That’s a Rapp: Out performer revisits ‘Rent’ roots in Philly

That’s a Rapp: Out performer revisits ‘Rent’ roots in Philly

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Out actor/singer Anthony Rapp, best known for originating the role of Mark Cohen in “Rent,” will perform songs and tell stories at the Rrazz Room at the Prince Theatre next month. The show will feature songs from Rapp’s recent CD, which he made with his “Rent” co-star Adam Pascal, entitled “Acoustically Speaking (Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below).” 

Rapp has performed additional roles on Broadway — he was also an original cast member in “If/Then,” from his “Rent” co-star Idina Menzel— as well as acted on screens big and small. He has earned critical praise for his work as a grieving married man getting involved in an online relationship in writer/director John G. Young’s film “bwoy.” Currently, Rapp is shooting episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” for broadcast in the fall.

The in-demand performer took a moment out of his busy schedule to talk with PGN about his upcoming show.

PGN: You have performed on stage, in cabarets and in concerts. How would you describe your Rrazz Room show?

AR: It’s all music I personally really like and/or has inspired me. It does include some songs from “Rent” and even “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” [Rapp appeared in the 1999 Broadway revival]. There are a few original songs, and other songs from shows I love, some pop music, like REM’s “Losing my Religion.” It’s an eclectic mix. 

PGN: What can you say about performing songs from “Rent”? Do you feel obligated or that it’s expected because you are so connected to the show and Mark Cohen?

AR: I’ve done more things in the meantime, so I’m not as concerned with that. I appreciate that the first line of my bio in my obituary will be, “He originated the role of Mark Cohen in ‘Rent.’” The songs I sing from “Rent” aren’t songs that Mark sang. I sing “Without You,” and that song has another resonance for me — I sang it at my mother’s funeral. Mark’s song “Halloween” from “Rent” doesn’t work in this [cabaret] context, nor does “What You Own,” which is a duet. But the songs I perform still honor “Rent.”

PGN: Your career alternates between theater and film. What can you say about your roles on Broadway and the big screen? Are you always looking to reinvent yourself?

AR: I don’t think of it in terms of reinvention. I’ve been fortunate to do interesting projects. I haven’t done a huge number of films and TV shows. I’m proud of what I’ve done with “bwoy,” and other small films I’ve made. They are collaborative and creative and outside of the pressures of the [industry]. I’m just getting my feet wet in the “Star Trek” experience, and that’s the biggest machine I will be a part of. We’re supposed to do Comic-Con. I helped establish BroadwayCon, and that’s the biggest experience like that I’ve had so far. But this is a going to be a bigger event and have an international aspect. I’m curious to see how it’s going to manifest itself — how many countries and cultures I’m going to experience.

PGN: You also generally play gay roles in the films you make, “bwoy” being a recent one, and “David Searching” being a personal favorite. Do you gravitate to such roles?

AR: In these small films, there’s so much more opportunity to work on characters and stories that are complex — the filmmakers plumb the depths. They are not afraid of characters that are not immediately likeable, and these films give more of an opportunity to live and breathe in the darker corners of human experience. That’s a gift — that film and theater can get so close in on people to provide a level of compassion and show the shadow side [inner darkness] of human beings.

PGN: Yes, I love films, like “bwoy,” where characters make a series of wrong decisions. That is so much more revealing than watching heroes who act all noble.

AR: John’s [Young, the writer/director] approach to people who make bad decisions and the complications that arise from that is that he has total compassion. He’s not sitting in judgment of anyone. That’s so crucial. [In contrast], there are characters who try to make the best decisions and get screwed over by the world that won’t let them.

PGN: How do you find your musical stylings for a song, be it one that is well-known or something from a Broadway show?

AR: I read an interview with Michael Stipe about “Losing My Religion,” and that it’s an expression that means you are falling in love. That stuck with me, and it’s been a window into the song. I’ve been singing it for 20 years. I just give myself over to it, the feel of the song. The best I can do is interpret it. I try to honor the song and have it come through me. We all have our own way of singing. I won’t sing like others, and others won’t sing like me.

PGN: When you sing a love song, do you tend to sing to men or follow the lyrics?

AR: That gender thing has never come up. There is a love song I sing — and I’m not sure I’ll do it [at the Rrazz Room] — but it was about a relationship I’m no longer in. I don’t think of him when I sing that song; I’m not reminiscing. It’s more of a sentiment that can be applied to any situation.

PGN: Is there a genre, a composer or a lyricist that you just gravitate to?

AR: I always sang to Peter Gabriel. We have a similar range. I love his writing. Elvis Costello and Annie Lennox are singer-songwriters I love listening to. They are all incredible artists and always embody what that means. They are not just pop stars.

PGN: What appeals to you about a song that makes you want to perform it — and I say perform, not sing, because there is a distinction.

AR: It has to ring true for me. It has to be melodically interesting and have a lyrical content that doesn’t feel shallow. I have to feel I can sing it in a way that does justice to it. I’m not going to sing “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a good song — and I love Dolly Parton’s and Whitney Houston’s versions of it — but that’s not a song I’m moved to sing. It’s a power ballad, and not what I’m drawn to. I’m drawn to Peter Gabriel. That’s apples and oranges.

PGN: What music might people be surprised to learn you like?

AR: Whoa! I don’t know … I feel I’ve been so vocal about stuff for so long. People assume I have musical theater on my phone; that’s not true.

PGN: What observations do you have on cabaret versus theater or a concert?

AR: Cabaret is so intimate and it’s so naked — which sounds like a crude word — but it’s unadorned. It’s piano and guitar and voice, and that simplicity appeals to me. There is nothing to hide behind or be cushioned by, and to feel that in sync with my accompanist is wonderful. 

Anthony Rapp performs 8 p.m. April 8 at the Rrazz Room at the Prince Theatre, 1412 Chestnut St. For tickets, visit http://princetheater.org/therrazzroom/.


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