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Time in "tick, tick…BOOM!"

It makes sense that Lin-Manuel Miranda would see something in Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! that suited his own strengths and sensibilities for his directorial debut. It doesn’t hurt that he knows the show first-hand, having starred in a 2014 revival. It’s a New York City story, like his own In the Heights, albeit through a different neighborhood and cultural prism. It’s about a protagonist explicitly writing like they’re running out of time and turning out to be right, like with Hamilton. It’s about the minutiae of someone trying to get a musical off the ground, which Miranda knows firsthand, and it’s a look at a wunderkind in the time before the acclaim, which Miranda should know something about as well.

Jonathan Larson is best known for writing the music, lyrics, and book to the musical, Rent. Rent, as we hear at the very beginning of the film, was a phenomenon, running for 12 years on Broadway, winning both the Drama Desk and Tony award for Best Musical, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Unfortunately, the tragedy of Larson’s story is that he didn’t live to see any of that success. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm, the result of a misdiagnosis, just before Rent’s first off-Broadway preview performance at the New York Theater Workshop. He was 35 years old.

tick, tick…BOOM! isn’t about Rent, or explicitly about Larson’s death, though both can’t help but be in the background here if you are already familiar with Larson’s story, and both feature in the closing moments of the film. tick, tick…BOOM! is Larson’s own autobiographical musical account of his struggles to establish himself in NY’s theater scene. Miranda’s adaptation of that project widens the aperture a bit to tell a fuller version of that story. The framing device he uses is that we’re watching Larson stage a performance of tick, tick…BOOM! recounting his failed efforts to get his previous musical, SUPERBIA, off the ground. Miranda cuts between Larson's performance and him going through those experiences, but with that reality punctuated occasionally by additional, full, world-bending musical numbers.

I didn’t exactly know how this story was going to play out while I was watching it, except for realizing that neither tick, tick…BOOM!, nor SUPERBIA, were the thing that Larson was best known for, so it seemed unlikely that we were going to get the story of his big break. The film begins with the stage performance of tick, tick…BOOM!, with Jonathan lamenting his anxiety about his lack of success and his impending 30th birthday - with a literal ticking clock underlining the message. As the audience to that performance, we are with Jonathan in the future, looking back on the story that he’s telling. No matter how the story he’s telling goes, there must be some hope to it, because we are getting to watch him on a stage tell it to us. At the same time, we are also another 30 years in the future from that audience, also aware of the greater successes he would go on to have, but not live to see.

There is an interesting parallel here to another musical, of sorts, released this year: Bo Burnham’s Inside. The surrounding context is different for Burnham, in that everything he is singing is being further heightened by suffocating pandemic quarantine, but the underlying idea is the same: that the idea of turning 30 feels like a turning point in life where youth is officially behind you, and there is a growing compulsion to assess what you’ve accomplished with your life up to that point. There is also tidy symmetry in that Larson is singing about turning 30 in 1990, which is the year that Burnham sings about being born. What both films capture is that universal feeling of hitting a point in your life where it suddenly feels like the idea of time changes from something in great abundance to a dwindling scarcity.

The pressures and passage of time feature in different ways throughout tick, tick...BOOM!. Jonathan not only feels like he’s running out of time in his own life to make his mark, but he also finds himself endlessly short of time in his day-to-day life to do all of the things he wants, and needs, to do. He’s days away from the critical workshop performance of his show, SUPERBIA, but he’s still missing the song that everyone that matters agrees the show is missing. He doesn’t have time to work on the song because he needs to work to make money to pay for the musicians for the workshop. He doesn’t have time to talk to his girlfriend about their future because he needs to prepare for his workshop and somehow finish that song.

The conclusion of Larson’s journey in his production of tick, tick…BOOM! is that, although he may be turning 30, and although the musical he spent the majority of his adult life working on isn’t going to get produced, he’s still living the only life he could imagine for himself. So what if SUPERBIA didn’t succeed the way he wanted? He still made it. People liked it. He’s still proud of it. On to the next one. There’s still time. Happy Birthday!

And yet, there’s only still time until there isn’t. Larson has made peace with the relentless ticking, but it never stops for anyone. The feat of both Larson, and Miranda, is being able to honor that idea that we are all running out of time in our own ways, while still being sincerely joyful and celebratory about the things we can choose to do with the time we do have. It’s great that Larson went on to create Rent, but he doesn’t actually know that yet at the conclusion of his production in Boom!. Whatever is next for him, the ending to the story he is telling is already a happy one for him, because he has made peace with the person he was meant to be, whatever may come next, whatever time he might have left.

The film, despite the very great many things already working in its favor, hinges entirely on Andrew Garfield’s performance as Jonathan, and he more than delivers. After seeing the film, I was dumbfounded to discover that he doesn’t come from any extensive musical theater background, but prepared for the film with just a year of vocal training. Additionally, when not singing, he carries himself throughout the film with such an impossibly easy charm that he feels like the tailor-made first choice for the kinds of roles Tom Hanks made his career on. Garfield is going to get Oscar consideration for this performance and it’s going to be richly deserved.

Miranda should also be applauded for his handling of this adaptation. I had to remind myself throughout that it was this, and not In the Heights, that was his first time directing. Working with a smaller ensemble, and occasionally limited in scope because of COVID protocols during production, Miranda has produced an incredibly complex narrative, working in both different times, but also in different senses of reality, often within the same scene, yet yielding a finished product that goes down as clean and easy as can be. He’s proven himself to be a more than capable director, and, in the spirit of this film, I bet the next one will be even better.


I had already submitted this review when the news broke of Stephen Sonheim’s passing at the age of 91. Sondheim was the very definition of a giant in the world of musical theater. He was an important mentor in Jonathan Larson’s life and appears as an encouraging presence throughout tick, tick...BOOM! in a role played by Bradley Whitford. A story making the rounds in the days since his passing is that Sondheim was also an encouraging presence in the making of this adaptation of tick, tick...BOOM!, offering to rewrite the final voicemail his character leaves for Jonathan to more closely match what he would have actually said at the time. Then, when Whitford was unavailable to record the rewrite (perhaps conveniently unavailable), it’s actually Sondheim’s voice we hear in the film. Even before his passing, it was something wonderful to hear because of his relationship with Jonathan, but even more so now. It’s heartwarming to hear about such a vibrant and creative force using every last bit of the time available to him to its fullest. May we all be so lucky.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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