Initially conceived as a one-man “rock monologue,” then taking on an unexpected new depth after the early death of its creator at age 35, Jonathan Larson’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is a show uniquely suited to the musical theater crowd — and not just the masses of fans Larson won over with “Rent.” It resonates especially strongly with the writers, performers and fellow creatives who can identify with how he articulated the struggle to be recognized, to make meaningful work and, according to the high bar Larson set for himself, to “wake up a generation.” People like Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Before “Hamilton,” before even “In the Heights,” Miranda was inspired by what Larson had accomplished with “Rent,” discovering in the show a fresh kind of musical, one characterized by a contemporary sound, characters with recognizable struggles and an uncommonly diverse cast. In an awful twist of fate, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm the day before “Rent” was to have its first Off Broadway preview, making the earlier project seem ironically prescient. In it, he fretted about not finding success before the age of 30, as if he sensed that his time was limited and his heart might go out.
For Miranda to choose “Tick, Tick … Boom!” as his feature directing debut speaks volumes about what Larson means to him. It’s not an easy project to adapt, requiring some smart retooling to speak to the wider audience the film (which kicked off AFI Fest two days before opening in theaters) stands to reach when it hits Netflix on Nov. 19. In 2001, “Proof” playwright David Auburn refashioned “Tick, Tick … Boom!” into a three-person production, and that’s the version that’s been staged multiple times over the past two decades (since Larson’s original incarnation required him to play multiple parts), but Miranda treats it differently.
He and screenwriter Steven Levenson cleverly find a strategy to have it both ways. They open with what looks like an archival videotape of one of Larson’s early-’90s stagings, except that it’s actor Andrew Garfield sitting at the piano, and they treat this as the framing device for a much larger ensemble. This way, Jonathan’s social circle resembles the community he imagined for “Rent” — bohemians, including artists, queer folk and people of color — plus a behind-the-scenes contingent of theater-world types he hopes to wow with the workshop-within-the-show.
That’s the whole idea of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”: It’s 1990, and Jonathan is days away from turning 30. He feels like a failure, since his idol Stephen Sondheim (impressively embodied here by Bradley Whitford) made his Broadway debut at 27. By contrast, Jonathan’s jittery that his own magnum opus, a “1984”-inspired sci-fi tuner called “Superbia,” will get a one-off workshop performance at Playwrights Horizons, but is missing a key song. Of course, “Superbia” was not the musical that put Larson on the map — “Rent” was, more than half a decade later — so don’t expect the film to end with the world suddenly discovering his brilliance.
Frankly, it’s better that it doesn’t go that way, since happy endings may appease audiences in the short term, but they fail to acknowledge the difficulty of what someone as gifted as Larson was trying to do. Here, the character’s determined to hold on to his artistic integrity while his closest peers — ex-actor roommate Michael (Robin de Jesús), ex-dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) — are cashing out and getting adult jobs. But Jonathan’s single-minded focus can also make him unbearable to his loved ones (even if Garfield’s too likable an actor to begrudge), and in its non-song scenes, the film is honest about how his self-involvement costs him those connections.
Most audiences don’t care to watch writers struggling for recognition, and the blessing of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” isn’t that he finds it, but that we observe Jonathan incrementally identifying his priorities and acknowledging the sources he’d draw from in “Rent” (like Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell” or Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George”). There, in 1990 New York — or what little of it Miranda and production design Alex DiGerlando can show on a budget — are constant reminders of the AIDS pandemic, the losses of which are a wake-up call.
His legendary yet useless agent (Judith Light) advises Jonathan, “Try writing what you know,” which is a familiar enough Hollywood mantra as to seem like sound counsel. Yet if Larson wants his work to matter, singing about himself is a step, but not the end goal — and the same goes for this show. “Tick, Tick … Boom!” matters because it is a kind of cleansing ritual, the exercise that forces him to confront his deepest inner anxieties, while serving as a loose sketch of that later masterpiece “Rent,” for which he would again turn his attention to those around him.
Except for “Superbia” showstopper “Come to Your Senses,” the music here is catchy but far from Larson’s best, and yet, Miranda finds ways to make the songs feel entertaining, even when they’re slight — as in the Sondheim homage “Sunday,” set at the Moondance Diner where Jonathan waits tables, and which becomes a showcase for the helmer to pay his respects to some of his most beloved Broadway legends as well (to say more would spoil the surprise). Miranda crams “Tick, Tick … Boom!” with hidden treasures for theater types while treating the events contained in the film as formative influences on “Rent.” When the cast members of Jonathan’s workshop (an ensemble led by Vanessa Hudgens) come together in unison, they may as well be auditioning to sing “Seasons of Love,” the most recognizable number in “Rent.”
So, even though the timeline of “Tick, Tick” wraps before Larson turns his attention to that show, we know that all the frustrations he was wrestling with in 1990 will pay off. In theory, Miranda sees aspects of his own creative process in Larson’s struggle, which potentially adds a second level of autobiography to the mix. Just how much of Miranda can we read into Jonathan’s character, whose obsession with running out of time can be heard in “One Song Glory” from “Rent” as well as “Non-Stop” in “Hamilton”?
What’s refreshing about the debuting director’s approach is that it feels relatively egoless. His style is playful and energetic, often intercutting between multiple threads within a given song or scene, but it doesn’t feel as if Miranda is calling attention to himself so much as trying to open up the show — to give it the wings Jonathan sings about in the final number.