By Jeff Walsh
Rent has changed the lives of many of its audience members. Its messages of hope and life-affirming spirit are felt and remembered by everyone who has ever attended the show.
Anthony Rapp, the only openly queer cast member, serves as the narrator for the rock musical. Prior to Rent, he starred in such successful movies as Adventures in Babysitting, Dazed and Confused, Twister (look fast!), but Rent has occupied his life since he performed as Mark in the 1994 Theater Workshop version of Rent. He also has the difficult task of portraying the character most associated with Jonathan Larson, the show's creator who died the night before the first public preview Off-Broadway.
So, given all of these elements, how has Rent affected Rapp's life?
"We always get asked that question and it's a hard one to answer. I got out of debt. I can afford to pay my rent without having to take another job. The '94 workshop came after a long dry spell, which is why I had to take the job [at Starbuck's], and after the '94 workshop I haven't stopped working, and not just in Rent, but in other stuff. I did David Searching, Twister, a couple plays in New York and another low budget film that will probably never see the light of day. And then I did Rent again.
"Rent was the beginning of a string that hasn't stopped. Literally, from one thing to the next, I would have a few weeks off. In the last three years, I haven't had a month off without working, which is amazing. So, it certainly contributes to that sense of changing my life," Rapp says. "But along with that, because the show is so intense and takes so much energy, it means I've had less time to devote to other things. When I would do other projects, I had time to do other stuff. This requires me to be focused in a way I never really had to be for a long time, just to make sure my body is able to accomplish the task of doing the show every night.
"Those are the practical ways it has changed, but then there are the other spiritual, emotional, ontological change in life, which is the fact that something that we all cared about so deeply and gave our hearts and souls to became such a success. It's so deeply fulfilling that everything else pales in comparison," he says. "The thought of doing a silly TV show ... which is something I would have had to do before just to pay the rent and would have loved. But now, that idea is even worse to think about. And it's not an elitist thing. It's just the fact that we've been so incredibly spoiled by this experience. It's been so ideal in many ways."
But when did Rent become such a phenomenon?
"It started to become a phenomenon really in a way the day of the New York Times review. It became a media phenomenon, and then people caught on and it became a fan phenomenon and then it became a global thing. And for a theater piece to achieve that that's not Les Miz or Andrew Lloyd Webber... it really did start grassroots. The people making it didn't set out to become a huge world blockbuster. They just wanted to make a really wonderful theatrical experience."
Rapp, 25, also hopes to extend his affiliation with the show when it opens in London in early 1998.
"That's the plan. It's not official in stone, but I really want to," he says. "There are a lot of American theater actors for whom London hold a very special place in our hearts, because it is such a theater town. New York is certainly a theater town, but in London, the audience is so supportive and there's so much theater and it's incredibly diverse. And it's rare that an American actor gets to work over there, with the international laws and all. And, to me, to spend any amount of time in another country employed and not starving and living in a bus is really exciting. And to be part of the landscape there for a few months is really exciting, and to open the show again...
"There's always so much excitement around an opening. The truth is, in the New York company at this point, people are starting to leave, so we're really entering a different phase of our run. We're now becoming a long-running show. That doesn't mean the energy's gone, because I think we still have tons of energy, but it's just a different kind of experience going to work in a long-running show and going to work in a show you're opening," he says. "And, I feel an incredible obligation to Jonathan, and London is certainly an important production because it is such a theater town. If my presence there can help to evoke Jonathan that much more... I might be being grandiose about it, but these are the things I think about. I'll feel kind of an ambassador, bringing it to the Brits. It's really, really exciting."
How important is it to Rapp to "evoke Jonathan"? Does he worry that other casts, like the one in La Jolla, Calif., won't have the same experience with the piece, because they didn't have such an emotional bond to Rent and Larson?
"I've met several of them [in La Jolla]], know some of them and I went to a rehearsal, and I felt the spirit there. I really did," he says. "But that is certainly a concern of mine, because Jonathan informed our production so much because he was there with us and he died, it had such an impact on us. There's going to be something we have that no one else will have in that sense. But he's still coming through so strongly in the piece. The book certainly evokes Jonathan very powerfully, and all these people who were in La Jolla got to read the book."
Having done the role for so long, what concerns does Rapp even have on a day-to-day basis about performing the role?
"I'm concerned about being able to get through it, because it's still, no matter how many times I've done it, an incredible challenge -- vocally, physically and emotionally. So, every time I go to do it, I have to jump off. It's not easy. There's that challenge every time." he says. "We're tired too, because it's been so intense for so long, but we can't not give our hearts and souls to it, because it was born out of that. It's not like we're doing Cats. We're doing something that means a great deal to us."
Another thing that means a lot to Rapp is being open about his sexuality. He came out publicly in 1992 when he was playing the lead role in Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me." He came out by mentioning his partner in life in the show's program.
"I was in a relationship that I naively thought was my life relationship. I was 21 and much too young to think that. But it was around that time that I was really evaluating... I had been acting since I was nine and I certainly wanted to be successful and all that stuff, but I had real ambivalence about being a star, if that was to ever happen. It still makes me a little bit uncomfortable, the whole notion," he says. "So I was thinking, is there anything I can contribute in being a star, if I'm going to be famous? Because the people I most admire are the people who are using their celebrity to in some way shake things up. For better or worse, we live in a celebrity-driven culture and people look to celebrities. Celebrities set the tone in a lot of ways. Certainly a lot more than politicians do, for the cutting edge.
"So, I knew I wanted to be a celebrity of conscience, not to sound too pretentious and there I was in 'The Destiny of Me' and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Larry Kramer has made such a difference in the world. I'm in love, or so I... I loved Peter, we just didn't work out to be partners for life, as I said in my bio. And then I was in this other play and again acknowledged him."
Rapp has advanced his queer cause by making public the fact that he's loved, and loves, men. Although he's often described as being "openly gay," that isn't how he defines himself.
"I don't want to get into labels, but I've never labeled myself except to say I'm queer. The things that's been most important to me to be out about is that I have been in loving relationships with men. That is what I think is most important with any kind of visibility at this point is for people to see that ... yes, certainly it's about sex, people have sex, but ... what's most important who you love and are in love with," he says. "So, how I've come out is by thanking the man I love in the bio. I haven't said 'I am gay.' Because the truth is that I've also been in love with women, although the truth is I do think I'm primarily homosexual. But the whole debate about bisexuality gets tiresome to me and I don't want to enter into it. People have such misconceptions about it. I'm really happy that right now there's a great conversation going on about fluidity, because I think that for a lot of people, that's the case."
Rapp says Anne Heche falling in love with Ellen DeGeneres, despite having never previously identified as bisexual or lesbian, is where he hopes the future debate remains as far as sexuality, if there has to be a debate at all. He also has no doubt that Anne is in love with Ellen, and not, as some contend, making some bizarre media play.
"I know someone who knows her very, very well and she says this relationship with Ellen is absolutely true. It's not some play. She was there. She witnessed it happen. And women, for the most part, seem to have less pressure about identity and more allowing themselves to follow their hearts, it seems. That's just a sweeping generalization," he says. "Certainly not everyone, but it seems there's a lot of pressure in the male homosexual community to identify yourself as gay and that's it. Labels really are for cans. I label myself as queer because I think if I have to have any label, that encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, everyone. Even lesbian and gay separate men and women, and the future's all about inclusiveness. And not just among gay people, but among everyone, which is also why I like Rent so much. It's everyone living together."
Another place Rapp frequents where everyone co-exists is in the online world. He frequents Rent sites online, such as Jimbo's Unofficial Rent Web page ("I think he does a really good job"), and the Playbill Online boards.
"They spread such rumors and every now and then I like to go in and say 'Guys, stop spreading the rumors and I'll tell you what's happening.' Not anything personal, just about the logistics of the show. Who's leaving when and all that stuff," he says. "It got ridiculous a long time ago, but my whole experience with the online community was when started Off-Broadway. Before we even opened, there was an old AOL area called Saturday Review Online and part of what they did was talk about theater. I sort of, undercover, said has anyone heard about Rent? Because one of the things I was looking forward to about being online and being in the show was that it was an opportunity to speak to audience members in a forum that I would never be able to speak to them ordinarily. As an artist, normally, it's rare that we get that much of a chance to really hear an open dialogue about our work. So, this was in February of 1996, and there were be a few people who would post and we'd talk about it. And finally somebody said 'Are you Anthony Rapp?' And I said 'yes,' so that's how I was public."
As the show's popularity increased, so did the discussion boards' focus on the show and the dialogue Rapp was seeking.
"It turned into a sort of frenzy and it became much less talking about the show and the repercussions of it and it became people thinking Adam was cute. When Rent started out, it was small and now it's this huge thing," he says. "I've met a lot of great people that way initially, and now there's just so many people that it's hard to filter through the people I would really connect with and the people who are fans. It might be a harsh thing to say, but when you have that much input of people it's hard to really connect organically with an individual."
Rapp says he gets 20 to 40 letters a day, and although it is overwhelming and he can't respond to all of his mail, it has been empowering for him to help queer kids online.
"It's meant a lot to me to be able to speak to them. That is very much a fulfillment of what I wanted to do in coming out," he says. "I get a lot of letters from kids like that, but the bulk are from what I'd call normal fans. But even with them, I don't have the kind of time I'd like to devote to really speaking to these kids.
"I think cyberspace is the best thing to ever happen to gay kids. They can be stuck in the middle of nowhere, go online and see that they're not alone and find information and connect with people," he says. "This kind of reaching out on my part started out when I was in Twister. It wasn't from any kind of fame standpoint. I was in the middle of Oklahoma on Twister, and it was a crazy time.
I was going to the [AOL] GLCF to the Bi boards and would post and talk to people there. And I befriended the host of the Bi Boards and he's still a very close friend of mine. He was the same way, we both wanted to reach out to people. So, this is like a legacy for me. But that wasn't in any way public, the way that this is."
But what was Rapp like when he was the age of the people who now mail him for coming out advice?
"When I was younger, like 12, 13, 14, I have no memory of any shame or confusion that I liked boys and girls. It was after I got caught with a boy and my mom confronted me. (She didn't catch me, another parent caught us.) She confronted me, and I really stood up for myself and said this is something I really want to do," he says. "But it was after that I started to say 'Okay, something's wrong.' So, there were like three years where the shame factor was large. It was really when I was 18 that I came out again. That was the second wave, and when I started to transcend my shame, and labels and concern about the future and realize whatever and I was falling in love with this boy in college. That was the truth and I had to deal with that truth.
"My mom was upset, but she wasn't terribly upset. My dad was fine and all my friends were fine. And I've just been more and more open and more and more out as I've gotten older since then. And my mom just passed away in May and by the time she died, it was really, really clear between us and lovely and I'm very grateful for that.
"I just advocate people being out, period, because they'll be happier. Even if people react badly and there will be a period that's hard and painful. Anybody not living their life openly and honestly, it's going to kill your soul to some degree," he says. "Every person that you're not honest with, and this is not just about your sexuality, but about pretty much anything, if there are things you're ashamed about, it's going to interfere with your experience with life and happiness.
"I don't advocate kids coming out to their parents, because they are reliant on their parents for better or worse. And if their parents react badly, God forbid, that could complicate their lives to such a degree that it's not worth it if they can swing a few years of more stability," he says. "It's an unfortunate reality. I've talked to kids, too, whose parents have reacted wonderfully. So, there's no absolute. But I think kids have to assess it very carefully."
Has being openly gay in Hollywood affected Rapp at all, since there always seems to be such a stigma about image?
"I haven't experienced anything like that to my face, but I'm sure that it exists. I think a lot of it is unspoken and imagined and not really confronted and talked about. The assumption that everyone makes in Hollywood is that if you're gay you can't have a career and audiences won't respond to you, and people won't come out because that's the assumption," he says. "And people in casting don't even talk about it, because it is so believed to be true by so many people... anything a group of people believes to be true that's so unexamined, nobody wants to open the can of worms, because it's like Pandora's Box.
"When people like Rupert Everett become such a hit in My Best Friend's Wedding, I hope that contributes to a shaking up of that whole notion. I don't know if there are people in Hollywood who aren't casting me now because I'm so publicly out. I don't know and have no way of knowing. I do know there are plenty of casting directors calling me in for things, and they're not just small things," he says. "But, if people don't want to work with me because of this fact, I wouldn't want to work with them in the first place. I don't want to subject myself to that kind of bullshit. And if this means I'm not going to be a Hollywood star, there are worst things I can do with my life than not be a Hollywood star. I think I'm certainly assured some kind of career in theater. My work is varied enough so people can see I'm capable of doing all sorts of things. The fact of my identity outside of my work, if people are so narrow-minded that they can't see past it, that's their problem."
Rapp has a few things on his plate for the future. David Searching is expected to have a small independent theatrical run in the fall, and Rapp is also working on developing a sitcom with a producer friend. He's also been writing a screenplay which he intends to make into a film.
But he's already accepted how his future career will stack up compared to Rent.
"I don't think anything will surpass it. It's so unique, so special and so extraordinary. I think it will always stand out as an extraordinary time in my life. I'll have other experiences that will be very special, some will be better in some ways and worse in some ways, but this is what it is and will be that forever," he says. "There's something about birth that can never be repeated. So many things were born in this experience, and all these friends that I've made. So many of us will go on to such great things, and to be able to witness my friends take off in that way and be part of their success. This experience is never again to be, which is fine because that's what it should be."