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‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ a quietly explosive adaptation

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As someone who studied theatre in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t help but be aware of the work of Jonathan Larson. Specifically, his musical “Rent” would be come an important part of my (and everyone that I knew) collegiate experience. It was the first musical with which I ever genuinely identified, capturing my attention – and my heart – in a way that no such work ever had before. Or has since, as far as that goes.

I didn’t come to experience Larson’s previous work, the semi-autobiographical one-man (more or less) musical monologue “Tick, Tick … Boom!” until years later. I was older, though no wiser – closer to the age that Larson was when he creatively exploded – and engaged with it in a more “mature” way.

A film version of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to me at that time. How would you even do it? How would that work? Particularly when you take into account the tragic and abrupt end to Larson’s life.

Happily, Lin-Manuel Miranda had some ideas.

Miranda makes his feature film directorial debut with this screen adaptation of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” Adapted by Steven Levenson, it is an adoring and energetic love letter from one theatremaker to another – there’s a clear and obvious reverence at work here – that goes a long way toward capturing the kinetic and sonic excellence of Larson’s work.

It’s also a sincere appreciation for the difficulties that can come from devotion to the act of creation. The single-mindedness required for genuine brilliance often causes ripple effects throughout the rest of the creator’s life, impacting all aspects of their world in what too frequently turns out to be a negative way. That dichotomy – the rush of creation versus the struggles of reality – is front and center here, presented romantically, yes, but also with a touch of melancholy.

The framing device here is a performance of the titular musical, with Larson (Andrew Garfield) in the lead, accompanied by friends and singers Roger (Joshua Henry) and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens). The story that follows is built around the stories and songs that Larson presents as part of that performance.

The story being told is that of Larson, living in a typically crummy New York City apartment, working as a waiter at the Moondance Diner and trying to gain any kind of traction for the musical he’s been working on for the past eight years. He’s on the verge of turning 30 and placing all manner of pressure on himself to get “Superbia” – a future-set sci-fi concept rock musical – produced; he’s got a workshop of the piece coming up at Playwrights Horizons, championed by Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman) and has placed all of his eggs in that basket.

Meanwhile, his friend and former roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus) has given up on his own theatrical dreams and is currently rising up the ladder at an advertising and marketing firm. Jon’s dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) has an offer for a teaching position at a school in the Berkshires.

Surrounded by change and questions, the pressure mounts. Should he take advantage of the potential opportunities presented him by Michael? What’s the right decision regarding his situation with Susan? What if “Superbia” doesn’t live up to his expectations? And the shadow looming over all of it – who will be the next of his friends to get sick or die after falling victim to the AIDS epidemic?

And scattered throughout, production numbers that highlight the incredible songs produced by Larson, music that is evocative and soulful and utterly beautiful brought to vivid life by the talented ensemble assembled by Miranda.

“Tick, Tick … Boom!” isn’t necessarily the first musical you’d think of when it comes to film adaptation. And a straightforward conversion was never going to work. But thanks to Miranda and Levenson, we get to see the story rather than have it told to us; it’s a perfect example of how a work can move from medium to medium and stay true to its fundamental soul while also evolving to embrace the benefits granted by that shift.

Having Andrew Garfield at the center of the frame is a huge key to this film’s success. I’ve always liked him as a performer, but to my mind, he’s never been as charismatic onscreen as he is in this film. He is a constant presence, both as character and storyteller, and radiates creative energy throughout – there are moments where he practically vibrates with vivacity. It is an incredible performance, simply mesmerizing to witness.

And it doesn’t hurt that you’ve got a bit of an expert behind the camera. Miranda knows what it means to devote oneself utterly to a musical theatre endeavor; that ability to relate is visible throughout. To have someone at the help with direct understanding of the pitfalls and pathos that come from following this path makes all the difference.

Oh, and while the music is exceptional across the board and all of the production numbers have something to offer, we have to talk specifically about “Sunday,” set at the Moondance Diner and featuring an absolute cavalcade of Broadway stars. Seriously – watch this number as legend after legend rolls through the scene; it’s a wonderful homage to those who inspired Larson as well as those who were in many ways his peers. Absolutely killer stuff.

Garfield leads the way, of course, but the rest of the cast is also dynamite. Shipp and de Jesus are talented performers, with both finding ways to shine alongside Garfield’s incandescence. Hudgens is outstanding, just an absolutely inspired bit of casting – particularly since she too exists in both the framing device and the story being told. Sherman is a cranky delight as Weitzman. Judith Light has a couple of great scenes as Larson’s agent. Oh, and Bradley Whitford is here as Stephen Sondheim, because of course he is.

“Tick, Tick … Boom!” is a thoughtful and reverent adaptation of a compelling work, as well as a vibrant and moving portrait of an artist taken far too soon. It is a story about what it means to create, about devoting yourself to something larger. It’s about art and joy and passion and pressure and love and friendship and the way that those things intersect and entangle. I loved it, and I think you will too.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 November 2021 10:09

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