PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Anthony Rapp

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Anthony Rapp
 
"Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent" is the title of actor Anthony Rapp's autobiographical tome, which has just hit book stores around the country.
Anthony Rapp
Anthony Rapp Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The 309-page book — published by Simon & Schuster — begins with Rapp's audition for the original workshop of the late Jonathan Larson's Rent and continues through the show's chaotic journey to Broadway and the phenomenal success the musical — about a group of friends in New York's East Village — achieved. Rapp candidly discusses his life at the time, including his relationships with various family members and a few boyfriends as well as his mother's battle with cancer and her ultimate, heartbreaking death. Rapp, who was recently seen on screen in Christopher Columbus' film of "Rent," spoke with Playbill.com about his first book, as well as his thoughts about revisiting the role of Mark Cohen for the "Rent" film.

Playbill.com: How did the idea for "Without You" come about originally?
Anthony Rapp: I don't know if you're familiar with the big coffee-table Rent book, what fans calls "the Rent bible." That publisher, Rob Weisbach, started talking to me during the process [of working on that book]. [Rob] had made his name approaching people who are in the public eye and asking if they'd think about writing books — mostly stand-up comedians like Paul Reiser and Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg. Those were some of his earlier books. I said to him, "I'm not a comedian. I don't know what I'd write." [He said to] just think about if there's anything [I'd] like to write about.

I've been a writer since I was a kid, I just hadn't ever really tried to publish anything. We started talking, and [Rob's] father had died of cancer a few years before when he was in his mid-twenties. My mom was still alive at that time but very near the end, the time [Rob and I] first started to talk. He asked me if I would consider writing about that experience, of living with her cancer and then assuming that she was going to die, what it would be to lose her. We started talking about that, and I started to jot some things down, and then she did pass away fairly shortly after we started having these conversations. And, it took a little while for me to find a way to write about it that felt right to him, to endorse me, [to] actually give me a contract to do a book. But, finally, I sort of cracked it, and he did give me a contract. But then it took me far, far too long to actually finish it. In the meantime, he left the company. All these things happened that sort of screwed up the chances of the book ever really getting done or coming out. Ultimately, I had to pay that publisher back the advance, and the contract was void at that point. But I kept writing it. Six years after the initial contract, I finally finished a draft — coincidentally, on the anniversary of my last performance at the Nederlander [Theatre]. I didn't even realize it until after the fact.

Playbill.com: Has it been released by a different publisher than was originally planned?
AR: Yes, now it's for Simon & Schuster. [Originally, Rob] had an imprint at Morrow. Then Morrow was bought by HarperCollins — everything got reshuffled and he moved on from there. . . . When I finally finished the draft, I called him and [said], "Rob, I don't know if you'll still be interested." He was like, "Of course, of course." But soon after that, he went to a different company [laughs], so I didn't get to come full circle with him. He was still involved, but his assistant [Terra Chalberg] inherited it, and that actually wound up being a cool thing because she was very unfamiliar with Rent, and she could be that much more objective about all of the Rent content in the book.

Playbill.com: Had you always kept a journal of your day-to-day experiences?
AR: No, [but] occasionally I would write in a journal a little bit. Playbill.com: You're very open in the book about all aspects of your life. Were you at all concerned about being so open — in terms of the reaction your family might have?
AR: For better or worse, I've always considered honesty to be the best policy. I was just hoping that by sharing some of these things, that it could kind of mirror people's [own experiences]. We're all human, and we all make mistakes. We all do things we might regret. Sometimes, if people can be honest and open about that, I think it can help alleviate some of the pressures we put on ourselves to be perfect — that we're not always going to do the exact right thing.

Playbill.com: Did your family know that you were writing the book?
AR: Yeah. I even told my mom that I was thinking about writing about it. She knew. She was fine. The one person that I can't imagine will ever read it, or if she does read it will be happy about it, is my grandmother. There was an article in the Chicago Tribune when I was in [You're a Good Man] Charlie Brown in the Chicago area, and my brother Adam [Rapp] had a play being done in Chicago at the same time, so the Tribune did a piece on both of us. In that article we mentioned the fact that Grandma had not always been incredibly supportive of her children, and that's why we thought Mom was extra supportive of us. We mentioned the fact that we grew up with not much money because she was a single mother raising us on a nurse's salary. It was actually that fact that kind of freaked the family out more than anything else, the fact that we talked about not growing up with much money. They felt embarrassed by that.

At that point, Adam and I both looked at each other, "What is the big deal?" After the family freaked out, I asked my friends in Charlie Brown, "If you look at this article, what is the impression you're left with?" They were like, "We're left with the impression that your mother did an amazing job raising you." The family was offended that we were talking about her income. At a certain point, you can't be responsible for trying to appease [everyone's] concerns.

Playbill.com: Have you had any reaction to the book from your family?
AR: Only my brother and father have read it at this point. I just got finished books, so I'm going to be sending Anne and my sister Rachel copies. Adam and Dad were both very positive. There were some less than flattering things, but I think there's also some nice things [about my Dad in the book], but he and I have had very frank conversations over the years about all sorts of things, so I didn't expect him to be freaked out by it.

Playbill.com: On a different topic, what are your thoughts about the "Rent" film and how it has fared at the box office?
AR: I remain very proud of the film, and from the early screenings the response that we were getting was so much like the response that we got in 1994 with the workshop and in '96 before we opened. I think we were all really blindsided by some of the intensity of some of the negativity that we got from some critics. It was really split down the middle. I'm not saying it's a perfect film by any means, but there was a degree of negativity that seemed out of sorts, that seemed like we had offended people. I didn't quite understand that. I don't mean offended people because there were gay people in it, it was almost like the people on the left were offended that we were attempting to tell this story in this way. It was shocking to us.

But I've already done a couple of public events for the book at a couple of universities, and just from that alone it's been really invigorating. At the University of Florida, over 1,100 people came to the event, and clearly so many of them were there because of the movie. At least that was something that either rekindled their passion for Rent or that was their first experience of it, but there was incredible response to the material. Even though [the film] did slightly less than 30 million at the box office, which is not very good but it's also not a disaster, there are still millions of people who saw it. And, it will have life on DVD and cable. I just didn't expect it to be quite so vilified by some people. It seemed like some people had been waiting ten years to weigh in on this cultural phenomenon that they felt left out of or never liked. They took the opportunity to tear it to bits. And, some people were intimating once again that the only reason it was ever a hit was that Jonathan [Larson] died, which is such a ridiculous statement. Yes, it did increase the initial publicity, but the show would not be running 10 years later because Jonathan died. It's such an absurd notion, not to mention that it's offensive to his memory and to his family.

Playbill.com: What was it like for you to be able to go back and revisit the character of Mark so many years later?
AR: It was a homecoming. It's the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and to get to do it twice was a gift.

Playbill.com: Do you think you would like to write another book?
AR: Yes, I do very much. I would like to write another book that's not so sad. [Laughs.] I'm proud that it's powerful, but writing it was very hard. I have a new idea that I'm just taking notes on and percolating for a novel that's a lot lighter in tone, and I look forward to it.

Playbill.com: Did your brother [playwright Adam Rapp] offer you any advice while you were working on "Without You"?
AR: Just in the fact that I was struggling so much to get through the process. He'd just try to keep encouraging me to keep writing. He is so ridiculously prolific that that's never a problem for him. He's never blocked or if he is, it's so passing. By the end, it started to really flow again. Back when I was first writing when I was a kid, it always flowed, so it was really confusing to me when I would get so blocked with this. I tried everything. I tried so many different tactics to try and crack it. I wish I could point to the thing that [worked]. At the end it just happened. There were like two or three weeks when I was writing very steadily. I had tried to force myself to follow a schedule. I tried to set goals. I tried to go away. I tried all these things. And then I would write little bits and chunks, little pieces would come out, and then I wouldn't write for months sometimes.

Playbill.com: Do you have any other projects in the works?
AR: It looks like the show I did at NYMF last year is going have a workshop. . . . [It's called] Feeling Electric, a totally original piece about a woman who undergoes electroshock therapy, among other things. It's a really interesting, surprisingly powerful piece about mental illness. It's a musical. I play her shrink. . . . There's another piece that I've been helping do readings of for the past few years that the Araca Group is [developing] called Pretty Dead Girl. We're looking to see what the next step will be with that. I'm really hopeful that something will land soon with one or both of them. [Pretty Dead Girl is] a musical, music written by Ann Marie Milazzo, who I know from Bright Lights, Big City. It's a score entirely written on guitar that has such incredible music. It's a modern-day day New York story about all these different couples finding love in crazy ways. I'd be playing an orderly at a morgue who's a necrophiliac. It's really funny.

Playbill.com: What do you hope people will take away from reading the book?
AR: For people who are young and who have experienced loss, there's very little literature out there that directly deals with that. "Harry Potter" is really one of the only things where there's a young person who's lost a parent or parents that I'm directly aware of. By telling my story, I can maybe bring some comfort or insight or maybe even a little wisdom to people who have experienced that. That was one of Rob's hopes, and I shared that hope.

Playbill.com: Do you feel writing the book brought you some peace?
AR: Yes, absolutely. Especially the fact that it took so long, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. When it was done, it was such a weight off my soul for many reasons.

Playbill.com: Do you think it also helped you come to terms with the loss of your mother?
AR: Yes, absolutely. As I said in the book, though, it's something that's never gone. But I think it did help put some things to rest.

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