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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: RENT's iconic Anthony Rapp
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: RENT's iconic Anthony Rapp
by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

The name Anthony Rapp may not be recognized at first, but the face that goes with it should be. His appearances in movies like Adventures in Babysitting, Dazed and Confused, Twister and Six Degrees of Separation should bear the first signs of recognition, but if you saw or heard anything about a phenomenon called RENT, then his classic spiked red hair, rim glasses and iconic black and white scarf will be the first thing that springs to mind.

Being one of the few actors involved with RENT from the first workshops, Anthony Rapp continued with the show through Off-Broadway, Broadway, London and the show's winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But there have been speed bumps on the road to success. Not only did RENT's author Jonathan Larson pass away before the first Broadway night's opening, but Anthony also was dealing with the dual conflicts of great personal success and suffering while watching his mother slowly lose her battle with cancer.

The current tour of RENT boasts not only Anthony Rapp repeating his triumphant role of Mark Cohen, but he shares the honors with co-stars Adam Pascal (Roger Davis) and "Season of Love" soloist Gwen Stewart. In anticipation of the tours' run through Seattle (June 16-21, Paramount Theater), the Seattle Gay News caught up with Anthony Rapp. Eric

ANDREWS-KATZ: You started acting early on stage in Oliver! and in the movies with Adventures in Babysitting. Your career has continued on both fields. Which venue do you prefer? ANTHONY

RAPP: I prefer live [stage] performance because it's the best way for me to connect with an audience. It tells the whole story from top to bottom. I also like the challenge of having to do the performance over and over with the same intensity each time. If the show is long running, then there's the longevity of being in a company of actors that become your family. On film, though, you get to be in something that can last forever.

ANDREWS-KATZ: Even before you starred in RENT, you were on Broadway in another Pulitzer-nominated play, Six Degrees of Separation, and eventually did the film version, as well. When working on John Guare's play, were you aware of David Hampton, the real-life con man that inspired the play?

RAPP: Yes, I was. I don't know when it was, exactly, or at what point I became aware of it. It [the story] broke fairly early in our run on Broadway, so I became aware of him pretty early.

ANDREWS-KATZ: When you auditioned for RENT, you sang REM's "Losing my Religion," and since then you've said you have an association with this song. Do you find your connection to be with this song, this group, or with music in general?

RAPP: All of the above, actually. I was doing the song as an actor's exorcise prior to my audition for RENT, about finding a musical hero [Michael Stype] and trying to find in you what makes him heroic. I very much connected to his passion and his being a political activist. I was very inspired by the music itself. I've always loved rock 'n' roll more than music from the theater, so it gave me a chance to imbibe that kind of music for my audition.

ANDREWS-KATZ: From the first notes at the first workshop reading of RENT, you said you knew something special was happening. Can you explain that feeling?

RAPP: "Seasons of Love" was the first thing we heard. I just think that most people who love RENT love the song "Seasons of Love." It's hard not to be moved by that song. The beginning is so simple and yet elegant in those opening chords of the song. I remember thinking, "Oh. This is something really special."

ANDREWS-KATZ: RENT went from a workshop to an Off-Broadway hit, and then to being a worldwide smash sensation and winning the Pulitzer Prize. Aside from cast members, what major changes have you noticed from theatrical workshop to big screen film?

RAPP: I didn't really notice the changes. What I try to do is embody the truth and spirit of what we did in the theatrical version, but what the film demanded more of was gritty truth and honesty of the characters. It's a different medium. [Director] Chris Columbus felt that some of the clarifications needed more explaining in the film than on stage. Jonathan Larson [author/composer/lyrics] did a lot of work between the first workshops and the Broadway opening, especially the relationship between Maureen and Joanne. The changes helped it become a stronger piece.

ANDREWS-KATZ: RENT is credited with changing the face of musical theater, much like HAIR did in the '60s. How do you think RENT achieved this, and does the show still hold its relevance 13 years later?

RAPP: I'm very biased. I think both things are true. Among many things, RENT opened an entirely new generation to musical theater. It's perfect that music can communicate the show's meanings much more powerfully than words alone. Judging from this tour's responses, it's just as relevant - if not more so - because of today's economics, and others have compassion for those in crises. RENT speaks very eloquently about how a community faces its turmoil and crises. People are saying that in some ways, at parts of the show, it is even more moving than originally. It's also really cool to witness that RENT is becoming a true classic.

ANDREWS-KATZ: Jonathan Larson was the author/composer/lyricist of RENT, a man you worked with from the beginning of the show. Sadly, he died the night of the dress rehearsal from an aortic aneurysm. Why do you think the rumors started that he died of HIV complications?

RAPP: It's an honest mistake from what people hear. People associate his death with his work and his work dealt with the subject of HIV/AIDS. It's become kind of an urban legend that because the show deals with the struggles of HIV/AIDS, and since he died so young, people had become accustomed to young artist's dying of HIV related causes. It's an honest mistake.

ANDREWS-KATZ: Is there any one line or song from RENT that holds personal relevance for you?

RAPP: Almost everything in the show. I consistently get to express my truest feelings about the world in the show over and over again. & When Jonathan died, everything about Angel's death resonated with Jonathan. As I get older, the ending of the show's two lines ["I die without you" and "No day but today"] gets to me. The lines are not separate; they overlap, but they don't cancel out each other or their meanings. It's true and powerful.

ANDREWS-KATZ: At the height of your Broadway success in RENT, your mother was losing her long battle with cancer. How did you handle the juxtaposition of your success and grief?

RAPP: Sometimes, not very well. I just try to keep one foot in front of the other and keep my head above the water. I felt very lucky to be involved in a show that could give me an avenue to express some of my pain and grief on a nightly basis. I felt fortunate because in our culture there isn't always a lot of room for people to be able to go through their emotional upheavals. RENT was such a fulfillment for me, and for my mom. She was such a supporter of my career. I took comfort that she helped me in getting there.

ANDREWS-KATZ: In your book Without You, you tell about a letter you received from a young boy struggling with coming out of the closet. How do you feel about being looked at as a Gay role model?

RAPP: It's an honor and privilege and I try to do the best, to give the most honest, most constructive advice I can. The true, unfortunate reality is that as far as the popularity goes, I get almost too many of those letters. But I do try to reach out to all those who reach out to me. In the last 13 years [since RENT premiered], there is a huge difference in the way young people come out. It's a very different experience today for many young men and women.

ANDREWS-KATZ: The movie version of RENT contained 80% of the stage production's original cast. Since the original cast became so close, did you ever find yourself getting protective or defensive with the two new cast members?

RAPP: Not at all. There was never a need for that. Everybody put our heads and hearts together to create our own ensemble. Nobody had anything to prove either preexisting or coming into the new cast.

ANDREWS-KATZ: Despite a large following and Academy nominations, the film was not considered nearly the success it was on stage. Do you think the movie lost any of its impact moving from stage to screen?

RAPP: No, it's a funny thing. The film was a huge success at the Chicago premiere. On its opening day, it made the equivalent of if [Broadway's] Nederlander Theatre sold out every day for two years. The movie has introduced many people to the music, and they come see the stage production because of the movie. It didn't have the same impact as in 1996, but it still made a difference in many people's eyes. At the screenings, people went bananas for it, so I was a little surprised by the overall response.

ANDREWS-KATZ: Many people don't realize that Robert De Niro was a producer of the film. Were you aware of his presence at all during the filming?

RAPP: He wasn't really involved on set. It was his company that first procured the rights, but what he was doing was more on the sidelines

ANDREWS-KATZ: Going from the lead role in RENT to the lead in the Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is quite the jump. How did you approach the two roles, since they are so extremely different?

RAPP: Charlie Brown was something that I grew up with. I played Snoopy in the musical when I was a kid, so I already had a relationship with the show. I was happy to do the show with fewer demands than RENT had. RENT is very high-energy, and the grind can wear on you. Charlie Brown was after my mom died, so it was something that she had seen me do when I was a kid. It held a special meaning.

ANDREWS-KATZ: Currently, you are touring with two other original RENT cast members. After so many years between working with your main co-star Adam Pascal, do you find yourselves immediately falling back into your roles, or does it take a little time to get the synergy going?

RAPP: We fell back into our rhythms pretty quickly. I think there are new layers and colors that we added and we have a symbiotic relationship. I wouldn't want to do the tour without him. It wouldn't be the same.

ANDREWS-KATZ: You have a CD out entitled Look Around, consisting of more contemporary music. Do you have any desires to branch out into solo performances or concerts, or do you prefer theater and movie work?

RAPP: I've done concerts and I'd like to do more. It's hard to schedule it, getting my band together. I doubt that I'll be booked into a [Broadway] show that uses a four-piece band in the show. My album is a blend of rock 'n' roll and theater styles, and that's what music should be moving into.

Anthony Rapp was born in Joliet, Illinois and won awards for his singing as early as junior high. In 1987, he appeared in the movie Adventures in Babysitting, directed by Christopher Columbus, who would later direct him in the film version of RENT. When not touring with Adam Pascal and Gwen Stewart in the current production of RENT, Anthony is working on an adaptation of his memoir Without You for the stage as a one-man-show.

Jonathan Larson based RENT on Puccini's La Boheme. Modernizing the character's names and changing the setting to New York City's lower East Side, the rock musical deals with a group of friends trying to survive in a world of drug addiction, corporate takeovers, homelessness and HIV. The musical ran for over 12 years on Broadway, winning major awards, including the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
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