Without You is a show that requires a bit of prior explanation. However, if you’re a gay jobless thesp living in New York in 1994, and your Mom’s dying of cancer back home in Illinois, and you’ve landed a role in Rent, a new musical about Aids, then you’re already up to speed. You have all the data required. In fact, you’re probably Anthony Rapp, the author of this musical autobiography which has just arrived from Edinburgh.
Rapp tells two tales through narrative and song. First we hear about Rent which, you may be aware, is a smash-hit musical based on La bohème and relocated to New York during the HIV epidemic. This house-move intensifies its kitsch morbidity by a factor of about a thousand. Rent is an epic cheek-streamer, a duct-dripping sob-fest, a mawkish deluge of grief and anguish. (I refer to the storyline, by the way. The melodies are soaring little miracles of tuneful wonderment.) To make Rent even weepier, its author, Jonathan Larson, managed to die of an Aids-related lurgy just before the show’s off-Broadway première. Fans of the musical will be intrigued to hear Rapp’s back-stage recollections and his memories of its doomed creator.
Having dealt with that, he moves on to his expiring Mom. She’s a plucky old soul and she names her growth ‘Wild Bill’, as if it were some treasured but unreliable possession, like a parrot or vintage car or a low-yielding plum tree. The tumour has plans to diversify however, and soon it’s opening branch operations in all her major organs. Mom ain’t got long to linger. Rapp at first finds her demise a bit of a drag on his career. Then he realises that it might make great material for a box-office smash. Just like Rent.
At this point, the show morphs into a workshop of ideas and melodies accompanied by an on-stage rock band. Rapp’s climactic anthem is inspired by the moment when he burst into Mom’s room to find her corpse splayed on the covers dressed in a fancy new nightgown. This may not be the most promising theme for a musical hit but Rapp gives it his best shot. ‘It’s nat you-ooooh!!’ he bawls, as the guitars soar and the drums pound and hammer. ‘It’s nat you-oooo!!!!! It’s nat you-oooo!!!!! Ah, lurve you-ooohhh!!!’
Maybe it needs a bit of work. Rapp’s visual identity certainly does. With his square specs, beige hair and drab olive-green army jacket, he looks like a trustafarian pacifist who can’t find his way to the CND demo. And, even though he’s in a theatre the size of a shoe box, he’s wired himself up to play Wembley Arena. He sports an earpiece in either lughole and he’s got a fat little radio mike on the end of a cable that hovers just in front of his mouth like an uneaten prawn.
Agonised concentration marks his singing style. His eyes are half-shut and he conducts himself with an upheld forefinger that describes circles in the air. Throughout every number, he does that singer thing of smiling and grimacing at the same time. A very strange production, this. The crowd loved it and gave him a standing ovation. But which show were they applauding? The trailer for Rent? Or the half-finished rock opera about Rapp’s Mom’s popped clogs? I was baffled.
Another experiment at Theatre 503. Life for Beginners introduces us to ‘five of the country’s best emerging playwrights’. Each scribbler has written a sketch on the theme of love, and the five amorous strands are ravelled together into a bit of this and a bit of that. And a bit of the other. It’s a jerky old show. The best sketch, which is also the slenderest, features a charming hairy Welshman and his attempts to chat up a gamine young beauty. He fails many times, in many different locations.
A meatier effort is set in a zoo and it traces the romance between two junior animal-keepers. She’s sweet and gorgeous but has psychotic urges. He’s cute and winsome and is covered in strange lacerations. Little of this is explained. Love blossoms briefly. Then it sours. The girl goes bonkers and capers around the zoo, shovel in hand, looking for an inmate to thump and bury. The madcap energy is enjoyable but the lack of motivation is plain daft.
Better editing is required. And this five-of-the-best format is artistically timid. If one of these sketches had any potential it might have made a full-length play. Clearly, none did. So we get a scrag heap instead of a drama. I find it hard to believe that ‘five of the country’s best emerging playwrights’ aren’t able to produce a single night’s entertainment between them. It only took three people to crack DNA.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012