By Dan Avery
Back in 1994, Anthony Rapp was just one of thousands of struggling actors in New York City when he auditioned for “Rent,” a daring new musical from a relatively unknown talent named Jonathan Larson. Adapted from Puccini’s musical La Boheme, it told the bittersweet tale of an unconventional family of East Village bohemians trying to carve out lives for themselves against the backdrop of poverty, failed relationships, prejudice and AIDS.
Now, over a decade later, “Rent” has become a worldwide phenomenon heading to the big screen in time for Thanksgiving. Rapp, who originated the role of aspiring filmmaker Mark in both the show’s off-Broadway and Broadway runs, is back in the role that made him a star.
“Even when we were workshopping ‘Rent’ in 1994, I had a good feeling about it,” says the strawberry blond native New Yorker, who still looks a decade younger than his 34 years. “The phrase I kept using was, ‘I think it’s gonna make a splash – I think it’s gonna be an event.'”
Of course, not even Rapp could have predicted the runaway success “Rent” has had – winning both the Pulitzer and the Tony, spawning countless road shows and a record-breaking Broadway run that continues to this day. “It was just more and more – first we broke box office records, and then Vanity Fair was shooting us for their magazine, and Rolling Stone and Newsweek and MTV – all these things happened very rapidly.”
One of the reasons “Rent” was so groundbreaking is its forthright representation of same-sex relationships, as represented by lesbian couple Joanne and Maureen and HIV+ lovers Angel and Tom Collins. Rapp, who is openly gay, is proud of how the show has continued to touch so many people, especially gay youth.
“I think you can never get enough of seeing two men or two women love each other,” he says. “‘Rent’ is a reflection of what’s possible in being out and gay – that you can have a fulfilling life. Even though Angel and Tom’s relationship is colored by AIDS, its purity is not tainted by it. It’s really important for that to be out there.”
Though Larson was straight, Rapp says he was very committed to telling the stories of people who were on the fringes. “He had many gay friends, and a lot of friends living with HIV and AIDS.”
Larson’s sudden death from an aortic aneurysm just after the final rehearsal for “Rent’s” off-Broadway run gave the show’s success a bittersweet tinge. “Jonathan’s death tempered everything,” says Rapp. “All that noise and hype didn’t make us crazy because the reason for it was so personal.” Rapp still recalls his relationship with the composer/director fondly. “It was the first time I worked with a composer who saw me as a collaborator and wrote with my voice in mind. I felt so honored.”
Rumors of a “Rent” film have been circulating almost since the show’s premiere on Broadway, but even when the talks became more solidified, Rapp had reservations. “I only wanted to be in it if it was done right. I wouldn’t want to be a part of something that was a bastardization or not in keeping with the show’s spirit.”
When Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) was named as director, Rapp admits he wasn’t entirely sure the film would be true to the play’s vision. “I worked with Chris on ‘Adventures in Babysitting,’ so even though I was a little concerned because of the kinds of films he had made, I knew how smart he was, how versed in film history and music he was, and what an edgy sensibility he really does have.”
After discussing the film adaptation with Columbus, Rapp says he knew he wanted to be a part of it. “Within 30 seconds of meeting him and the producers, I felt ‘This is right.'” Like Rapp, most of the original Broadway cast has returned for the film, with the exception of Fredi Walker, who was Joanne, and Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi. “Daphne was about to have a baby, so it would’ve been impossible for her to do it,” says Rapp. “But she gave us her blessing, which I thought was wonderful.”
In interviews, “Rent” veterans have had nothing but praise for newcomers Rosario Dawson, who takes over the reins as Mimi, and Tracie Thoms. “It was easy for us to incorporate them into our ‘family,'” says Rapp. “They were both very open and eager. Rosario grew up in New York – she lived as a squatter. She’s very authentic, and she’s a really honest actor – very committed.”
Making the film was like coming home, says Rapp, but it was also a very emotional experience for a number of reasons, including the fact that his mother died of cancer during the show’s original Broadway run. “She was very ill, but she was well enough to come to opening night. Making the film and returning to this character made me feel like I was reconnecting with her in a way.”
As devoted as the cast and crew were to making the “Rent” film a reality, there were several hurdles to overcome. In the mid-1990s, “Rent” was very much a part of the cultural zeitgeist, but some critics had wondered if it was becoming something of a period piece in the new Millennium. Rapp counters that the themes the show deals with are universal. “Death and dying can affect anyone at any age. There will always be outsiders, there will always be injustice, and there will always be love.”
Surprisingly, no changes or cuts had to be made for the film to get a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. “Throughout the whole process everyone, including Chris, assumed we’d get an R,” says Rapp. “But there was nothing we really had to change to get the PG-13, except for taking out a few ‘F-Bombs.'”
Rapp says he’s glad the film will now be able to reach a younger and broader audience. “This movie will be playing all across America. For $10, someone in a small town can see it and feel connected or moved. I think a lot of people who might be turned off by stage musicals will let themselves get lost in a movie.”
And what does Rapp hope movie audiences take away from seeing “Rent?” “At it’s core, the movie, like the stage show, forces you to ask yourself the question, ‘Given how much time we have on this planet, what am I going to do with the time I have left? That’s the message of ‘Seasons of Love.’ How are you going to measure the time you have on Earth?”
Which begs the question, what’s next for Rapp? On the big screen, he’ll have roles in next year’s Ed Harris/Will Ferrell film “Winter Passing” and the upcoming heroin drama “Blackbird,” both directed by his brother Adam Rapp. But he’s even more excited about his upcoming memoir, “Without You,” due out in February.
“It sort of details my time with “Rent” and my mom dying and how those events crossed over and collided in all sorts of intense ways.” Rapp says he’s been working on the book for years, but with the “Rent” film coming out, he felt a new urgency in publishing it. “I really feel like I’ve come full circle,” he says, mirroring “Rent’s” optimistic vision. “Everything happens in its time.”