway cast recording was Rent; it was finally eclipsed in 2014 … by If/Then. That’s quite a feather in the B’way cap.
If/Then is putatively the story of Elizabeth, who one day is presented with two paths: One in which she becomes “Liz,” and one where she becomes “Beth.” In both timelines, Rapp plays Lucas, her bisexual bestie, whose one life is radically altered by Elizabeth’s choices.
We chatted with Rapp (for the third time) about going on tour again, as well as how his life has changed since Rent and his dedication to LGBT rights.
Dallas Voice: If/Then is about how one choice can echo in unexpected ways. Do you think much about those kinds of dual paths in your own life? Anthony Rapp: I tend not to dwell in the past and live in the moment. But I do really appreciate that the show is so much about the ripple effects of how we all intersect with each other. The decisions you make can have profound consequences on my life… or not. But I think that’s really important to think about. The show makes no moral judgment, it just presents it to make of it what you will. What I do with you, for you or because of you can have a huge impact on [both our lives], and I should take that into account.
Yeah — on the surface, Elizabeth’s choices are at the center of the plot, but Lucas’ outcome is vastly different: In one, he’s a gay dad with an adoptive son; in the other, he becomes a biological father but the pregnancy is terminated. Do you have your own preference for Lucas’ life? Interesting. The experience of playing the Liz [storyline] is a little happier; there are things a bit tougher in the Beth storyline, but they enrich his life in different ways. I really honestly don’t know which is the better outcome, though one is, at least on the surface, a happier ending.
Yorkey and Kitt are two of the most exciting of the new breed of musical composing teams, and of course Jonathan Larson is practically legendary. What are your favorite songs from the shows you’ve done? “You Don’t Need to Love Me” [which my character Lucas sings in If/Then] is a beautiful song. And “You Are What You Own” [from Rent] is a great pop-rock anthem, and written with my voice in mind, which is always a huge honor. It was great how it fit into the arc of the show.
But “Always Starting Over” — while not my song — is [probably my favorite]. It was written for Idina to sing, and as long as I had been with the show, it was one of the last things to go in. I was in the room when Tom Kitt played it for Idina for the first time, and it felt like I was watching history being made. It was like I was in the presence of something special, the missing piece no one knew was missing. And the same thing happened [on Rent] with “Take Me or Leave Me.” For a long time, the script just said “insert song here.” And then Jonathan came in with the song written for Idina. So I got to see Idina have two songs written for her.
You’ve been in film, been in a band, done musical theater… At this point, what do you think of as your profession? I think of myself as “slash” artist: Actor-slash-singer-slash-writer-slash-director. I like doing concerts, too, which is not the same as being a musical theater actor. I don’t write a lot, but it has made a big difference in my life. My book [the memoir Without You, focusing on his experience working on Rent] has had an impact in ways I’ve never expected. I’ve always liked interacting with students, but because of the book I have been invited to many schools to meet [with young people].
In addition [to my career], I’ve long been something of an activist — not the kind Lucas is, in the streets with signs — but I try to use platforms to talk about [important topics]. I’ve always been especially interested in LGBT youth issues, in part because of how Rent reached out to them. The issues have changed in many communities over the years, but are still very serious. And of course I’ve been active in HIV/AIDS awareness, which is in some ways related to LGBT youth issues and Rent.
Speaking of gay rights, how amazing is it still that we have marriage equality now? Incredibly. I was actually shooting an independent film about a gay wedding and we were filming the wedding scene on the day the Supreme Court’s decision. That was pretty fantastic.
You created your role in Rent in your early 20s on Broadway; did it again in your mid-30s as a film; and finally in your late 30s in a national tour revival. How did the experience on that project change for you over time? When we first did Rent, I was going through stuff that was so profoundly intense — the illness and death of my mother, as well as [the death of] Jonathan Larson, my friend and collaborator. The differences between Jonathan’s life and mine was paper thin, which impacted me so much. Then Adam Pascal and I went on a reunion tour. Doing the show again was more about bringing to life the full experience of show and less about myself. It was almost like revisiting a younger version of myself, but I had also settled into it. It’s like a marinade — it just gets deeper and deeper and more flavorful and richer. When it’s good material, like Rent, when you revisit it, it is that much [more profound].
You’ve been a working actor since childhood. How do you look at your work differently now that you’re approaching middle age? This feels like the “bonus round” stuff. Being a part of Rent was the biggest thing I ever did, and everything has been a fallout [from that]. Everything now, it all feels like a continuation of the hard work I put in early on.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 22, 2016.