tick,tick…Boom! is a film for theater geeks like Lin-Manuel Miranda, its director

See photos and watch videos from the film below.

“tick, tick…Boom!” is a film for musical theater geeks. It is adapted from “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson’s earlier autobiographical musical about an aspiring theater composer anxiously turning 30 years old after having spent the last eight years making a musical called “Superbia” that he’s not sure anybody else is interested in. It is helmed by “Hamilton” and “In The Heights”  composer Lin-Manuel Miranda making his film debut as a director, with a screenplay by Steven Levenson, Tony winning librettist for “Dear Evan Hansen.”  It features a cast that includes Broadway veterans Robin de Jesús (who has performed in five musicals on Broadway, including Rent), Judith Light (6), Joshua Henry (about to star in his ninth, Waitress), Broadway mainstays Laura Benanti, Danny Burstein and Judy Kuhn in small roles, as well as cameos by more than a dozen legendary Broadway performers (Andre De Shields, Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, original cast members of both Rent and Hamilton)  AND by almost two dozen of musical theater’s busiest composers and librettists (Jason Robert Brown, Tom Kitt, Dave Malloy, Stephen Schwartz,Shaina Taub, Jeanine Tesori…)  Even most of the cast members primarily known for their screen roles – Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Bradley Whitford, who portrays Stephen Sondheim – have performed on Broadway.

For all that, it’s easier to call “tick, tick…BOOM,” which launched on Netflix on Friday,  a tribute to Jonathan Larson’s musical theater rather than an example of it. Yes, it includes 14 songs* that he wrote. But the movie tries to do at least three things at once:

  1. It’s framed as a performance of “tick, tick…Boom!” by Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson on a stage at a piano before an audience. But  only a handful of the musical numbers are performed this way, and Garfield as Larson narrates only intermittently from the stage.

I saw “tick, tick…BOOM” at the short-lived Jane Street Theater in Greenwich Village in the year 2001, and even then it was not the musical that Larson had written. This was five years after Larson had died on the eve of the first public performance of his musical “Rent,” which became a huge hit, and led to the revisiting of this other Larson musical. It was a one-man show  originally titled “Boho Days” when Larson wrote and first performed it at the age of 30 in 1990. (Hence the song “30/90.”)   When I saw it, a new book had been written for it by “Proof” playwright David Auburn. “tick, tick…BOOM”  had become a three-character musical, with a backup band, which starred Raul Esparza as Jonathan, Amy Spanger as his girlfriend Susan and Jerry Dixon as his childhood friend Michael. I found it then of historical interest as a preview of the talent that would soon flourish, though none of the songs were as catchy as the ones in “Rent.” (with the possible exception of the original title song, “Boho Days.”) Miranda reportedly also saw this production, when he was a junior in college, and had a more passionate reaction: It helped cement his commitment to creating musical theater.

In Steven Levenson’s screenplay, these scenes that purport to be from the stage musical feature Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens, but they are not portraying his best friend and his girlfriend – at least not that we see. Rather, they are just backup singers during the songs. (Henry and Hudgens portray minor characters in the non stage musical scenes in the film — Henry a performer named Roger, Hudgens a performer named Karissa). (From the BBC: “The film they’ve created isn’t a direct adaptation of Larson’s Boho Days. Miranda and [Levenson[ have added music from Larson’s other shows, tweaked some of the character arcs and even removed an entire subplot about Twinkies. ‘There’s no definitive Tick, Tick… Boom!’ says Miranda, who researched the many incarnations’ of the original one-man show, as well as the posthumous [Off] Broadway adaptation and Larson’s archives at the Library of Congress.”)

2. The bulk of the two-hour movie are newly created dramatic scenes, many of them filmed in New York locations (or facsimiles of New York locations), such as the Moondance Diner where he worked as a weekend waiter for nine years, Central Park, the Strand Bookstore, the Tony Dapalito Recreation Center in the Village, where he regularly went swimming. That it’s a movie movie is reflected in the casting: While Andrew Garfield won a Tony for his role in the Broadway revival of “Angels in America,” he is a movie star, without a background as a singer. He does a credible job singing — he’s certainly charismatic and energetic — but there’s a perhaps unintended irony in the spectacular musical number “Sunday” that takes place at the Moondance Diner, in which nearly every single customer for brunch is a world famous musical theater star — Bernadette Peters et al. — any one of whom could better deliver these songs.

There are many scenes of Jon’s passionate but strained relationship with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), a dancer who is herself struggling for her art, and has gotten a job offer to teach in the Berkshires. It is a relationship I don’t remember being as prominent in the show at Jane Street. It also feels more Hollywood-adjusted than the relationship that Larson reportedly actually had with a girlfriend who left him several times for other men, and once for a woman – which in more accurately reflected in “Rent” in the relationship between Mark and Maureen, who left him for Joanne.

3. “tick, tick…BOOM” is also a film that acknowledges that the story of Jonathan Larson is fuller and more interesting  than the one Larson told about himself in his musical – because he hadn’t written “Rent” yet, and, of course, because he hadn’t yet died tragically at the age of 35. The title of the musical was intended to reflect the composer’s/character’s shock at turning 30 (“older than Stephen Sondheim was when he had his first Broadway show, older than Paul McCartney was when he wrote his last song with John Lennon…”) feeling that time was ticking for him to become a real writer, rather than just a waiter with a hobby. But the title now takes on more poignance. A voiceover briefly updates the story, and we see snippets of actual footage of Larson himself,  and of Rent cast members paying tribute to him.

These three different aspects of “tick, tick…BOOM,” suggesting the different movies that could have been made, threaten to fly apart. Miranda is the centripetal force that holds them together — at least for fellow theater geeks.

Photos by Macall Polay

*Songlist from the movie

“No More” 
“Boho Days” (my favorite)
 “Lcd Readout” 
“Johnny Can’t Decide”
 “Sunday”  (full Of cameos!)
“Play Game” 

“Come To Your Senses” 
“Real Life” 

“Louder Than Words” 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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