By Fabrizio Almeida
“Sorry, we are out of ‘Without You’ by Anthony Rapp, ” reads the sign outside of Barbara’s Bookstore in Oak Park on this snowy evening. Posted just thirty minutes before the start of the night’s event—a reading and signing with “Rent” original Broadway cast member and film co-star Anthony Rapp on the eve of the publication of his memoir about life with the show—it’s the kind of news that could dampen the spirits of any fan in attendance. But these are not just any fans: they’re self-proclaimed “Rent Heads” and like the Broadway show from which they take their moniker, they are a curious combination of optimism and perseverance. A thirtysomething woman from Wisconsin, having braved the snow for three hours, had luckily just received her copy from Amazon the afternoon before leaving her house. Three Romeoville high-school girls, having rushed over “right after play practice,” heard that the Border’s down the block might have the book and are about to take that pilgrimage. Others are glad to have brought along a clutch of personal memorabilia—the original stage cast recording or movie soundtrack, the coffee-table book of the musical affectionately referred to as “The Rent Bible”—for actor, singer and now newly minted author Anthony Rapp to autograph.
Blond, bespectacled and even more boyish-looking in person than his 34 years of age, the Joliet native is here as part of a multi-city book tour. Beyond the backstage insight into the theatrical smash, the book details Rapp’s grief during and after his mother’s losing struggle with cancer, as well as the candid and humorous accounts of his relationships with boyfriends and partners. In turns funny and somber, his authorial voice is largely unself-conscious, organically theatrical in all of the right places and rich in detail. This is in evidence as he mesmerizes the crowd with both a reading from a chapter entitled “Glory,” a smart selection that effortlessly weaves together the book’s narrative threads, and an intimate yet passionate a cappella rendition of “Seasons of Love,” one of Rent’s signature songs. He finishes and the crowd goes wild. As the line of admirers begins to coil down every nook and cranny of Barbara’s, an assistant store manager assures the group that Rapp will stick around past the store’s closing if necessary to ensure that every fan has been taken care of. How to reconcile the love in this room from the public with the vitriol from the critics that accompanied the film’s recent release?
It’s a question that consumed our conversation during a breakfast interview earlier that day. “I would never mean to suggest that the critics can’t be critical of ‘Rent’ but I also think there was a large amount of context missing that I thought was irresponsible and unfortunate.” Having created the role of “Rent”’s nerdish narrator Mark Cohen onstage, taking it to London’s West End and coming full circle almost a decade later by joining six of the eight original Broadway cast members recreating their roles onscreen for director Chris Columbus’ film version, Rapp’s evaluation of the show—warts and all—is clearly balanced between the emotional and the dramaturgical with full embracement of the fact that “Rent”’s unabashed sentimentality and celebration of life is built into the fabric of the piece, content to wear its lachrymose heart on its grungy sleeve. This very quality that may have engendered some of the film’s vituperation is also what endears it to its fans. Tiffany Stelmachowski, a 26-year-old brunette at Barbara’s who had already seen the film five times, best articulated the typical sentiments about the show from fans at the reading. “All these different people—gay people, straight people, people with AIDS—are all really good friends who love and accept one another for what they are. The show brings out every emotion in me—laughter and sadness—and warms your heart.” Omit her first sentence and she could be describing a moving performance of Chekhov. And yet, her entire comment speaks directly to the points that Rapp made earlier that morning: “Everyone involved in ‘Rent’ has always maintained that ‘Rent’ is not perfect. But I’ve also maintained that I’m not interested in perfect. I’m interested in something that feels like life is being expressed. All of life. And I think that at its core that is what ‘Rent’ does best. In this day and age and in this political climate in our country to not at least acknowledge the fact that even though it’s been ten years since we did the show on Broadway it still is incredibly rare for any mainstream film to show gay couples, interracial couples, people with AIDS and HIV, people with drug problems. That alone, at the very least, has to be acknowledged.”
Wherever fans or informed theatergoers may fall on the Rent critical continuum, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to practice what informed and trenchant criticism should expect its readership to do: go see the work in question and judge it themselves. Along with the memoir, now in bookstores, the movie is released on DVD this week and Rapp is joined by stage and film co-star Adam Pascal as well as director Columbus for the DVD commentary. “The jury can always be out on some of the choices Chris made,” says Rapp, “but I think it’s worthwhile hearing why he made some of those choices.” As well, a non-equity tour of the stage version hits the Cadillac Palace Theatre as part of the Broadway in Chicago season in early April. And if fans really want to blow their tax return this Spring, there will be a “very expensive” one-night only tenth anniversary performance of the show that will benefit three organizations and reunite the entire original cast onstage at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre in New York City. For Anthony Rapp, Tiffany Stelmachowski and the rest of the Rent Heads, it should be a season of love, indeed.