Despite any prescience on behalf of its subject matter, I’m sure even the playwright himself, Jonathan Larson, would have looked back on his big-budget, science fiction Broadway hopeful “Superbia” with enough hindsight to acknowledge there was no way it would ever see the light of day. As the relatable cartoon shared by artists all over the internet of an iceberg attests: the amount of work produced to get to the one piece that finds an audience (in any medium) is too high a multiplier to even begin hypothesizing. And any creator who isn’t made aware of this fact in school has been done a disservice by their educators. That doesn’t, however, mean you shouldn’t dream or that your first try won’t get funded. Lightning does strike for some.
It didn’t for Larson. Not right away. Not even for the musical tick, tick … Boom! (as directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and adapted by Steven Levenson) is based on. No, Larson wouldn’t hit the big time until “Rent” and he’d never hit it again. An aneurism would kill him the morning of his first Off-Broadway preview, so the Tony awards and Pulitzer would be received by loved ones posthumously instead. He made it, though. His first Broadway show (where “Rent” would soon go) earned wide acclaim and a cinematic adaptation of its own, but it’s good for young artists coming up to realize it wasn’t the first thing he wrote. And, from the looks of it, one could say it never would have happened without that spectacular failure.
This is the journey from point A to B with a lot of tragedy, heartache, and waning hope along the way. What started as an autobiographical one-man show would ultimately be expanded by David Auburn into a three-piece performance. Miranda and Levenson take the latter conceit and go backwards with their film to deliver dramatic reenactments of the events documented by the songs. Add one more layer (perhaps unnecessarily) and you get Larson’s (Andrew Garfield) girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) introducing him onstage at a piano via narration. He’s there with a band, Roger (Joshua Henry), and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), jokingly and passionately relaying his memories (and fictionalizations) of the time everything went wrong. And that’s subsequently portrayed via flashback. It’s a movie of a play of a life.
Let’s just say that Larson is hardly sympathetic. He’s selfish, immodest, and unreliable—as all artists with aspirations towards genius often are. The only thing he can think of right now is the fact that he’s got his first workshop showcase in a week and how it’s coming in just under the wire as far as potentially earning him his payday mere days before his thirtieth birthday. With its opportunity, however, comes a gauntlet of hardships that he’ll have to overcome physically, emotionally, and psychologically. His BFF/roommate (Robin de Jesus‘ Michael) is moving out. Susan is thinking about leaving NYC for the Berkshires and a new job. His electricity is about to be cut. His agent (Judith Light‘s Rosa) won’t call back. And he’s missing a crucial song.
Welcome to procrastination, writer’s block, responsibility juggling Hell. Miranda understands the feeling being a successful playwright himself and he, for better or worse, decides to lean into its chaotic nature for his directorial debut (not counting a sub-sixty-minute film from 1996). With no need for any epically choreographed sequences, he brings everything in-close for an almost claustrophobic aesthetic that sometimes zooms and cuts back and forth from stage retelling to filmed reenactment at disorienting speed. It can be visually challenging yet also aurally expressive when voices from both suddenly merge into a duet of sorts. The musical numbers distill the hurricane of emotions while the drama mines deeper into the soul. It’s told, it’s seen, and it’s felt in succession or all at once. And it moves. Fast.
It must be fast to capture that breathless nature of working from the seat of your pants while your world implodes around you. Does it mean the work (and subsequently “Rent”) is more important than friends and family who love him? No. And the piece itself doesn’t pretend otherwise. If anything, tick, tick … Boom! is quite clear about showing the exact opposite. Larson doesn’t exit this period of his life unscathed and, regardless of contrition, loses some of the people who selflessly fought to get him to the other side. AIDS epidemic or not, he causes pain with his unwillingness to compromise. He doesn’t listen, doesn’t set aside time, and never shuts off when needed. It’s a lesson afforded to him by privilege and escaped through fire.
Luck aside (Stephen Sondheim, as played by Bradley Whitford, takes a shine to Larson even before this hyped-up workshop), this is more cautionary tale than rags-to-riches inspiration. It’s about failure after all. It’s about being woken to the fact that this thing you’ve devoted your entire existence to for eight years means nothing in the long run. Not when compared to people in real and desperate need for their friend who keeps blowing them off. Would you like the consequences to be a bit heavier and his loved ones to maybe not forgive him so easily? Sure. But a) this is musical theater and b) they all know him and how he is. None of his actions are a surprise. They’re simply disappointing (and sometimes the final straw).
That’s a crucial distinction in order for the whole to succeed because we need Larson to remain likable by way of knowing he’s actually learned something by the end. It helps immensely that Garfield gives his all to the role too. He is playing the part in all its extroverted real-life theatricality as well as its hindsight-produced stage-persona with both being wholly different performances. It’s one thing to make us believe he’s experiencing these constant roadblocks and sustaining these constant disappointments (while supplying his own to others), but it’s another to then make us believe he’s singing about those things with the hard felt clarity of their impact. Garfield is funny and charismatic to draw us in and devastating when presenting the palpable shame that keeps us caring.
Broadway cameos aside (some even get to sing during the biggest set-piece of the whole on “Sunday”), however, Garfield can’t carry the full weight of the story alone. He needs Shipp and de Jesus to be there every step of the way and they comply—especially the latter. His Michael is quite literally the beating heart of the whole as confidant, critic, and eye-opening realist to the too often distracted dreamer who needs more than some sci-fi play the actors performing at his showcase don’t even understand. That Michael provides the true wake-up call (“Come to Your Senses” is merely a prelude) is a perfect bit of sleight of hand that reinforces just how inconsequential “Superbia” always was beyond its fateful use as a steppingstone. Work can wait.
tick, tick … Boom! is now in limited release and hits Netflix on November 19.