On Stage: Charlie Brown
By Michael Kuchwara
AP Drama Writer
February 3, 1999
NEW YORK (AP) - At first glance, he doesn't look like the little baldheaded
kid in the funny papers, but there's a bit of Charlie Brown in Anthony Rapp,
late of "Rent'' and now star of the new Broadway version of "You're a Good
Man, Charlie Brown.''
Talk to Rapp for a while and the similarities become more apparent,
the mop of blond hair that covers his head. Sitting in an empty rehearsal
hall, the 27-year-old actor is thoughtful - but not somber - talkative and
polite. His colleagues agree.
"Anthony really is an open book - a sweet, kind and decent person whose
humanity is very close to the surface,'' says director Michael Mayer, who
chose Rapp to play the lead in this musical adaptation of "Peanuts,'' the
Charles M. Schulz comic strip. "He comes to every relationship with a
'positivity' that is very much like Charlie Brown's.''
Yet Rapp's last three years have been filled with a series of ups and
that would have shaken the strongest of souls. In 1996, Rapp played Mark,
the world-weary video artist in the original off-Broadway production of
Its young creator, Jonathan Larson, died unexpectedly just before
performances began. Yet the musical lived on, moving to Broadway to become
one of the biggest hits of the 1990s. The following year, while Rapp was
still appearing in "Rent,'' his mother died after a three-year battle with
"'Rent' became like a lifeline through all that,'' he says now. "I never
but the show was exhausting. Anything else after that will be a piece
Rapp stayed with "Rent'' until January 1998. Of the original principal
actors, he was the only one left in the cast. "What we had was so precious,
so rare. We had gone through it together,'' he recalls. "Although I loved
working with new members of the cast, sometimes it got a little lonely.''
Rapp gave "Rent'' one more go, appearing in the London production for
several months before leaving the show for good. He started rehearsals for
"Charlie Brown'' last fall.
Choosing the star of "Rent'' to appear in "Charlie Brown,'' was, according
to Mayer, an excellent opportunity to demonstrate a fresh, contemporary take
on "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' which was first done off-Broadway
more than 20 years ago.
"Charlie Brown'' is a homecoming of sorts for Rapp, who grew up in Joliet,
Ill. He played Snoopy in a summer camp production of the show in
Pennsylvania when he was 7. `"My mom was a nurse at the camp and the three
of us kids - my brother, my sister and I - were there, too,'' he says. "It
was strange, but when we started rehearsals for this production, I found
that I remembered most of the lyrics.''
By the age of 9, Rapp was ready for Broadway, cast in a musical version
"The Little Prince,'' which never opened. Shuttling back and forth between
Joliet and New York, Rapp eventually got cast in one of Yul Brynner's tours
of "The King and I'' and on Broadway in "Precious Sons,'' a family drama
that starred Ed Harris and Judith Ivey. It didn't run long, but Rapp, at age
14, got noticed.
Jobs in the stage and screen versions of "Six Degrees of Separation''
followed as well as roles in such films as "Adventures in Babysitting,''
"School Ties'' and "Dazed and Confused.''
Now, with Charlie Brown, Rapp is dealing with a cultural icon imbedded
the consciousness of just about everyone. The musical, written by Clark
Gesner, originally opened in 1967 off-Broadway where it ran for nearly four
This latest version incorporates material from the last 30 years of
strips as well as several new songs. Yet the overall tone of the piece
remains the same, with Charlie Brown still enduring the humiliations of that
professional dyspeptic, Lucy Van Pelt; a recalcitrant kite; a winless
baseball team, and the elusive little red-haired girl.
Mayer has opted for a multiracial cast to give the show a more contemporary
feel. There's an Asian Linus, Lucy's blanket-clutching brother, played by
B.D. Wong. And a black Schroeder, portrayed by Stanley Wayne Mathis, who
delivers a new song, "Beethoven Day,'' celebrating his favorite composer.
The director hired Ilana Levine of "The Last Night of Ballyhoo'' for
pivotal role of Lucy, while song-and-dance man Roger Bart gives Snoopy a
jazzier beat than in the original. Another new addition is the character of
Sally, Charlie Brown's sister, portrayed by Kristin Chenoweth, who gleefully
torments her older sibling.
Rapp finds the pervasiveness of Charlie Brown's persona a blessing.
"Whenever I work, I try to absorb it rather than put my thoughts onto
he says. "I try to let it tell me what it is. And in this case, I had such a
great chance to observe and read and absorb 50 years worth of material.
Charlie Brown has changed a lot in that time, too. There are a lot of
"In the beginning, 'Peanuts' was a lot darker. In the earlier strips,
Charlie Brown called himself 'stupid' all the time and was really, really
tough on himself.''
Yet the actor insists part of Charlie Brown's strength is his persistence,
his optimism - his putting faith in someone or something even though, as
Rapp puts it, "the only historical evidence is failure.''
According to Mayer, the hardest part in portraying these little people
retain their childlike qualities.
"It's not so much that they are cartoons that make them difficult to
the director says. "I think the difficulty is to keep an adult sensibility
with a childlike quality. And Anthony does that beautifully.''
While in "Charlie Brown,'' Rapp is working on other things, writing
about his mother's illness and his relationship with her as well as the
whole "Rent'' experience.
"My mother was my center,'' he says simply, talking of a childhood in
his parents divorced when he was 2. "She had a quiet strength and a deep
love for her children. She was the oldest of 13 kids in a very hectic
family. She always told me that I taught her. I always was strong-willed and
clear-headed about what I wanted - and she was really supportive.''
Rapp's mother was supportive, too, after he openly declared his
homosexuality in his theater bio for "The Destiny of Me,'' a Larry Kramer
play he did off-Broadway in 1992.
Now he has become an unofficial spokesman, speaking at high schools
colleges about gay issues and the questions of coming out.
"Of course, everyone's private life is their own business. I don't think
anybody should be forced to do anything, but I also, to some degree, think
that to the extent when you are not helping, you are part of the problem.''
Whether his openness has hurt his own career, Rapp isn't sure.
"People who are smart know it doesn't matter, and I wish there were
people out. Maybe it has interfered with some Hollywood roles,'' he says,
but adds with typical Charlie Brown optimism, "There are worse things to
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