As soon as he read it, Anthony Rapp realized Jonathan Larson’s play about drugs, the homeless and AIDS wasn’t your average Broadway musical.
“I knew it was something special right from the start, but that doesn’t always mean it’s going to be a success,” Rapp said. Rapp and Adam Pascal are reprising their roles in the national touring production of Larson’s Tony Award-winning “Rent,” beginning Tuesday night at 8 at Proctors and running through Sunday afternoon. “I’ve worked on other things that I thought were special, but they didn’t hit it big like ‘Rent’ did.”
It won four Tonys in all and ran a remarkable 12 years, opening in April of 1996 and closing in September of 2008. Rapp was with it from the start, helping to create the character of struggling filmmaker Mark Cohen when Larson was workshopping the play throughout 1994 and 1995. Rapp also played Mark in the 2005 movie version, and he and Pascal, who plays Roger Davis, a rock musician with HIV, have been with the touring production since it opened in January.
“With ‘Rent,’ I think people fell in love with the musical score, and then there are so few shows, especially musicals, where the real world is reflected back at you in a powerful way,” he said. “It dealt with real life and issues in a way that typical musical theater doesn’t.”
Rapp and his fellow cast and crew had to deal with life and death issues in a big way when Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 in January of 1996 on the day that his play was scheduled to have its off-Broadway premiere.
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; also 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: $65-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org
“He hadn’t been feeling well, but there was no indication that he was at death’s door,” remembered Rapp. “Then, to suddenly find out after dress rehearsal that he had died, well, to say it was shocking is a huge understatement. We were all deeply committed to the show and to doing our best work, but his death certainly inspired us even more.”
He continued to perform in “Rent” for two years in New York, and then headed to London’s West End for a six-month run. He had twice earlier played on Broadway, in “Six Degrees of Separation” (1990-92) and “Precious Sons” (1986), and followed up his “Rent” success starring as the title character in the revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (1999). He has also had numerous television and movie roles, but the stage is his first love.
“I’m a theater guy, for sure,” he said. “TV is appealing if it’s a really good show and you get an opportunity to develop a character and a story line. But good TV is rare. My movie experience with ‘Rent’ was great. It was completely fulfilling and I was very lucky to be a part of it.”
Rapp returned to the Broadway production of “Rent” in 2007 for 10 weeks, and has also written a book, “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical ‘Rent.’ ” In April of this year, Rapp was on a speaking tour talking about the book and his “Rent” experiences at Union College in Schenectady.
Writing a challenge
“Writing a book was the loneliest and most challenging thing I had ever done,” he said. “But it was also the most fulfilling. I wanted to hit my head against many a wall during the whole process, but it was worth it. It was just a great experience.”
He turned the book into a one-man stage show that played in Pittsburgh during the fall of 2008.
“I adapted it for the stage and did a few shows in Pittsburgh last year,” he said. “That was a lot of fun, and I’d like to continue to work on it and do it some more.”
Rapp, who grew up in Joliet, Ill., just outside Chicago, was in his first show at 6.
“I was the Cowardly Lion in a summer camp production of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and then at 9 I did my first professional theater, singing with the children’s chorus of ‘Evita’ in Chicago,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
He has also done some directing, including a production of “Rent” in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2007.
“The thing about directing is that it has to be something that I love,” he said. “It’s such hard work and so time-consuming that I wouldn’t want to put all my effort into it unless it was a project I really loved. I wouldn’t direct just to build a résumé. I really have to believe in something to get into directing.”
The touring production of “Rent” was originally scheduled to wrap up in August, but according to Rapp it has been extended through the middle of next February.
“I have to say it’s been going very, very well,” he said. “I think I settled back into the character in a nice way. I guess I had to work harder when I was younger because it didn’t seem to be that much like work this time. It is hard work, but this character is in my bones. He came back to me very easily.”
“Rent” was nominated for 10 Tonys during its Broadway run, and tours of the show have crisscrossed North America on a regular basis since 1997, grossing more than $330 million. It has also been performed on six continents, with Larson winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work posthumously. It is currently the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history.