Before “Hamilton” took over Broadway’s Richard Rogers Theatre in 2015, Anthony Rapp was on its stage playing Lucas in “If/Then,” a new musical about fate and fresh starts. In one of the two realities the play enacts, Lucas is an old college friend of the lead character (Elizabeth, played by Jackie Burns) who falls in love with a man; in the other, a friend-turned-one-night-stand.

The role has made him wonder about the different path his own life could have taken if, as the young, broke actor he was in the early ‘90s, he hadn’t participated in a workshop for “Rent.” The show, “this little nothing,” as Rapp said he thought of it then, was initially scheduled for 10 off-Broadway performances. That is, until it became a smash hit that moved to Broadway in 1996 and stayed there for 12 years, having won a Pulitzer Prize and several Tony Awards. 

In the 20 years since “Rent” had its Broadway debut, Rapp has become a New York theater insider, which means he not only gets to see “Hamilton” multiple times (four, as of this publication) but also snaps selfies with the cast. Rapp recently sat down with WGBH Arts Editor Jared Bowen to talk about “If/Then,” his acting career and what it’s like to marvel at show-business mania from the outside. 

JARED BOWEN: It’s interesting that “Rent” has its 20th anniversary this year at the same time that "Hamilton" is happening—and this phenomenon. How do you look at the two?

ANTHONY RAPP: I mean, like, as a super fan of “Hamilton” myself, I’m getting to experience the wonderful other side of it that I didn’t get to experience from being inside of “Rent,” and “Rent” almost predated social media. It was in the early days before the internet really exploded, so there was like early internet community stuff happening around “Rent” that was pretty big for its time. Now, given what’s happened with “Hamilton” on social media, it would be insane! And this is also before premium tickets and secondary market stuff. And again, the internet has changed so much of how all that happens, and so that part of it is different from what happened with "Rent," but I think in every other way, it’s so much like what happened in "Rent." I know that Lin-Manuel was so profoundly impacted by "Rent" and Jonathan [Larson, the playwright]. I mean, when I went to see "Hamilton," I talked to Lin about it. The first thing I said, the first thing that I felt seeing it for the first time, was that how much Jonathan would love it. How much it was doing exactly what he thought musical theater could and would do, in every respect. I feel like the thread linking them is so strong.

BOWEN: Was it difficult for you in that mania at the time? 

RAPP: It was intense to be in the middle of. I always think of it as you know, it’s a cliché phrase, but, “the eye of the hurricane.” I mean we—the show itself was the eye—that always felt incredibly solid, true and grounded, and all the other stuff was like noise and wind and insanity. 


Part of what also kept us so grounded the whole time was Jonathan not being there. Jonathan had died. So, it tempered everything. I just saw “Hamilton” again recently, and I was talking to Leslie Odom Jr. and Renee [Elise] Goldsberry afterwards, and we were talking a little bit about that, and they also have a legacy with “Rent.” They were in “Rent.” There are so many things that connect us. I’m curious for them what it’s like to be inside of this hurricane, again, in the middle of social media and everything. I feel like they’re doing an incredible job of keeping their heads on and staying so connected to the material. What we were talking about was staying connected to – this is what’s most important – this work itself, the piece itself, that it’s giving rise to all the stuff around it. You always have to return to that. But, I mean seeing them, I feel like that’s what’s happening. Because I see them, and they’re better than ever now.

BOWEN: The time is turning for “Hamilton” a little bit in terms of the ticket prices and everything—what’s the best thing that comes out of this?

RAPP: When you have a groundbreaking show, and they both have been, both broke incredible ground. The kinds of stories that they’re telling, and the way that they’re telling their stories and the fact that you have a multiracial cast, telling these stories and no superstars, no TV stars and an incredible unity of purpose. An incredible unity of ideology involved. The way that that’s then being met and received, that to me validates everything that I believe in.


It’s been 20 years until the iron was struck so hot again. But, there have been many people and things that have happened because of “Rent” in the meantime. And I think that “Hamilton” will only do the same. But you can’t repeat it. It’s not like "Hamilton" is repeating what "Rent" did in terms of how it goes about it, but it’s standing on its shoulders. I think that there will be so many new writers standing on Lin’s shoulders. I mean, diversity in casting, colorblind casting, has been something that’s been talked about for a long time. I think for a while it’s been a lot of Shakespeare companies that have been much more innovative, as far as that goes, in terms of thinking all sorts of people can play these roles. It still in the mainstream has been so white-washed. It’s been something that’s been talked about certainly in theater circles; and I think that now because of the success of “Hamilton,” Hollywood, which lags behind everyone always, is maybe catching up a little bit even more and more as we go. You know, still, Asian invisibility is still very much a thing. The fact that Phillipa Soo is a part of that helps that a little bit, but there are all these incremental steps that have to be taken. I think that "Hamilton" certainly is a part of all that as well.

Rapp talks about his role in “If/Then” on Open Studio with Jared Bowen. "If/Then" is playing at the Boston Opera House through July 17.