There’s a moment in Tick, Tick…BOOM, Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical, where Jonathan says to one of his party guests, “I’m the future of musical theatre, Scott.”
When he makes this fairly arrogant remark, he had little evidence to believe that there was any truth to it at the time.
The waiter/aspiring musical theatre composer had spent the past eight years working on a sci-fi show, Superbia, that had been rejected by every major and minor producer, theatre company, record label and film studio in existence (so he says).
But, the crazy thing is that Jon’s statement eventually did come true. The musical that he would later write ‘Rent’ introduced musical theatre to a new generation of young theatregoers and ran on Broadway for an astonishing 12 years. Larson’s bold style of incorporating contemporary music within a musical theatre score and representing diverse stories on stage indisputably changed the musical theatre landscape. Hits such as ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Hamilton’ owe a clear debt to Larson’s work.
It is therefore tragic to know that Larson never lived to see all that his work would go on to achieve; he died at the age of 35, the day that would have been Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview performance. This makes Tick, Tick…BOOM which marks Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial film debut, a fitting and moving tribute to Larson’s genius and a heartfelt love letter to all the artists who have struggled to pursue what they love.
Jon’s (Andrew Garfield) musical is finally receiving a workshop where he may find investors to produce his work. But there’s an outstanding song that he’s struggling to write and he’s not got enough money to pay for the musicians that he wants. To top it off, Jon’s 30th birthday is around the corner and he ardently expresses his anxieties around this in the rock opening number ’30/90′ – an anthem for anyone similarly reaching crisis point ahead of this milestone birthday.
A significant theme explored in this musical is time and how we best spend our limited time on earth. Jon has spent so many years pursuing what he loves, but it has come at a cost with very little reward. Would his time be better spent living with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) who’s been offered a job in the suburbs? Or would it be easiest if he took up a corporate job in advertising where he may be financially compensated for his creativity like his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus)? All these competing pressures manifest in Jon hearing faint ticks of a clock which grow to these loud explosion sounds in his mind.
Garfield’s characterisation of this composer who wore his heart on his sleeve and was so sensitive to the world around him is sensational and has deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination. His frustration and tirelessness at writing this final song feels palpable as he curls around his keyboard in bed or is at his old school computer barely able to type out the first lyric of the song. The ending credits of the film show footage of Jonathan Larson and the similarities are uncanny. Garfield is ably supported by a talented supporting cast including many Broadway alums such Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry as Roger and Vanessa Hudgens as Karessa.
There are many other notable appearances from stars within the theatre community. Sitting at the musical theatre workshop for aspiring writers are many legendary composers of our time including Jason Robert Brown, Dave Malloy and Stephen Schwartz. Perhaps the most special is that the late Stephen Sondheim, who was a mentor to Jonathan Larson, used his own voice to record a voicemail message in the film.
When I saw the stage version of Tick, Tick…BOOM in 2017, I enjoyed the opening number and the rousing finale ‘Louder than Words’ but felt fairly underwhelmed by the rest of the show. And so having seen the source material and then seeing what Miranda has been able to create with this film has captured for me how talented a director Lin Manuel Miranda is.
There are so many things I could praise, from the way it vividly captured 90s New York, to the way it split the drama from some of the musical numbers in parts (such as in the song ‘Therapy’) which is a clear homage to movie musicals Cabaret and Chicago. Above all, Miranda is clearly a director who likes to pay attention to small details. This is best demonstrated by the 100+ easter eggs which Howard Ho’s YouTube video explains. But some of the moments that I enjoyed the most were when we see the bin at the diner burst just as Jon is about to change it, or when the cashier stops working at the hectic Sunday brunch. These small details really assist in the story-telling and bring the audience closer to what Jon’s day-to-day reality would have been like.
A notable difference between the stage show and the film was its depiction of the AIDS crisis. I felt like the inclusion AIDS storyline in the stage musical came across as a bit of an after-thought that is introduced towards the very end . But the film to its credit does really well to flesh out what it would have been like for Jon to see loved ones suffer and die from a terrible disease at a time when homophobia, particularly in US politics, was rife.
So returning to that question of what should we do with our time on this earth, the lasting message from the musical is that if you can stomach it, pursuing what you love is a worthwhile endeavour, even if you never see this fact to be affirmed in the way you would like it to in your lifetime. Miranda and the talented cast and creative team have raised the bar when it comes to creating movie musicals with this one and I hope that with all the positive buzz around this film, it challenges future producers of movie musicals to match it.
Photo Credit: Macall Polay/Netflix