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Photograph: Joan MarcusAnthony Rapp and Jackie Burns in If/Then

Anthony Rapp on 'If/Then,' 'Rent,' BroadwayCon and his dream gig with the Cubs

The Joliet native, an original star of ‘Rent,’ hits town in the touring production of the original musical ‘If/Then’

Written by
Kris Vire

Anthony Rapp is best known for his long association with the musical Rent, in which he originated the role of aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen in the 1996 piece, reprising his performance in the 2005 film and later again onstage. That show's massive success and Rapp's newfound fame came tinged with sadness, as Rent's creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly on the day of the show's first preview.

Rapp, 44, a native of Joliet, Illinois, hits Chicago this week in the touring production of If/Then, a new musical by the Next to Normal team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Rapp plays Lucas, a role he originated in the show's Broadway production. We spoke with him last week about both shows, his role in last month's inaugural BroadwayCon fan convention, and his own fandom for the Chicago Cubs.

For those who haven't had a chance to experience If/Then yet, what can we expect?

It's about a woman named Elizabeth who comes back to New York after an unhappy marriage to start her life over again, to kind of reboot. The title refers to, literally, if you do one thing, the rest will follow, but if you do another thing something else might follow. It follows her from the day she comes back to New York, and I'm an old college friend she hasn't seen in a long time since she's been living in Phoenix. It hinges on this very small decision she makes on the first day to either go with me or with a new friend she meets when she gets to New York, and everything else in her life completely changes from there. It follows both paths, sort of jumps back and forth between the two parallel realities.

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who wrote this and Next to Normal, they're really interested in real-life human beings and the contemporary world being reflected back onstage. It goes in interesting and surprising directions. It sort of starts out like a romantic comedy, but veers off from there into something that gets more and more interesting as it goes. It's something I've been a part of in development for a number of years; we first did a reading of it five or six years ago, so it's been a part of my world for quite a while.

When the tour began last fall, you and several other of the original cast members went out for the first leg of the tour. Idina Menzel, LaChanze and James Snyder have since departed, but you've stayed with the show. Why did you decide to continue?

Well, I have a tremendous feeling of loyalty to my friends and collaborators; they really are part of my life, not just people I work with. I've known Tom and Brian for a long time—I was part of early versions of Next to Normal in workshops, and they wrote this part for me. [Producer] David Stone has been an incredible ally, and the fact that he's using his acumen and his success as a producer of Wicked to support new works and not just cash in, I find all of that very meaningful and satisfying. You know, Idina, LaChanze and James all have children; I don't have any children. I mean, I have cats. It's a lot simpler for me to go on the road.

I wouldn't want to live my whole life on the road, but I like touring periodically. I've done it a few times in my career, and it's a very interesting and good experience when it's the right thing. And this is the right thing. I really believe in this piece.

You published a memoir, Without You, about your long association with Rent, and later turned it into a solo show. Later you and Adam Pascal went back out on tour with the show, and last month, at the inaugural BroadwayCon in New York, you were part of a panel marking the 20th anniversary of the premiere. Do you ever get tired of being asked about Rent?

I really don't. It's been the most meaningful experience in my life. It profoundly transformed every aspect of my life in the most meaningful ways. I'm very close with Jonathan's family, and our director Michael Greif has remained a friend and collaborator all these years. I've been working since I was nine years old, and I've been part of a lot of different projects and I'm proud of most of them. But if it's forever going to be the lead sentence on a biography of me, or in my obituary, that is more than fine with me. It continues to change my life, it just does.

BroadwayCon is something you were involved in conceiving and creating. How did that come about?

My friend Melissa Anelli—I actually met her outside the Nederlander Theatre in 1996, and this is in the days before "stage-dooring" was a verb. As huge a success as Rent was, it of course was before social media, so it was a different. The Hamilton thing is so much like what happened to Rent, except plus social media and plus Lin-Manuel Miranda is alive. But in terms of all the attention and the hype and you can't get a ticket and stuff, and it's all deserved, for a piece that's a masterpiece. But we could come out of the theater and there would be maybe five to ten people standing outside that we could talk to, and they were very passionate theatergoers. It wasn't the culture of selfies; we'd actually have conversations. Melissa was a 16-year-old high school student, and she was a part of this community on AOL, and we kept in touch and became closer as she got older and went off to college.

She got involved in the Harry Potter fandom, and from that and with her friend and now business partner Stephanie Dornhelm, they started conventions around the Harry Potter fandom called LeakyCon. I participated in one, and they started to realize that with a lot of these fandoms, there's a sort of Venn diagram, a lot of overlap, and they got a lot of theater fans at these conventions.

So Melissa and I were watching the Tonys a couple of years ago with some other people, the year that Audra [McDonald] and Neil [Patrick Harris] did the rap and Audra dropped the mic. And suddenly Stephanie and Melissa were texting each other, like, we need to do BroadwayCon.

It's the perfect blend and marriage of all the things I believe in about what theater can and should be and what community is and what fandom is. Like LeakyCon, it really is about celebrating the passion and love for, and artistry of, the things you are a fan of. It's not just a marketing festival, it's an opportunity for the artists and the audience to come together and share and learn.

You grew up in Joliet. Did you spend a lot of time in Chicago in your younger days?

I worked at the Goodman a couple of times as a kid. When I was a little kid I was an understudy in A Christmas Carol, and then when I was 16 I was in [the John Guare play] Landscape of the Body. And I was also in Evita when I was a kid—that was my first Equity job, at the Shubert [now the PrivateBank Theatre].

But I would come to Chicago a lot especially as a teenager, after I got my driver's license. I remain a huge Cubs fan. Last year I was able to go to Opening Day and a couple of other games throughout the season. I'm a little bummed that I'm in town this time before the season's started. I still have the goal and dream of getting to sing the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley. I'm going to make that happen somehow.

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