The first time Anthony Rapp saw the 2021 film tick, tick…BOOM! starring Andrew Garfield as the late Rent writer Jonathan Larson, he felt like he was “encountering a ghost."
“There was a shot of Andrew as Jonathan riding his bike in the streets, and I really thought I was watching Jonathan,” recalls original Rent cast member Anthony Rapp, his voice slipping into that slightly haunted tone of being taken aback. “It was really very moving. Jonathan was quirky and so sincere in my experience—and so alive—and I thought Andrew brought all of those things incredibly to bear in his performance. Every time I've watched tick, tick…BOOM!, it's really devastating to me. I don't know if I can ever be very objective, it's so personal.”
If anyone wondered how important Larson still is to Rapp, they need only hear a name: Rapp and his fiancé Ken Ithiphol recently welcomed their first child, Rai Larson Ithiphol. “When we announced the name, we wondered, ‘Do we talk about that?’” Rapp shares. “I just want to put it out in the world, and people will get it if they get it … Jonathan wound up being one of the most important people I have ever known, he transformed my life utterly.”
Larson is also an important part of Rapp’s upcoming musical solo show Without You at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages (January 14-April 30). And in a feat of scheduling, Rapp is stepping into the role of father and performer within weeks of each other. “I think the hardest is rehearsal, tech, and previews, because those hours are going to be more extended,” Rapp says about juggling the show and being home with Rai. “Once I'm in the groove of doing eight shows a week, the show itself is short. My time away from home won't be that long, really. I think the initial transition will probably be a little tougher for me.”
Based on Rapp’s 2006 memoir, Without You delves into a two-to-three-year period in Rapp’s life. It spotlights his rise from being a broke and struggling actor until he auditioned for a new rock opera, which would turn out to be a landmark musical: Rent. But as his professional stars aligned, Rapp faced the personal trial of losing his mother to breast cancer in May 1997. Rapp has done readings and productions of the show multiple times over the years around the world, including Toronto, Boston, Pittsburgh, London, and Edinburgh. And while it’s been over 25 years since the events of Without You, the memories remain “incredibly vivid,” says Rapp, “I read a book about memory a long time ago … They talked about how when you have these incredibly impactful experiences in your life, whether traumatic or happy, the neural pathways get carved out in your brain. That's what that whole time of my life was like. It's like I could still touch it.”
He never considered adapting the book for the stage until asked about it by a concert presenter on the way to Fire Island. “I didn't know where to begin because it's a very different beast,” Rapp admits. “You don't have as much real estate, time, space to delve. If you introduce anything, you have to earn it onstage. The audience is listening, the audience is watching.” He recalls turning to friend and director Steve Mahler for help refining the work for the stage.
Rapp is returning to Without You now, after so many years, because it gives him a chance to finally perform a run of the show in NYC, which has been his goal for the piece since the beginning. “All along, I was deeply hopeful that I could do a run of the show in New York, because this is my home,” he tells. “This is where Rent took place. It was a real dream of mine to get through a proper run in New York.”
Plans had been in the works for an NYC run of Without You before, but then Rapp kept getting other jobs. First the 2014 Broadway premiere of If/Then alongside fellow Rent star Idina Menzel. After starring in the Broadway production and the national tour, a door to another world opened when Rapp was cast as Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets on the TV show Star Trek: Discovery, now in its fifth season. “The timing became, ‘OK, when I'm doing this TV show, I don't know exactly how much time is between seasons. How do I even try to schedule that?’” he remembers wondering.
Working on the sci-fi show offered Rapp another Rent reunion: the chance to work alongside Wilson Cruz, who had served as replacement for Angel on Broadway. He was cast as Dr. Hugh Culber in Star Trek: Discovery. While very different genres, Rapp shares anecdotally, “There’s a big Venn diagram of people who are both fans of Star Trek and Rent.” And those fans are wondering the big question: When will there be a musical episode of Star Trek: Discovery? “We've talked about it, we've let our show runners know,” Rapp says mysteriously. It would be quite the crossover for Rapp, who wouldn’t be surprised to learn if Larson was a Star Trek Fan: “Somehow, that seems like it would definitely fit. Superbia was a sci-fi musical. It makes me wonder.”
In chats with fans, who bring up Rent as much as they do Discovery to the actor, he’s noticed a characteristic which unites those two bases: “I think that the fans that are drawn to these works generally tend to be the kinds of people who strive for a better world.”
Similar to his fans, the actor has taken actions to make society fairer. As one of the brave individuals to have come forward during #MeToo, Hollywood’s reckoning with sexual misconduct, Rapp has used his voice to advocate for himself and anyone who is dealing with, and working to heal from, trauma. With his insights into the worlds of both Hollywood and theatre, he also thinks there’s an explanation for why a similar reckoning with sexual misconduct hasn’t happened in the stage space yet. “I think there are corridors of power in theatre that are still very powerful,” says Rapp.
While Rapp hopes that our awareness and vigilance today will help prevent future misdeeds, he also reflects on how survivors can heal. “Step one is disclosure. In some ways, first to yourself and recognizing what happened,” he advises. “It's a kind of unraveling process. We survive it, and we're like, ‘Put it away, tuck it away, don't look at it very deeply again.’” Once you can recognize what happened, Rapp says the question is, “What did it do to me that they did this to me?” To do that kind of work requires having a safe space. And in doing that work, Rapp shares the importance of understanding “that there's going to be strange, and not necessarily very logical, fallout that you might experience. It’s kind of long and strange process, in some ways, to understand the effects it's had.”
But for himself, Rapp is eager to move on from the pains of his past. For this moment, he is choosing to soak in the joy of finally being able to perform his solo show in NYC. It’s a shift reflected in his opinions on what place trauma has now, and what place it should have, in storytelling. “We need a much wider variety of storytelling about trans and non-binary folks and their stories. So many stories are still centered around trauma. I think that it's important to tell some of those stories, because it helps open doors to empathy,” he muses. “But at the same time, there are many other ways that trans people are experiencing their lives that aren't just centered around trauma.” While the actor speaks to the place of trauma in current representations of the trans experience, it’s frequent place in depictions of queer experiences also cannot be understated.
It’s why Rapp’s and Cruz’s roles in Star Trek: Discovery is so powerful: They are the first regularly featured gay couple in the Star Trek franchise. And their relationship was simply presented to fans through the heartwarming and domestic scene of the pair brushing their teeth together before bed.
It is fitting, then, that Rapp would bring Without You and his memories of Rent back to the stage between seasons of Star Trek: Discovery; all of those shows are, in Rapp’s words, “pieces of art that celebrate diversity and hope, that are deeply committed to the possibility of us being our best selves, and that are unabashedly heartfelt.”