Without You (Review of sorts)

I plan on using this blog to do more reviews as I reason I see a lot of theatre and blogging about it rather than  just my general moans occasionally makes for more interesting reading.

I also quite pride myself on my critical eye when it comes to theatre-seeing through the hype and also giving credit where credit’s due. Or just being my usual blunt honest self, whichever way you look at it.

The review I’m starting with however I hold my hands up and say it’s hard to be impartial for. Without You is the one man-autobiographical show from Anthony Rapp, for those who don’t know the original ‘Mark’ in Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent (one of my PhD texts for those not keeping up) and the show covers the period in his life around Rent and specifically the impact of the deaths of first Jonathan Larson and then Rapp’s mother. Based his book of the same name the show combines music from Rent with original music with the characters brought to life alongside Rapp’s monologues.

Theatrically this piece works well, it’s balanced and paced well so that the 80 minute show feels far shorter, the pace from one moment to the next gives a sense of urgency and frantic nature of the period-both historically and in his life that Rapp is trying to convey. Fans will be able to fill in the gaps and what happened next, while the uninitiated will find the story as it stands dramatically satisfying.

Musically the songs re-arranged from Rent  (and a rendition of R.E.M’s ‘Losing my Religion’) fit seamlessly alongside original material. As a fan of Rent (and one who has academically spent far too long analyzing these songs) loved the arrangements and  hearing parts not sung by Rapp in the musical. His voice is stronger  than ever a refined performance that still incorporates a raw edge aided by the emotion of the piece.

And there is a lot of emotion in this piece-the subject matter even the title leaves no illusions about this. However it’s never overly sentimental or indulgent, there is a real honesty about the way grief manifests itself in our lives and our behaviour- there is anger even selfish behaviour when we lose someone or are losing someone we love and all of this is tapped into. The show isn’t trying to tell people this is how to react to loss it’s simply telling the story of how one person did, and unsurprisingly I think a lot of the audience could relate to that. Yes it is also terribly sad at the end, depicting the memorial for Rapp’s Mother accompanied by Larson’s song from which the show draws it’s title Without You but it’s a kind of respectful fitting sadness that seems to draw the show’s themes and the emotions of the audience together. Much like Larson’s work Rapp’s piece also leaves on a positive note with a rendition of Seasons of Love from Rent a song that emphasises life and love.

I found Without You an incredibly emotional experience, but then it is drawn from material I’m incredibly close to, both personally and professionally. Everyone who loves Rent has their story for why it touched them, why it changed them. For me I was 19 years old a little lost in life-figuratively and literally having just moved from Britain to Canada-and my Father had just died. Rent had an impact on me personally, discovering the music and later that year seeing the show for the first time greatly impacted my life. Later Rent has come to professionally shape it too.

That said I’d begun to worry that through my analysis, the sheer amount I was forced to think about deconstruct and yes distance myself from it that I’d become too distant. Seeing Without You  reconnected me with what I felt was important about Rent and I really see Anthony Rapp’s piece as a continuation of Jonathan Larson’s legacy, while also showing his strength as a talented performer and writer in his own right.

As a final note I must add how grateful I am to Anthony Rapp for giving up his time to talk to me about my research and being so supportive and generous in doing so-the show and the chance to have those conversations renewed my confidence in the work I’ve done and my enthusiasm to continue.

I did say this review wouldn’t’ be entirely objective. Normal service resumed next time!

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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