Many fans may claim that the musical “Rent” changed their lives. But the play had a real, tangible impact on Anthony Rapp, who spent two years as part of its original cast.
Rapp, who played filmmaker Mark Cohen, expounded on his evolution as an actor, his social activism and his work on “Rent” before about 100 students during a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea on Thursday.
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By any account, Rapp, 36, has had a prolific career. He has performed in dozens of plays, recorded an album released in 2000 entitled “Look Around” and written a best-selling memoir titled “Without You: A Memoir of Loss, Love, and the Musical Rent.”
Rapp played in “Rent” — the seventh-longest-running Broadway production ever — from its opening in 1996 until 1997. He returned to the role he had played in the 2005 Hollywood production of “Rent” along with five other members of the cast. Despite the eight-year hiatus, the role came back naturally to him, he said.
“Performing ‘Rent’ the first time was such a unique and incredible experience, it became infused in our bones,” he said.
He also found time last summer to reprise the role on Broadway with fellow lead Adam Pascal, who played Roger Davis. But it has not always been easy for Rapp to watch actors follow in his footsteps.
“Sometimes I’ve been really pleased and impressed, and there’s other times I want to kick them in the head,” he said of actors who have played in roles he’s performed?.
When he is not writing, singing or acting, Rapp said he spends his time on social activism related to the central themes in “Rent.” Rapp has been active in pushing for gay rights and serves on the board of Friends in Deed, which provides support to victims of HIV/AIDS. He also recently directed a version of “Rent” in South Africa.
“I found it inspiring to be in South Africa, because when you think about how far they’ve come in so little time, it truly is incredible,” he said.
Even though he has devoted his time to these issues, Rapp said the play is not really about AIDS, homosexuality or living in New York, but is “about what you do in the face of these circumstances.”
“It’s a story about dealing with a crisis — any crisis,” he said.
Rapp ended the tea by singing the play’s most famous piece, “Seasons of Love,” in memory of the play’s writer, Jonathon Larson.
Students in attendance said they were struck by how Rapp’s time on the cast of “Rent” affected him.
“It was a life-changing event [for him],” Bobby Gibbs ’10 said.
Ashley Young ’10, a hardened “Rent” fan, said Rapp’s presentation reassured her that “there is a purpose behind musical theater.”
“I’m elated,” she said. “It’s utterly fantastic. To see him, to be here, it’s so surreal.”