In Tick, Tick…BOOM’s opening number, Jon laments, “They’re singing Happy Birthday, you just want to lay down and cry”. Now as a fan of birthday’s myself, this startles me a little to say the least. Why should a birthday motivate someone to lay down, and cry? No one has died? Rather, you’ve been fortunate to live out another year and deserve a pat on the back. However, I quickly learn that being a week away from turning thirty is possibly one of the most devastating things that can happen to someone in their extremely late twenties. How naïve I was not to know this.
This anxious title character Jon is a waiter / musical theatre composer in New York in the 1990s. In the show, Jon struggles to reconcile the fact that he has spent three long decades on this earth, yet has been unable to fulfil his artistic ambitions. As his anxiety grows, he repeatedly hears faint ticks which crescendo to distant booms. He later questions whether his time would be better spent on other pursuits in a more lucrative career or settling down with his girlfriend in the suburbs.
Despite the sudden start to the 90-minute show, I found myself warming to it by the end. The director, Bronagh Lagan, resourcefully makes full use of the intimate venue, limited set and three-actor cast in order to engage the audience in Jon’s world. The actors often single out audience members in songs and leap out uncomfortably close to the people in the front row. The contemporary rock score is delivered by a charged four-piece band. It includes songs such as ‘30/90’ which is a gritty yet heartfelt outpour of Jon’s distress.
As the show unfolds, you are subtly challenged to think, should you be comfortable in leading a life where you do not fulfil your ambitions? Or should you pursue that thing your heart yearns for, despite how taxing it may be? We see that the sacrifices Jon has to make are difficult. This is made worse by the societal or perhaps self-inflicted expectation that we have to achieve certain accomplishments by a given age. We aren’t provided with a definitive answer on how to lead the ‘good life’ in Tick, Tick…BOOM. But by the end, you should at least come away with two lessons. Firstly, working towards our ambitions in the limited time we have, may just be worth a try. And also thankfully birthdays shouldn’t be all that terrifying.
I later learnt that Tick, Tick…BOOM is one of Jonathon Larson’s, the show’s creator, earliest pieces of work, written as a semi-autobiographical piece. His one ambition was to create a successful musical, which he eventually would come to do with the 90s-musical phenomenon, Rent. However, Larson never lived to know of its success as he unexpectedly died at the young age of 35, after Rent’s first preview performance. It is stirring to think that Larson’s ruthless pursuit of what he wanted provided very few rewards during his time. If only he knew the recognition his work would go on to achieve, I wonder whether he would have been so haunted by the Tick, Tick…BOOMs?