Anthony Rapp Talk on Rent and LGBT in the Arts!

rent-posterI got to hear Anthony Rapp give a speech today!!

Who is Anthony Rapp, you might ask, and does the above statement really warrant two exclamation marks?

Well, Anthony Rapp was one of the original cast members of Rent, the musical – he played the role of Mark Cohen. As Rent is one of my favorite musicals ever (and I did not plan or expect to go to hear him speak today), my excitement was tremendous. And when I found out through this event that he and Adam Pascal (another original cast member) was on tour for Rent and they would be performing at the Warner Theater until May 31st, my excitement meter simply went through the roof. Needless to say I’ve purchased tickets for a Saturday performance. It’ll be my third watching of the show, and I can’t wait!

The first time I watched Rent on Broadway was truly a very special experience. I had a similar jaws-dropping, mind-boggling feeling as I had after watching “The Matrix” for the first time… feeling very overwhelmed by how good it was, and grateful how in my mind it opened up new doors, new ways of looking at things. It also spurred me on to indulge in serious fan-girl activities for a good amount of time, which consisted of memorizing the soundtrack and all the songs by heart, obsessive googling of Jonathan Larson (the playwright) and general reading up on anything Rent related. I loved everything about the show – the music, all of the social themes the story addressed, and how this show really managed to speak to me.

For all of the above reasons being able to hear Anthony Rapp speak today was a huge treat. The broad topic he addressed was on the LGBT experience within Hollywood, but he also dropped in a lot of great personal anecdotes that helped me put Rent into a different context. Rapp mentioned how in the ’70s, Hollywood producers and other studio insiders may be aware that an actor is gay, but they would hire “girlfriends” for said actor in public to present a heterosexual facade to the rest of the world. Thankfully in today’s Hollywood this type of “whitewashing” (or “straightwashing?”) is a thing of the past. As more LGBT actors and actresses like T.R. Knight and Ellen DeGeneres opened up about their sexual orientation, studios and producers are now largely supportive.

On a slightly more personal note, Rapp also mentioned that growing up in a small town in Illinois he didn’t have many gay role models to look to. He was grateful to have been involved in Rent because after the show grew into this unexpected phenomenon he got to interact with many LGBT youth, who in the ’90s would email him questions – “Are these feelings that I’m having ok?” Whereas now the types of questions he gets are more along the lines of, “How do I tell my parents that I’m gay?” Which to Rapp is very different because the former showed real struggle and the need for validation of an identity, whereas the latter was about people trying to figure out how to “position themselves in a world that may not always be friendly to them.”

Although the overall tone of Rapp’s speech was positive (“Every little bit [of arts or entertainment with LGBT characters] help add up to a whole”) he also remained realistic. The struggle over gay marriage is ongoing, one that the LGBT community is focused on especially after California’s Proposition 8. One question from an audience member addressed the crystal meth addiction within the LGBT community, to which Rapp replied that he personally haven’t experienced that aspect closely because performing on tour demands a clean lifestyle. He suggests that artists or playwrights are probably struggling with the right vocabulary to describe this phenomenon to mainstream audiences. However, one of his actor friends openly admitted recently that he was a recovering crystal meth addict and performed a piece about his experience, which Rapp found very powerful.

Rapp closed out the talk by stating that the arts through shows like Rent can help inform and push sociopolitical change, because the arts can bring powerful depictions and stories to wide varieties of audiences. He also said that change is gradual, but it’s there – the younger generation are more open to gays and lesbians than older generations that often have stronger stigmas. I wonder how true this holds for kids in the so called Bible Belt. After all, the main geographic areas of Rapp’s talk is really just the two coasts, and specific cities within those regions – New York City (Broadway) and Los Angeles (Hollywood). However, it’s interesting to think about how parents often bemoan their kids’ loss of “culture” or “values” – maybe through this process some kids are also growing to be more accepting of others?

All in all, a very thoughtful and thought-provoking talk by Anthony Rapp, and I really appreciated how this event helped me put Rent in a different personal and social context. Mad props to Anthony Rapp for being an overall amazing actor and person. And again, can’t wait to see the show tomorrow! (Talk about mixing social with capital – I shelled out quite a bit for tickets :P)

No day but today.

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