By Lynn Venhaus
In the loving hands of director Lin-Manuel Miranda, the world will know Jonathan Larson’s name as more than the creator of “Rent,” one of the big-bang bursts in musical theater history, because of this enthralling origin story “tick, tick…Boom!”
Brimming with vitality, this brilliant gem shines spotlighting the creative process and the importance of pursuing your dreams. It is the best musical adapted from the stage since 2012’s “Les Miserables.”
Collaborating with many gifted artists, Miranda, in his feature film directorial debut, broadens this early work to appeal to the dreamer in all of us. We can relate to Larson as a visionary full of doubt, anxiety, and drive, who had a unique voice that was meant to be heard. Filled with passion, he pushed on, despite many obstacles in his way.
The young composer revolutionized theater with “Rent,”, but tragically, did not live to see the first Off-Broadway preview performance, because he died that day, Jan. 25, 1996, suffering an aortic dissection. He was 35. Five years earlier, he was writing a musical called “Superbia,” loosely based on George Orwell’s “1984” and full of angst about turning 30. He turned that experience in a rock monologue, “30/90,” which was later renamed “Boho Days” and finally “tick, tick…Boom.”
In this adaptation of that autobiographical musical, Jon (Andrew Garfield) is waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990, and feeling pressure from his dancer-girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), who traded in an artistic life for one of financial security, and people helping him put on a showcase of his work.
Meanwhile, a community is being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads. He wonders what he is meant to do with the time he has.
In his most revelatory screen performance to date, Tony winner and Oscar nominee Garfield displays Larson’s virtuosity and bravado. He embraces the music numbers with abundant zest and connects with Alexandra Shipp as his exasperated girlfriend and Robin de Jesus as his frustrated friend.
The sharp script was written by Steven Levenson, who won a Tony for “Dear Evan Hanson.” The adage “write what you know” is a running theme – and one can see Larson’s style evolving, and his various influences throughout.
“30/90” deals with his feelings about growing older without much to show for his songwriting efforts. Envious of his friend’s luxurious life, he and Robin de Jesus have fun with “No More.”
In one of the musical’s stand-out pieces, “Sunday,” as conducted by Jon, is both an homage to revered composer Stephen Sondheim and a salute to artistic vision. The legendary Sondheim, who was a tremendous influence on Larson, is deftly underplayed by Bradley Whitford.
Several members of the original cast of “Rent,” as well as performers from Miranda’s masterpiece “Hamilton,” many Broadway legends and Tony winners have a shared moment in a Sunday brunch scene. It’s a “Where’s Waldo?” panoply of talent that you’ll want to stop and rewind over and over.
The film’s ensemble is tight, and several singers have stand-out moments – with Vanessa Hudgens singing her heart out as Karessa in “Come to Your Senses,” the show-stopping song that Larson finally pens after excruciating writer’s block episodes.
Another heart-tugging number is “Why,” when Jon plays an old rehearsal piano at the closed Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
If you are unfamiliar with “Rent,” now being celebrated in a national 25th anniversary farewell tour, this musical about Bohemians struggling with life, love, and AIDS in the East Village, won Larson the Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards posthumously. It ran on Broadway until 2008, and is the 11th longest running musical of all-time.
But early versions of “tick, tick…Boom!” came before — and after. Playwright David Auburn revised it after Larson’s death as a piece for three actors (Jon, Susan, and Michael). It premiered off-Broadway in 2001, with Raul Esparza winning an Obie Award in the leading role. It has been performed in London’s West End, with Neil Patrick Harris, and at many other theaters since it was revamped. An Encores! Off-Center production in 2014 featured Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Karen Olivo.
Miranda, who said seeing “Rent” on his 17th birthday changed his life, was born to direct this. He gets it – kids with dreams, brimming with ideas. He was one of those kids — and went on to win Tony Awards for “In the Heights” and the cultural phenomenon “Hamilton.” (You can spot him, too, at the diner. And his Disney animated musical “Encanto” is out in theaters Nov. 24).
As sad as Larson’s untimely death was, this film is full of joy – a tribute tp one of the great talents of the 20th century. Because his death is believed to have been caused by an undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, more attention has been given to this condition. (And the struggles of low-income folks lacking health care).
Today, the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, established by family and friends, provides monetary grants to artists, with a particular emphasis on musical theatre composers and writers.
This support for creative work is now administered by the American Theatre Wing because of an endowment funded by his family and the foundation. Who knows how many fellow starving artists Larson inspired to write the next great American musical?
His memory and his impact lives on – and his “Rent” lyrics eerily resonate: “No Day but Today.”
“tick, tick…Boom!” is a bittersweet rumination on art and inspiration, and Miranda has made it both personal and universal.
“tick, tick…Boom!” is a 2021 Musical Biopic directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, and Judith Light. It is rated PG-13 for some strong language, some suggestive material and drug references and runs 1 hour, 55 minutes. It opened in select theaters on Nov. 12 and started streaming on Netflix Nov. 19. Lynn’s Grade: A.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.