“Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a very personal story of despair, one that may be familiar to many artists but it’s particularly poignant knowing how much its composer and playwright Jonathan Larson meant to American musical theater and how he would not live to see it. In his feature film directorial debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda seamlessly takes us from the private and intimate places, to the public performances pieces Larson’s real life inspired and to the abstract moments of inspiration. Andrew Garfield sings–something that he said surprised himself–and is by turns achingly adorable, maddeningly obsessed and driven by the suffering that would eventually make him famous but makes his romantic life tenuous.
In the film, Jon (Garfield) is approaching his 30th birthday in 1990. He’s in love with dancer Susan (Alexandra Shipp) who wants to find another venue to express her creativity and she’s had a job offer (Jacob’s Pillow) that will take her away from New York. Jon feels he needs to be in New York, living in his colorful but often cold apartment. His current roommate, Michael (Robin de Jesús ), is moving out and moving up into a luxury apartment.
Jon is preparing for a workshop of his “Superbia,” but his agent (Judith Light as Rosa Stevens) isn’t returning his calls and he’s calling up people on his own while he’s trying to write one song that during an earlier stage of the musical, Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) had advised him was necessary. Jon has pinned all his hopes on this play to lift him out of poverty and allow him to leave his job waiting tables at the Moondance Diner.
In reality, this rock monologue “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was performed by Larson from 1991 to express his disappointment over the failure to obtain financing to produce “Superbia.” Larson performed it in various forms with him at the piano supported by a band. After Larson’s death, playwright David Auburn (Tony Award winner for the 2000 play “Proof”) and arranger and musical director Stephen Oremus (“Avenue Q,” “Wicked” and “Frozen”) reworked it into a stage version. This version went off-Broadway in 2001. For the film, 2017 Tony Award-winning Steven Levenson (Best Book of a Musical for “Dear Evan Hansen”) was brought on to write the script.
For the film, Miranda’s production team had help re-creating Larson’s apartment: Larson had videotaped his home for insurance purposes. Within the film, you’ll hear musical signatures that can be heard in the award-winning score of “Rent” as well as hints of the complaints and situational problems that “Rent” addresses.
Who could be better to handle this film than Miranda, who already has a Pulitzer Prize (“Hamilton”), two Laurence Olivier Awards (“In the Heights” and “Hamilton”), three Tony Awards (Best Original Score for “In the Heights,” “Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score for “Hamilton”), three Grammy Awards (“In the Heights” and “Hamilton” albums and “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana”), two Emmy Awards (“Bigger!” from 67th Tony Awards and “Hamilton” Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) , a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2018. Miranda has previously played Jon in “Encores!” performances in 2014 (June 25-28).
Larson received three posthumous Tony Awards (Best Book of a Musical, Best Musical and Best Original Score) and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the rock musical “Rent.” Larson brought young audiences to Broadway with “Rent,” just as Miranda did almost two decades later with “Hamilton.”
With a Broadway performer and write as director, of course, there’s plenty of Broadway present in “Tick, Tick…Boom.” This film is stuffed full of Broadway references, some of which should come as a pleasant surprise. The audience attending the its world premiere were asked to not give them away. All will test your knowledge of theater versus cinematic history. For instance, while some might best know Garfield for his cinematic portrayal of Spiderman and he may have only been nominated for an Academy Award (“Hacksaw Ridge” in 2017), he won a Tony Award in 2018 for the lead role in “Angels in America,” having previously been nominated for Featured Actor for the 2012 production of “Death of a Salesman.”
Robin de Jesús created the role of Sonny in the Waterford (2005) production of Miranda’s “In the Heights” and played the role Off-Broadway in 2007 and then on Broadway in 2008. He has been nominated for a Tony Award three times (“In the Heights,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Boys in the Band”).
You might know Judith Light from “Ugly Betty” (2006-2010) or “Who’s the Boss” (1984-1992), but she won Tony Awards in 2011 for Best Featured Actress in a Play for “Other Desert Cities” and in 2013 for “The Assembled Parties.” In 2019, she received an Isabelle Stevenson Award for “Advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights and the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
Joel Grey who plays Allen Larson, Jon’s father, has a Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony for “Cabaret: The Musical” (1962) as well as a Best Supporting Oscar for the same role in the 1973 film.
Rent-heads will be delighted that some of the cast of the Broadway version appear as well. The “Sunday” at the Moondance Diner (an homage to Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1985 musical, “Sunday in the Park with George”) has many surprises.
There was a time bomb ticking away in Larson, one that, if it had been properly diagnosed in 1996. Instead, the doctors at Cabrini Medical Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital misdiagnoses it as the flu or stress. Larson died the very day “Rent” had its first Off-Broadway preview performance. During this pandemic, we should all be acutely aware that we all have limited time and we need to do things now because we might not have another decade to fulfill our dreams. Imagine what Larson could have done or what a Larson-Miranda collaboration could have been. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is the closest we can come to that.
“Tick, Tick…Boom!” had its world premiere at AFI Fest on 10 November 2021. Its limited release starts 12 November 2021 and it will begin streaming on Netflix on 19 November 2021.