Nobody could have foreseen the impact that RENT would have when it opened off-Broadway twelve years ago. Nobody, that is, except perhaps the original cast members who took that initial ‘Leap of Faith’ and poured their hearts and vocal chords into what has become one of the most beloved pieces of musical theatre in decades. The rock and roll musical about a family of friends living with addiction, taboo love and AIDS at the end of the 20th century has spawned a successful film adaptation, national and international tours, and a place in the hearts of a new generation of theater goers.
RENT’s original front man, Anthony Rapp, probably knows better than anyone that this musical can impact people like no other. As part of the national tour that camps at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center from July 7-12, Rapp is back in the Mark Cohen role he originated on Broadway. That show just closed last year, but there is no shortage of enthusiasm from fans and cast members alike.
Talking to Watermark from a tour stop in Seattle, Rapp proves that if there is anyone who can provide 525,600 reasons to love RENT, it’s him.
WATERMARK: Although it closed on Broadway last year, RENT is still going strong after twelve years. Why do you think that is?
ANTHONY RAPP: Well, there are a couple of reasons I think. One is the music itself is timeless, catchy and memorable and speaks to the heart. People come and they see themselves in the characters, and the great themes of love and loss and community really speak to people. They find enormous inspiration and heart and soul in this piece all these years later.
What makes you still want to be a part of it?
I have been working professionally since I was nine years old (laughs), which is a long time— almost three decades now—and it’s the piece that speaks most to my own heart. Everything that I get to say and do on that stage is something that I believe in. Audiences, too. As we’re going around the country the response has been consistently incredible, and so it just keeps giving back.
How many of Mark’s trademark red and blue sweaters have you gone through over the years?
Not that many really—maybe five. There are two that I rotate in the current production, and I think they’re only like the fifth and sixth I’ve worn. Come to think of it, maybe not even that many (laughs).
Were you happy with the film version?
Yeah, overall. I mean there were nitpicks, but it is very hard to translate something and to try to find the best way to do that; to take something from the theatrical version into a cinematic version. I do think it captures the true heart of the piece, and I think that it’s been really great to introduce people to RENT who might not otherwise have seen the show. Now they come to see the show because of it.
Aside from Adam Pascal and the others who are touring with you, how often to you see or talk to the rest of the original Broadway cast?
The people that I have kept in touch with the most over the years are Daphne Rubin Vega, who played MiMi, and Jesse Martin, who played Collins. But there’s always a sense of a web tying us all together. Taye (Diggs) and Idina (Menzel) came to see the show in L.A., and that was really very touching to us. Idina said that one thing that struck her seeing it again is the music. We’re so accustomed to the music, but to an audience member it just works magically together— especially pieces that weren’t in the film. Idina was just blown away by that again.
What was it like for you writing your memoirs, Without You: Life, Love and Loss in Stages? Did you have any regrets after putting it all out there?
No (laughs) I didn’t. Right before it came out, it occurred to me that many of my fans are pretty young. There’s nothing extensively graphic, but I do refer to some sexual experiences and stuff and I’m like, ‘Well… they’re going to be reading that.’ But there’s nothing I can do about it now (laughs). I just wanted to tell the truth, or as much of the truth that I could find in myself, and I tried to tell it the best I could. But sometimes life is complicated and messy.
I read that you put together a one-man show based on the book?
I did that last fall in Pittsburgh and it went really, really well. I didn’t know if it was going to be too hard, but it actually was really special. It was very meaningful, and it actually made me feel very close to my mom because I was literally having conversations with her onstage. It’s a funny thing because I understand that it’s an intense journey that I’m asking people to take in a theater, but the response was so strong. They were willing to take that journey, and I’m hopeful that they’ll get to keep doing it.
Where do you think LGBT rights stand today, compared to twelve years ago when RENT opened?
When RENT opened I got to meet Evan Wolfson, who’s been on the forefront of the marriage movement. At that time there was certainly no state that had marriage at all, and now we have several. So that is certainly progress. Of course there is backlash, and the Prop 8 situation in California was very unfortunate. But a long time ago I heard a man named David Mixner speak; he was an advisor to President Clinton. Something that he said that I think is so true is that whenever there is backlash, it is proof that there’s progress because there is something that they have to lash back against.
Where do you think we’ll be in another twelve years?
It’s hard to predict, but it’s dominoes at this point. I don’t know if we’ll have full federal recognition by then—maybe not—but more and more states will have it. I think it’s just a matter of time for New York and New Jersey. Probably Illinois is not that far behind, and I think California will come around again soon. At a certain point there will be critical mass.
What is the best thing about touring with the show?
Among the best things is the company of the people that I’m with. It’s a great group of people, on and off stage, and we really take care of each other. We have a weekly poker game that has become a touchstone for those of us who play. It’s a great way for us to come together every week because everything else is changing all the time.