Anthony Rapp is ready.
On a recent evening, he was at the National Theatre. Along with the rest of the If/Then company, he was rehearsing that show’s finale. He told me about looking out into the audience, empty of patrons, and imagining the seats filled.
For some actors at certain times, the prospect of being pulled out of the cocoon of the rehearsal room and onto the stage in front of a ticket-buying audience is nerve-wracking, if not terrifying. Rapp, however, told me how anxious he is to see those seats filled. And audiences are anxious for the curtain to be pulled back on such an unusually mysterious project.
Rapp said that the If/Then team has been working “super hard” for two years on the piece, as it has gone through development and been work-shopped. Sure, they’ve gotten feedback from a lot of sources during that process. But now he is “supremely eager” to test the work before the “new eyes and ears” belonging to the folks who will be filing into the National to see that increasingly rare occurrence, the out-of-town tryout of a new Broadway musical. After all, he told me, no matter how confidant anyone is about the strength of the piece, you can’t really know what you have until an audience is experiencing and responding to the work.
Since it was announced that If/Then would play here on its way to New York, it’s been just about the most eagerly anticipated event of the DC theatre season. It marks the first return to Broadway of Idina Menzel since her Tony-winning turn in the mega-hit Wicked. It’s the follow-up project by composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey, the team that scored a surprising triumph with Next to Normal. (Its path to Broadway success, of course, had an important Washington stop along the way, at Arena Stage, before going on to New York, a Tony, and a Pulitzer.) And it reunites Menzel not only with Michael Grieff, the director of Rent, the phenom which put them both on the map, but also with one of her co-stars from that legendary show, Anthony Rapp.
Unlike either Rent or Next to Normal, If/Then is not part of the current trend of sung-through musicals. Though a couple of songs weave in and out of scenes, the show is a more traditional book musical, with dialogue separating the musical numbers. That formal structure, Rapp said, is the extent to which the piece is traditional. In terms of subject matter and style, it’s not your typical Broadway musical. Like Next to Normal, and the plot secrecy notwithstanding, it seems clear that this musical is more character-driven than plot-driven, more focused on the challenges of contemporary urban life than on the sort of “Life’s a banquet” affirmation that marks many a hit musical.
Part of the fun of seeing a show before its Broadway opening is comparing what you are seeing to the eventual settled show that opens on Broadway and is recorded for the original cast album. I remember a number from Mack and Mabel during which Lisa Kirk and the company sang to Robert Preston something like “Get her back!”; that song was cut before the Broadway opening. Also, my memory of “Chrysanthemum Tea” from Pacific Overtures is that it was a very, very different song when it played the Kennedy Center than when it was recorded on the album.
So, is the show in a state of flux? Rapp said changes involving structure and story order are theoretically possible. However, and more importantly, the foundation of the piece, its core, is very much the same as it has been throughout development. Changes have been made to some of the staging and to small bits of dialogue or lyrics. Director Grieff, according to Rapp, keeps honing away, keeps experimenting, but what’s been going on at the National is closer to fine-tuning than to overhauling.
As I said, Anthony Rapp is ready. And he feels as if If/Then is ready.
“It’s incredible material. It’s not like anything else out there. It builds on the history of musical theatre, but, really, it’s its own creation. It’s working on levels not typical to a musical. I think it will connect to people in a meaningful way.”
Added to all of this excitement, there is, as I said, an unusual amount of mystery surrounding the piece. Details about the plot are being tightly held, reminding me of the Woody Allen movies whose titles and plot points can remain unknown until the last moment. We know that Menzel plays a woman moving back to NYC from Phoenix. We know that she reconnects with Lucas, a college friend, played by Rapp. He’s a housing activist who lives in Brooklyn. (After all, in the early part of this century, the geographic center of la vie Boheme has shifted from the East Village across the East River.) Beyond that? “I can’t comment on the plot,” Rapp told me, before relenting a bit and offering that Menzel’s character and his had a “romantic history in college.”
Rapp and I talked about the much-discussed dynamic of how Internet buzz can negatively frame attitudes toward developing projects, particularly musicals. Describing the If/Then process as two years of being “hermetically sealed” and “keeping a lid on things,” Rapp stresses that it isn’t because they have anything to hide (although obviously there is an interest in retaining some surprise regarding plot points) or that they are ashamed of anything. However, he acknowledges that a certain amount of protectiveness of the process is a necessity as a project is being incubated. Calling that protective impulse a calculated risk (presumably because it could provoke speculation and assumption), he stresses again how much he and his colleagues believe in the piece.
Rapp has been on an out-of-town pre-Broadway tour before, but that show was a revival (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), not an original piece. Although he says that substantial changes were made to it during a four-city tour, it’s not the same thing as taking an original piece to a close-by, classic tryout town. If/Then is his first experience of that.
Regarding his colleague Menzel, Rapp said that protagonist Elizabeth is a great role for her. She is on-stage for nearly the entire show. Menzel is “a force of nature” and her participation has engendered a great deal of interest in the project. Rapp, though, told me that, for his part, it’s a relief to have a good supporting role, and, presumably, not to have the stress of carrying the entire project on his shoulders. And he’s looking very much forward to the Broadway run. He’s been traveling a lot recently and is happily anticipating falling into the rhythm of doing eight shows a week during an open-ended run in the city he calls home. The cast have year-long contracts. (That’s five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, if you’re counting.) And this supporting role in a project that so genuinely engages him is also giving him a breather from a different project that has been simmering on another burner, his one-man show.
In 2006, Rapp published Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent. (The “loss” of the title refers to the death of his Mother.) Between roles and other performances (he famously does concert dates with another Rent alum, Adam Pascal), Rapp has developed a performance piece based on that book, and he is anxious for more productions of it, especially a run in NYC. In fact, he got close to that New York run earlier this year. However, the preferred venue ended up being unavailable, and then the dates for If/Then fell into place, so the NYC run of Without You is back-burnered for now.
It isn’t a surprise that Rapp has writing as well as performing skills, since his brother is the acclaimed playwright Adam Rapp. Anthony Rapp has had roles in both of Adam’s films. When I asked him why he is in both of the films, but hasn’t been in his brother’s plays, Anthony responded that some of that is schedule, some is because there aren’t always appropriate roles, but then points out that he did the West Coast premiere of Nocturne, Adam’s play about a young man who has accidentally killed his sister. (DC audiences may have seen the Studio 2ndStage production with Scott Fortier in 2002.) Anthony Rapp spoke enthusiastically about how much he admires his brother’s work, and “not just because he’s my brother.” He added that he is thrilled that so many others share that enthusiasm.
Rapp’s own musical tastes aren’t show-tune heavy. He told me that he likes the classics (and mentions West Side Story and A Chorus Line) and that he loves a great Broadway show. But as regards theatre music, what excites him are the shows since Rent and like Rent (and he mentions Once and Spring Awakening, in addition to Next to Normal) that work in a more modern idiom than the traditional hummable show tune-scored show. There will likely still be the adaptations of hit movies and the juke-box musicals, but what engages him are the projects that are more artistically forward looking than those safer prospects.
A friend told me that Rapp was in the Shakespeare Theatre Company lobby at the last performance of Measure for Measure and that he was rocking a beard. I asked if that was part of his calculus in taking the role of Lucas in If/Then. Perhaps, I thought, since he possesses such a youthful vibe and has an association with the show that might be called the Hair (or iconically youth-oriented hit) of the 90s, he was, as he entered his 40s, intending to cultivate an, um, more mature image. Rapp disabuses my Machiavellian insight. What appeals to him is a good role in a good show. He likes to work, he told me. Maybe he should be more “career savvy,” he said, and make calculations along those lines. But he doesn’t.
I asked Rapp, as he is in the trenches of the birthin’ of this new musical baby, to what extent eventual success is apparent at this point in a process. While noting that one never knows, he shared memories of the landmark and legendary works on which he was a collaborator. After all, he was in the original cast of the era-defining musical of the 1990s, as well as one of the few contemporary plays whose title concept has become a household phrase. He said that Six Degrees of Separation was close to perfection at the first read. Later, the audience at the invited dress rehearsal “went bananas.” It was similar with Rent. In the rehearsal room on day one, rehearsing “Seasons of Love,” he had the sense of something really extraordinary, a sense that “this was going to be an event.”
Rapp and I talked about how interesting it is that he has continued to collaborate with so many of the same people: Menzel and Grief here; Pascal during their tours; Rapp even assistant directing for Grief on Next to Normal during its initial NYC run at New York’s Second Stage. He spoke of how the trust, friendship, and intimacy among friends feeds collaborations like those, and how it inspires them to achieve their best work.
Rapp is thoughtful, articulate, and intelligent, and he makes a point of qualifying his remarks: “I can only speak for myself,” he will say; and, despite his palpable enthusiasm regarding If/Then, he stresses that you never know about the commercial prospects for a show. You do know, though, how much he believes that, whatever the eventual reception of If/Then, it is artistically satisfying for the actor playing Lucas.
This run of If/Then will be the longest Rapp has stayed in DC. He hasn’t had much time to do anything else yet. During the couple of weeks of the run after its official opening, perhaps he’ll have the chance to explore the city more. Still, he has been impressed with it as a “sophisticated theatre city” and one that is “not unwilling to see something different.”
Previews: November 5, 2013
Official opening: November 24, 2013
Closes December 8, 2013
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Tickets: $58 – $128
Tuesdays thru Sundays
A return to the Golden Age of the National?
All of this gets me nostalgic about my own theatre-going history at the National. I remember going to see the legendary Katherine Hepburn in A Matter of Gravity, only to realize, a few months later, that the unknown actor playing her nephew had become a movie star: Christopher Reeve. I remember sitting in the second balcony and seeing one man, one voice, fill the building more completely than a cast of dozens, watching James Earl Jones do his solo piece Paul Robeson. I remember seeing Helen Hayes sitting in a box during the awards ceremony that bears her name and her mentor Eva Le Gallienne giving a breathtakingly moving performance in the same building in The Royal Family a few years earlier.
A favorite tactic of mine was to buy cheap seats in the balcony, and then move down to empty orchestra seats. Yes, a settee blocked some of the action in Amadeus, but I remember watching Ian McKellen, during the very first U.S. preview, do those hairpin transitions from soliloquy to scene a mere few feet from me. Sometimes those orchestra seats were empty because they had views of the backstage. I remember seeing Eartha Kitt preparing for an entrance in Timbuktu. The contrast between her imperious character on-stage and the vulnerability, almost tentativeness, of her standing offstage will stay with me forever.
But enough about the past. If/Then is here, now, in the present and opened for previews last night.
DCTS review of If/Then