I watched “Tick, Tick…Boom!”, Netflix’s film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical, four and a half times in the span of three weeks. I listened to the soundtrack three times, except for the opening song, “30/90”. Which I have listened to at least ten times.
When you replay a song this often, entire verses begin to sink into your memory. You begin to see beneath the surface, digging up the bones of the music: a change in key, a change in tempo, a bluesy bass line that appears and disappears in an instant.
When I talk about Larson’s work, I get romantic. It’s been that way since I was 15, thanks to his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent,” and now, thanks to “Tick, Tick…Boom!” But there’s a key difference in how I engaged with his work then compared to now: Back then it was as a fan who was just beginning to discover an art form that would shape his personal and professional life; now it’s as a critic who better understands the possibilities of musical theatre.
But I still have a long way to go – I’m continually learning how to be a better theater fan and critic, and 26 years after his death, Jonathan Larson is my unlikely mentor.
“Tick, Tick… Boom! ,” Larson’s precursor to “Rent,” is a musical about the playwright’s attempts to get his dystopian rock musical, “Superbia,” produced. His ambitions and anxieties create tension with his girlfriend and his best friend, whom he pushes aside.
Although Larson’s show stars a composer named Jon and is largely autobiographical, the film – written by Steven Levenson and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda – bridges the gap between the writer and his work, making Larson himself the protagonist. We switch between his staging of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and the correlative events of his life.
The film takes a loving look at Larson’s life and legacy. Larson (Andrew Garfield, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for the role) is an innocently aloof but also intimately present performer, transparent to audiences through his songs, which seem to burst from the top of his head in an effervescent burst of rhythm. .
Garfield bounces across the screen with the energy of a child on a trampoline; his downright kinetic performance is a flurry and flurry of gestures, limbs jerking and flailing in all directions. In some scenes, Larson pauses to consider a thought or phrase; his head tilts to the side and his jaw relaxes slightly, as if to make room for new words to fly. It’s crazy. And endearing.
As this is the world that Miranda is building: a bespoke version of 1990 New York for theater nerds, where André De Shields strolls as a haughty patron at the Moondance Diner, where Bernadette Peters has her coffee and where three of the The original “Rent” cast (Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wilson Jermaine Heredia) are bums who sing in the street.
If I even recognize so many of these faces, it’s thanks to Larson.
I’ve written before about my love for “Rent,” a love I share with my mother – how it provided a bohemian fantasy that could be the repository of my teenage insecurities, anxieties, rages and woes. I also discovered the musical when I was taking small steps to become a critic, writing art articles for my high school newspaper.
Larson taught me that the constellation of notes in a score has enough space to contain immense sorrow and irrepressible delights. That a musical doesn’t have to be airy and carefree, or campy and dated. It could be bold and contemporary, even tragic. Or equally weird and subversive – “Rent” is full of sex and drugs, bonkers performance art and mentions of BDSM – just like any art form.
The musical, I have come to appreciate, has an interlocking structure: the book is the backbone, and each song in the score contains its own micro-narrative, its own voice, conveyed through the music.
I still love “Rent” like I did when I was 15, but as my affections for him have aged, they’ve taken on the sepia tone of nostalgia.
I’m not the same person I was as a teenager anymore, thankfully. I’ll raise my glass to bohemian life but won’t stay that long with the eclectic crowd at Life Cafe.
Watch the “Tick, Tick…Boom!” film for the first time, I immediately fell for “30/90”, which seemed to me adapted from my own experience. Long before becoming a critic, I was an artist and I always worked with a self-imposed sense of urgency; When I was a child, I expected to be a famous poet, journalist and novelist at 25.
When I turned 30, in the middle of our first pandemic summer, I had a month-long existential crisis. Reaching that milestone age, as Larson sings about in “30/90,” means “you’re no longer the ingenue.” I still worry unnecessarily about time and mortality, clinging to the same clichéd, self-important worries about his legacy as so many artists, including Larson.
At one point, as I was rewatching the movie after an anxious and depressed afternoon, I remembered how I was doing the same thing with “Rent.” Again, Larson helps me, not only in those moments of joyless mental panic, but also in the moments of joy, when I sing “Boho Days” from the new movie while cooking dinner, strolling on the kitchen counter.
But I have to admit, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” gave me pause when Larson’s work is being studioed by Stephen Sondheim and a theater critic. Sondheim recognizes the potential in Larson and the play, while the reviewer quickly dismisses it. Seeing the narrow-mindedness and the pretentious posture of the critic, I asked myself: Did I do this? Did I miss a work of art the same way?
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“Tick, tick… Boom!” did not enlighten me on the creative and economic difficulties of the artist; I’ve gone through enough poems, nominations, and submissions to know that well enough for myself. But it allowed me to enter the mind of a director: the way he develops musical motifs; knits the songs together into a narrative (the missing song in “Superbia” which becomes “Come to Your Senses” in the film); and draws inspiration from other works (Larson’s love of “Sunday in the Park with George” happily turns into a dinner scene).
In the film, Larson is troubled by the critic’s criticism of his musical’s distribution of themes and styles (“I’m lost. I don’t know what the show is,” the critic says. “Is it rock, is it Broadway, is it both? Is it neither? He continues to write an equally varied musical, but which nevertheless blends into an adventurous but always coherent work.
Repeated viewings of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” left me with pattern recognition; I noticed how his songs bear the first imprints of “Rent”. “Johnny Can’t Decide” has the same emotional qualities as “One Song Glory”. The harmonies of “30/90” are reminiscent of “What You Own”. And every time I hear the guitar riff at the start of “No More,” for a brief second, I think I’m hearing the intro to the title track of “Rent.”
Before Larson, I never listened to show tunes; Over the past few weeks, I’ve not only listened to the soundtrack for the new movie, but also the scores for “Company” and “Six.” Before Larson, I loved musical theater but underestimated its depth; I now attend musicals with an open mind and, hopelessly sweet as it sounds, with an open heart.
Larson taught me another lesson. Every time I encounter his work, it forces me to face head-on the most futile job that defines my craft: finding a language to describe art. As an artist, I hope my work will exceed definition, but as a critic, I must do it to the best of my ability. Hopefully, the critic evolves with the critic, as new works constantly challenge her to grow and adapt – and as new works refresh her love for the genre.
At least that’s the lesson I have today, on my sofa, with a scene from “Tick, Tick… Boom!” once again frozen on my screen. There’s Garfield, as Larson, standing in the middle of the Moondance Diner during Sunday brunch as everything around him slows down.
He looks around and the restaurant is transformed by his imagination. And just like that, he writes a new song. Who knows what else Larson will offer me when I raise tomorrow?