What's New on the Rialto
Without You by Anthony Rapp
Present at the Creation by Stuart Ostrow
Book Reviews by George Reddick
It's been ten times those 525,600 minutes since Jonathan Larson, the composer of one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history, died of an aortic aneurism on the very eve of the musical's debut. Larson's sudden death is a legend in and of itself - almost too poetic, the kind of thing you wouldn't believe if you saw it in a movie. Marking the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the debut of Rent, the long-awaited film version finally arrived in theatres this past fall, starring many of the original cast members. One of those cast members, Anthony Rapp, who has been involved in the project since its first workshop in 1994, has published his first book, Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the musical Rent.
Though Rapp does discuss Rent in some depth, from his first audition through Larson's death, to Broadway and beyond (with a short epilogue on the film, which was still in production when the book was completed), the lion's share of the story is about his family. Rapp was living with his brother Adam in New York when his mother's second bout with cancer began in February of 1995. The battle lasted over two years, and she eventually passed away after Rapp had been performing in Rent on Broadway for over a year, and flying home to Joliet, IL to see her on his days off.
Without You is a study in grief. In addition to his mother's illness and Larson's death, Rapp also lost a friend to AIDS in the time recounted, and he discusses various failed relationships. He takes us back to moments of his childhood and memories of his family in brief flashbacks, such as his coming to terms with his own homosexuality and coming out to his mother, fearing her rejection and wanting her approval even later in life.
It's a touching story, honestly told. Rapp is aware of many of his own shortcomings and doesn't shy away from the darker moments; we are privy to everything from heated encounters with family members to incidents of infidelity, to the time he physically attacked a boyfriend before a performance, in a moment of confusion and grief.
When he discusses Rent as a work, he has a tendency to walk us through the scenes, attempting to convey what he was feeling, which can be tedious. However, under such circumstances as the historic night after Larson's death when the cast performed the show for friends and family in their first public performance, it is a moving way of bringing us into the moment.
For Rent fans, Without You may serve to recapture the magic of the show at the time of its premiere, but beyond that, Rapp's story is a moving portrait of a young man coming to terms with his family and with the death of a loved one.
Stuart Ostrow's Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain: 1776, Pippin, M. Butterfly, La Bête and Other Broadway Adventures also serves as something of a memoir, though of a much less personal nature. When Ostrow was a young high school musician, he fell in love with Guys and Dolls, and it was not long before he sought out Frank Loesser and, with a budding producer's gumption, got the composer/lyricist to agree to work with him. It was Loesser who told Ostrow, "a producer is someone who knows a writer." It wasn't long before Ostrow set out on his own as a theatrical producer and he remains one of the few creative Broadway producers on the scene today.
Ostrow has many strong opinions about what's wrong with today's Broadway producers (the bottom line viewpoint: a lack of artistic integrity), and he has some very structured ideas about what needs to be done to improve Broadway's current producing model. He even founded his own company, Musical Theatre Lab, to nurture the work of young theatre artists.
But most of Present at the Creation is not devoted to suggestions of what might work to save The Theatre. Instead, Ostrow delivers a fun, concise recounting of what worked for him in over forty years of producing shows on Broadway. From his early work with Loesser to such hits as 1776 and Pippin, to more surprising and less successful attempts such as the recent musical version of Sweet Smell of Success, Ostrow is direct and to the point.
Memorable accounts of Loesser's more colorful quips ("Lettuce and the press are the enemy"), Anthony Hopkins' unhappy time in the London production of M. Butterfly, the impact of Ostrow's own invention - the Broadway TV commercial (created for Pippin), Barbara Harris and Mike Nichols' rocky relationship during The Apple Tree, Gwen Verdon's insistence that "Nowadays" be given to her as a solo in Chicago (on which Ostrow consulted) all make for fun and informative reading. Other productions covered include the Bob Dylan musical Scratch, David Hirson's La Bête and Alan Menken and Tom Eyen's Kicks: The Showgirls Musical.
Ostrow's twelve-step program to Save The Theatre may not be the solution Broadway is looking for, but nevertheless, few would argue that his methods have clearly reaped rich results on many occasions. Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain is an insightful backstage look at a creative and vital Broadway producer's work, and should be a fun read for any theatre enthusiast.
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