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Nearly 20 Years After “Rent,” Anthony Rapp Is Desperately Seeking Originality With “If/Then”

In the new musical If/Then, Anthony Rapp plays two versions of the same character in alternate realities. It’s a complex, unique show, which — as the Rent star laments — is getting increasingly harder to find on Broadway.

Anthony Rapp stars alongside Idina Menzel in If/Then at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Joan Marcus

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, which means Anthony Rapp has limited time to grab dinner between the matinee and evening performances of his current play If/Then. And that’s not including the last 30 minutes he’s spent signing autographs and chatting with fans outside the stage door.

“I literally had a woman out there — I just signed autographs and everything, which I do after every show — the woman said she thinks this might be as good as Rent for her, or even better,” Rapp says from his dressing room a few stories above the red seats that are filled nightly at the Richard Rodgers Theatre slightly off Times Square. “Knock on wood, but I feel like I’ve been around enough years to have a little sense of when it’s working.”

The Rent comparison is apt. In 1996, Rapp originated the role of Mark in the iconic Broadway show, a part he reprised for the 2005 film adaptation. If/Then reunites him with his Rent director Michael Greif and co-star Idina Menzel, who stars here as a woman exploring dual lives.

But beyond the surface similarities, If/Then and Rent share an important approach to musical theater: Both shows offer unique, challenging material. And in 2014, originality is even harder to come by. When the Tony Award nominations were announced on April 29, If/Then, penned by Next to Normal scribes Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, was snubbed for Best Musical. Of the four nominees in the category, only one — A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder — has an original score.

Singing “You Don’t Need to Love Me” from If/Then. youtube.com

“I think that [original musicals] may be a little fewer and farther between than the big, mega-adaptations of big popular movies/traditional musical comedy that has a little more traditional, broader appeal,” Rapp says, leaning forward in his chair. “But I think that as long as there are people like [If/Then producer] David Stone in the world who put their money where their mouth is in terms of supporting new voices and other theaters like New York Theater Workshop and other regional theaters that are willing to take risks and develop new voices and new ways of telling stories in musical theater, in the musical theater language, I think there’s hope.”

He pauses for a moment before offering a slightly less optimistic coda: “But it’s probably going to be rarer than Mamma Mia.”

Rapp continues, “It’s going to continue to be rarer that these outsider projects make it through. I’ve just never been a huge, huge fan of shows like Crazy For You and The Producers.” The small dressing room adopts a confessional feel as he speaks candidly. “I understand them, and they’re funny and they’re fun, but… when I go to the theater, that’s not what really excites me. What excites me are things like Spring Awakening and Next to Normal and Rent.”

If/Then’s curtain call (from left to right): James Snyder, Menzel, LaChanze, and Rapp. Rob Kim / Getty

While If/Then is not as devastating as the mental illness-centric rock musical Next to Normal or as operatic as the AIDS-riddled New York City-set Rent, it’s a complicated, emotionally affecting show about how the little choices we make in life have profound consequences. Menzel’s Elizabeth explores two different timelines — one as Liz and one as Beth, alternating realities that not only change Elizabeth’s future, but also the futures of everyone she knows, including Rapp’s Lucas.

In both timelines, Lucas is an old friend of Elizabeth’s, harboring romantic feelings or at least nostalgia for their past relationship. But the trajectory of their friendship — and of Lucas’ life outside of that — vary wildly depending on which version of Elizabeth is at the center.

“The nature of what happens between Elizabeth and Lucas in the two lives, it’s totally feasible to me, both things are absolutely possible,” Rapp says. “I think we’ve all had friendships like that: One little tiny difference could tilt it in one direction or the other. That makes sense to me. So it just felt really exciting to get to bring that to life.”

With two timelines occurring simultaneously, If/Then is intricate, but not confusing. Rapp, who was involved with the production back when it was still being workshopped without a title, has watched the play evolve into something easier to digest. But If/Then never sacrificed its emotional depth along the way. In its current, slightly more streamlined form, the show continues to pose difficult questions of its audience while giving the actors dual roles to work with.

“A show that has complex emotions, the way that it’s written — it has to feel like it tells the truth about it, and this does for me,” Rapp says, his passion for the project shining through on his face. “I want to have a full meal when I’m acting. I want to be able to have the opportunity to really go into lots of interesting places and not just have a little dessert.”

With co-star Jason Tam as Lucas’ love interest David in If/Then. Joan Marcus

One of the complexities of Rapp’s character is his fluid sexuality. In one timeline, he pines after Beth, but in the other, he finds himself in a relationship with a handsome doctor named David, played by Jason Tam. Despite the fact that Elizabeth proclaims her distrust of bisexuality, If/Then is fully invested in the idea of sexuality as a spectrum. In addition to Lucas, there’s Elizabeth’s friend Kate (LaChanze), a lesbian kindergarten teacher. The fact that sexual identity is both central and incidental is part of what makes If/Then feel thoroughly modern — it’s a significant step forward for the queer musical, which had its groundwork laid, largely in part, by Rent.

“Like in Rent, the queer characters are just gay or lesbian or bisexual, whatever they are,” Rapp says. “Their sexuality’s not an issue per se. So in that sense, it’s very sort of post-gay, post-identity … Of course, there still need to be stories told. Brokeback Mountain was a profoundly important story to be told about a person in the closet, and I’m sure there are other stories like that. But more and more, I hope there can also just be, We’re all in this together, like my character says, and it doesn’t have to be about the issue itself of whether someone’s gay or straight.”

For Rapp, who identifies as a “four-and-a-half” on the Kinsey scale, If/Then’s intrinsic queerness is a major asset.

“I’ve always liked the word ‘queer,’” he says. “It’s the umbrella word, and I like that it’s the reclaiming of an insult and all of that. I do like, also, the other meaning of ‘queer,’ which is other, different, weird. Because people of divergent sexualities are a little weird, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

As Mark in the 2005 film adaptation of Rent. Columbia Pictures

The fact that Rapp can even have these conversations about If/Then is exciting for him, and an important reflection of the work he wants to be doing. A more conventional “guy-meets-girl” story — however satisfying to an audience craving a happy ending — is limiting.

“Tom [Kitt] and Brian [Yorkey] were very inspired by [Rent composer] Jonathan Larson, and I hope that other young writers are inspired by what Tom and Brian are doing, which is telling human, adult, complicated, emotionally rich stories,” Rapp says.

Because the actor is, as he puts it, “in a position where I can be a little picky,” he’s been able to wait for projects like If/Then that don’t feel like settling. While that may mean working slightly less often, that’s OK with Rapp. He’s committed to innovative theater, and he’s willing to wait for shows that don’t pander to their audience.

“We’re evidence that it’s working, because people are coming,” Rapp says. “If the word wasn’t good and the audience wasn’t responding the way they’re responding, then it just wouldn’t be sustaining the way it’s sustaining.”

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