Last November 19, Netflix started streaming the much-awaited screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical. Below is a review of ‘tick tick BOOM!‘
There was once a time when you can’t say anything about Rent. Partly because of the tragic circumstances behind its opening when Jonathan Larson, the show’s maverick composer, died just hours before the curtain was raised on the first public performance of the musical. This coupled with the surprising, meteoric, rise to fame of a musical that for all intents and purposes, broke the mold for musicals on the other side of the 20th century. All of a sudden, it captured the imagination of theatergoers and the general public alike with its innovative music style, aesthetic, and subject matter. It’s easy to imagine that after the smash box-office performance, the Pulitzer Prize, the warm welcome into the 90’s queer idiom, we end up reducing what came before it as something sacred: deifying the creator of one of Musical Theatre’s most fiercely defended properties.
It should come as a surprise to most fans of the musical Rent, that Jonathan Larson penned a superior play before his Magnum Opus that was Rent. He wrote a partially autobiographical musical chronicling his life as a struggling writer in New York called tick, tick… BOOM! It was an obscure three-person play (An actor who plays Jon, and two actors playing every other character in the show), which follows the life of Jonathan Larson as he struggles with a feeling of impending doom as his 30th birthday approaches, without having done anything of note. It was a compelling, more emotionally concentrated, version of Rent that is grounded in reality: thus ensuring that the emotional plot points land more effectively.
In Netflix’s tick, tick… BOOM! Andrew Garfield plays Jonathan Larson. The musical employs a device where the lead character Jon, addresses the audience throughout the story in a fairly linear fashion. In order to translate the material effectively, Director Lin-Manuel Miranda breaks the linear form of the play instead of the fourth wall, and frames the songs as partly diegetic — taking place in the first public showcase of tick, tick… BOOM! In effect, the movie, unlike the play, tells two stories which are so wildly divergent from each other at times, which lends a fresh coat of tension to the otherwise straightforward plot.
Jonathan hears a phantom ticking, like the sweep of a clock’s second hand. The ticking is a device to signify the passing of time, a countdown to his 30th birthday that causes him immense anxiety. Along with Jon, he has his friend, Michael (Played by Robin de Jesus), and his girlfriend, Susan (Played by Alexandra Shipp), his co-workers at the fabled Moondance Diner, Carolyn and Freddy (MJ Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross), and a host of other characters that make up Jon’s limited social orbit as he obsessively tries to push a temporal musical “Superbia” through a workshop hoping that it would prove to be his big break into Broadway.
In classic, bordering-on-culturally-tortured fashion, the film shows a toxic blend of talent and obsession, as Jon burns through the length of the film neglecting the closest relationships in his life in pursuit of a singular goal: To complete and execute a flawless presentation to spell the end of his self-perceived mediocre existence. He could “almost” be forgiven for the incessant whining about everything around him, and how they weigh him down, not knowing that in his miserable quest for self-expression, he loses the very audience he’s expressing it for. Despite the presence of other actors and characters, make no mistake: this is a one-man show. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what could be the most compelling departure from the source material: in order to make this adaptation work, we are presented with two stories at any given time; that of tick tick BOOM!, and a darker, more realistic narrative. In the song “Therapy” we are treated to a wildly inventive composition with two people arguing, in the play, it was meant to be a funny little song that illustrates the pitfalls of relationships and communication. In the film, the song is cut with scenes between Jon and Susan having an actual, serious fight with all the messes that refuse to fit neatly in syncopatic time.
The film has a lot of heart, tender in its romantic angle when discussing Broadway musicals. With “Sunday”, the melodic inversion of Sondheim’s “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, we see the familiar faces from Broadway then and now. It pulls at the heartstrings of any theatre fan and is a fond love letter to the voices that made our own lives a little more musical. The music of tick, tick… BOOM! is much more cerebral, more thought out than that of Rent, and it is a shame that most people are only being exposed to it now. It has more emotional weight, more edge, and speaks to a deeper sense not only of obsession, loss, and fear, but also of passion, joy, and love — Truly, the stuff Jonathan Larson’s legacy is made of.