‘Rent’ revealed

When Anthony Rapp initially gathered with the rest of Rent’s original cast, the first thing they did was sing through the musical’s most celebrated number, “Seasons of Love.” At that moment, Rapp knew Rent had an energy and intensity unlike any other musical he had heard.

“It felt like a revelation,” said Rapp, who played the documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen in the first production of Rent, as well as the movie. “The simplicity in the lyric, the heart in the lyric, the cascading harmonies and the context of the song – singing about life directly. It felt courageous somehow. We felt that something extraordinary was happening.”

Rapp spoke to nearly 500 people, many of them so-called “Rentheads,” about Rent and its evolution: from creator Jonathan Larson’s vision, to a small production gathering steam in the New York theater world, to one of the most popular musicals of all time. He said Rent filled a vacuum in the musical world, delivering entertainment with an edge not found in traditional musicals.

“I think it’s great to be a part of things that are fun and entertaining,” Rapp said. “But I would sacrifice all that for being part of something that’s not only entertaining but that’s out to shake people up, that’s out to change their minds and change their hearts.”

He also talked about Larson, who Rapp said drew on his circle of friends to create the characters and the story of Rent.

“He was a part of this community of artists – gay people, crossdressers, lesbians, straight people, white people, black people, Latino people, all together – and the story of that kind of a group of people wasn’t being told in the mainstream,” Rapp said.

Rapp also spoke about the sudden death of Larson from an aortic aneurysm at age 35, on the day of Rent’s off-Broadway opening and just hours after the show’s final dress rehearsal.

The night of the premiere, the theater was full of Larson’s family, friends and colleagues. Instead of a full show, the cast did a sing-through – no movement, just singing – in memory of Larson. “Even in the face of this room full of people whose hearts were torn out of their chests, who were in such pain, who were devastated, even in the face of that … all of the energy of the show and all of the comedy of the show communicated as powerfully as it ever would,” Rapp said. “That told me, among many things, something that I always believed and that evening just proved all the more – Rent sort of just tells the truth. And when people are presented with the truth, it’s easy to respond no matter what you’re going through.”

Rapp also talked about a moment during the performance when they sang one of the musical’s other signature songs, “La Vie Boheme.”

“We as a cast, we as characters, we as the audience were all going through the same things at the same time,” Rapp said. “The characters we played were singing this uproarious joyful song in the face of their friends who might not be there any more … and so it was all one.”

The cathartic experience of performing in Rent also helped Rapp deal with another difficult loss in his life – the death of his mother to adrenal cancer less than a year after the show’s Broadway opening. Rapp – who has written a book and spoken to audiences around the country about his experiences with Rent – said the powerful effect the musical has had on his life makes it hard to let go.

“Sometimes people wonder why I keep talking about this – well, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Rapp said. “There are so many reasons I will never leave this behind.”