It's September 1994. A handsome New York City Starbucks-slinger and struggling actor with light hair and a powerful voice has just realized he's going to be late for an audition. But he gets the part, and the play goes on to make history.
So begins Without You, Anthony Rapp's new one-man musical detailing his time playing "Mark" in the original cast of Broadway smash Rent and the significant losses that colored the time for him: the untimely deaths of both his mother and Jonathan Larson, Rent's composer. Without You, based on Rapp's memoir of the same name, makes its world premiere at City Theatre, where Rapp starred in a hit 2003 production of rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Many of the songs in Without You are from Rent, and the action focuses on that Tony- and Pulitzer-winning show, a rock-opera update of La Boheme about young friends living in the East Village at the start of the AIDS era.
"If you have an affinity for Rent, there would be an initial door that would open for you," Rapp says after a late August rehearsal, curled on a sun-drenched bench outside City Theatre. But it's no greatest-hits hodgepodge, and even though some of the Rent material may seem dated -- AIDS isn't quite the death sentence it once was, and it's faded from the headlines considerably -- Without You feels current.
"The themes [of Rent] still resonate," says Rapp, 37, who also starred in the film version. "It was very much of the moment, but I don't think it's lost to the moment."
In Without You, Rapp, backed by a four-piece band, reprises some of his character's songs from Rent, and performs other songs from the show and his own new, original music.
Without You's themes -- loss, hope, learning to face death with grace -- are pretty universal too, whether you're a Rent freak or not. Likewise, Rapp's mother's death from cancer informs all the action.
"Writing the book was part of its own process of trying to find the words," says Rapp, the brother of novelist and playwright Adam Rapp. "Now, it's like literally reliving it. It's powerful."
Rapp says the process was cathartic. "I was afraid of death and didn't want to think about it and shoved it away. Now there's really nothing I'm afraid of, so I'm grateful for it," he says. "One of the things I wanted to accomplish was honoring the way she went about leaving. Grace is a good word -- I hope I'm able to capture some of that here."
Grace, and humor: The highlight of the rehearsal was a rollicking juke-joint song called "Wild Bill," which is the name Rapp's mother bestowed upon a tumor that burst and brought attention to the cancer that eventually killed her.
At one point in the rehearsal, director Steven Maler asks Rapp to punch up his portrayal of his own mother in the scene where Rapp phones her to say he's gotten the part in Rent -- directing Rapp in not only his own words, but his own life.
"It's a little odd sometimes," Rapp allows. "Steve and I have been friends for a long time, so I trust him. It would be much harder to do this piece if it were someone other than him. I have to have true safety and trust."
Rapp says he thinks he's avoiding the solo-show trap of devolving into a cabaret-style exercise in navel-gazing.
"I know one-person things can be indulgent. I'm well aware of that! As long as people feel like they can take something from it, I'm very grateful."
Without You Thu., Aug. 28-Sept. 21. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $35-40. 412-431-4400 or www.citytheatrecompany.org
- From Rent onward: Anthony Rapp (center) consults with director Steven Maler in a rehearsal for Without You.