Anthony Rapp at Purnell

When Anthony Rapp walked onto the stage of the Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts, he looked little older than the college crowd before him. Slender, with a head of mussed blond hair, Rapp hardly seemed like one of the most famous stage actors of our time, or one of the original cast members of a landmark contemporary American musical, Rent. But Rapp can without a doubt claim both of these distinctions. His appearance at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama Conservatory Hour gave students a chance to participate in a Q & A and talkback session, in conjunction with Rapp’s one-man show, which just closed in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s City Theatre featured Rapp’s show, Without You, in a limited special run from Aug. 28 to Sept. 21. It looked at Rapp’s experience with the musical Rent, the Broadway hit which brought public attention and inspired songwriting to the American AIDS epidemic. In his one man show, Rapp speaks of how Rent changed his life — and the lives of many others. The night after the show’s wildly successful Off-Broadway debut, Jonathan Larson, the writer-composer of the show, suddenly passed away. Rapp’s performance of excerpts of Rent in his own show was carefully interwoven with his remembrances of Larson and how Rapp and the rest of the cast struggled to find meaning and continue with the musical after Larson’s death. Ultimately, the power of the show’s message and the cast’s commitment to delivering that message inspired them to keep on.

Although the show has many humorous moments, in which Rapp’s versatile skill as a character actor shines, Rapp also examines many darker aspects of his past. During his early work on Rent, his mother passed away of cancer. In Without You, this glimpse of what it is like to lose a parent is not an easy thing to see. If anything, this speaks to Rapp’s ability to give himself to his audience. The praise he has garnered over the years is a reflection of his unique ability to bring himself to the stage, with humility and honesty that both challenge and invite the audience into his world.

Rapp brought that humor and honesty onstage with him in his visit to Carnegie Mellon. After thanking the school for welcoming him, and the recent Carnegie Mellon alumnus, Jeffrey Omura, for connecting him with the school, Rapp sat and answered questions without pause for over an hour. Students supplied Rapp with a sea of waving hands, and questions ranging from his work in the movies A Beautiful Mind and Dazed and Confused to his experience writing his memoir (also titled Without You). Rent, of course, also occupied much of the discussion, as did practical questions about making it in New York and the business in general. Rapp, who was not formally trained in a conservatory program like Carnegie Mellon’s, nevertheless spoke to the merits of such a supportive training. He mentioned that his own support system came primarily from his mother, who encouraged his acting ambitions and work at an early age.

The tone of admiration in the questions was clear. One student asked eagerly if Rapp got to “hang out with Russell Crowe” during the filming of A Beautiful Mind. Anthony replied that not only did he hang out with the famous Australian, he got to touch his Oscar, describing it as a “really heavy, really shiny jewel of craziness.” Another student gushed blissfully about an encounter with Rapp in a New York bathroom, where the departing Rapp accidentally hit him with a door. The tone of the discussion, however, grew serious when the subject of Rent and his own show came up. Rapp described his work on the musical as simply the culmination and fulfillment of everything he had wanted to do.

Speaking to the importance of theater that addresses social crises, Rapp said, “You guys grew up in the aftermath, but in the ’80s and ’90s you’d go to five memorial services a month. Address books were decimated. A lot of young people died.” Rent gave voice to the struggles of people dying and struggling to live with AIDS, to make art in the midst of illness, and to support their sick friends. Most importantly, perhaps, Anthony said that Rent helped create the movement of activist, realist musicals, musicals that, in Rapp’s words, “ask the big, tough questions about what it means to be alive today — through the powerful medium of music.” In the ’90s, when the musical opened, no one was talking about the epidemic. Rapp stated that being “a part of Rent was really thrilling. Those songs talked about things that no one was talking about and celebrated gay culture at a time when that wasn’t widely accepted.”

Speaking to the actors about the business, Rapp advised them to take care of their bodies, to treat themselves as athletes. He also commented on the need to respect your intuition, saying that although it is hard to refuse jobs in the theater business, it is also crucial to do what you love, and listen to your instincts. When a student asked about the hazards of getting too emotionally involved with a role, Rapp said simply, “I would advise you to never not be emotionally involved with anything you do.”

Richard Block, interim head of the School of Drama, later commented on Rapp’s presence, saying, “Anthony really speaks to your generation. He really has been a key part of an important cultural and artistic movement.” Rapp’s appearance at Carnegie Mellon highlights the school’s commitment to artistic excellence, and the students’ enthusiastic reception shows that we are committed to work that is artistically challenging and socially meaningful, as well as marketable.