On the Phone With Anthony Rapp

On the Phone With Anthony Rapp

Best known for creating the role of Mark Cohen in the game-changing rock musical Rent on Broadway (1996) and for reprising it in the film version (2005), Anthony Rapp returns to Broadway this month in one of the season’s most anticipated original musicals, If/Then. The show is something of a Rent reunion for Rapp, his co-star Idina Menzel and their director Michael Greif. In between If/Then’s successful tryout in Washington, D.C., at the end of 2013 and the start of rehearsals for the New York engagement (previews begin March 5 for a March 30 opening night), Rapp talked glowingly about the new show and about working again with Menzel and Greif.

FL: Can you tell me something about your character in If/Then?

AR: My character’s name is Lucas, and I’m an old college roommate and very close friend of Elizabeth, Idina Menzel’s character. I’m a housing activist.

FL: Closer than an old friend?

AR: We did have some romantic history back in college, but nothing super serious.

FL: What attracted you to the show?

AR: I’ve known [composer] Tom [Kitt] and [lyricist/book writer] Brian [Yorkey] for a long time, since I did an early version of [their] Next to Normal when it was known as Feeling Electric. They’ve become friends and colleagues, and then [director] Michael Greif, of course, is a longtime friend and colleague. These people alone would be enough to make me interested in being a part of something. We did a reading of If/Then over two years ago. It’s a very interesting piece, with very richly defined, fleshed-out, human and complicated characters for a musical. This is the stuff that Tom and Brian write. They’re not interested in something simple. They’re interested in complexity and subtlety and heart and soul. All of that is in the material. There’s a lot of range in the relationships that we get to explore, too. So, all of the above. And apart from really good music, it’s also really good fun.

FL: Are the songs challenging to sing? Do they stretch you?

AR: Yeah, they’re a blend of contemporary musical theater meets a little bit of pop or rock or folk influences, depending on the song. The challenge is mostly that some of them are a little higher than I have sung in a while. But Tom writes music that is very singer friendly. All the phrasing, all the melody fits with the lyric and then fits with the intention behind the songs. That makes it much easier.

FL: How are you prepping your voice for eight shows a week?

AR: Just the normal stuff that I’ve always done. I don’t really drink a lot when I’m doing eight shows a week. I’ve never smoked. I take good care of myself. I try to get good rest and warm up well before the show and all of that. Just the normal maintenance, you know. I have a one-man show I’ve been doing on and off for the last few years. That’s more taxing vocally, I guess: 90 minutes of just me and I was able to hold up well. So, I’m not going to do anything too different from when I was doing that.

FL: Eighteen years ago, you were in a totally original Broadway musical, Rent. Now, you have another opportunity to create something original. Is that exciting?

AR: It’s very exciting. Like Rent, If/Then’s a contemporary New York story about the real world, a world very much like the world in which I live my daily life. It’s exciting to have musical theater that is relevant to the daily contemporary New York experience. That’s meaningful to me.

FL: What’s it like teaming up with Idina Menzel again after 18 years? Special?

AR: Extremely! Just because we went through this crucible [Rent] together, this incredible success that was so well received. But also going through the loss of our friend and colleague Jonathan Larson [Rent’s composer and author, who died on Jan. 25, 1996, the night before previews were to begin Off-Broadway]. We like walked through that fire together. It infused itself into our souls. There’s an understanding and a trust and a kind of shorthand that we have that makes a tremendous difference on a daily basis. Plus, I think we’ve grown up in the best way. We’ve grown more into ourselves as human beings and artists. Some people, I think, wither when they get older. Or become safer, especially artists. Sometimes they become complacent. But that hasn’t happened. Quite the opposite. Idina, I think, is doing some of the finest work that she’s ever done in If/Then. And that’s just incredible to see and witness and also be a part of. To be onstage with her every night, it’s always alive. It’s always meaningful.

FL: You’re also working with Michael Greif again.

AR: I have full faith in what he’s interested in excavating in a piece, the life that he’s working to unearth and make real, the taste level of what he’s interested in and the complexity of it. There are certain directors who are slicker and are trying just to get laughs. Sure, Michael is interested in laughs when they’re appropriate, but he’s always much more interested in the richest, most complicated take on things, which I find very valuable. He presents ideas or questions that really provoke me as an actor and make me think of something from a different angle that brings out a color that might not otherwise have been discovered.

FL: A few years ago, you wrote a very personal book, Without You [about Rent and the death of his mother]. Do you have another book in the works?

AR: No. There have been moments when I’ve had flashes of ideas that I might want to pursue, but I found writing to be the hardest artistic challenge in my life. I’m very, very proud of the book and honored with how well it was received and all that. And I’m thrilled that people continue to read it. But the writing process is lonely. I’m much more the happy collaborative artist. I just don’t know if I have it in me. I might. My brother [Adam Rapp] certainly is a prolific writer. He’s put down more words than most people put down in a lifetime.

FL: You talked earlier about the kind of reality represented in If/Then. Can you expand upon that?

AR: If/Then literally bounces back and forth between two possible realities. It starts from one simple choice that Idina’s character makes on the first day she’s back in New York. Literally, she either goes in one direction with one friend or in another direction with another friend. A series of events unfold from there. The play follows each of those paths through to its conclusion. It is about choice, but it is also about fate. The best-laid plans might lead you any which way. You can’t always control what happens in your life. It’s an exploration of all those themes. It’s about the small, sometimes the seemingly most inconsequential choice that might actually determine something that is significant down the road.

FL: Do you relate to that? You were just a kid when you were first on Broadway …

AR: In Precious Sons [1986]. One of my very best friends I met in really strange circumstances when she was 16 and I was in my 20s, but we really connected. We hit it off and we’ve been friends ever since and have grown closer over the years. The circumstances under which we met were very unusual. Who knows the reason why these things happen. They happen. I embrace the notion that, yes, you make choices and do your best to do your best. But anything can happen to anyone at any time also. Surrendering to the unknown is important.

» If/Then, Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 877.250.2929


Anthony Rapp portrait, Phil Bray

Anthony Rapp and Idina Menzel in If/Then, Joan Marcus