“Everything you are about to see is true… except for the parts Jonathan made up.”
In 1991, stagewright and performer Jonathan Larson performed a workshop of his semi-autobiographical rock monologue 30/90 at the Village Gate Theatre in Greenwich Village. The play would be renamed tick, tick… BOOM! before being re-worked, following Larson’s death, from a solo performance with accompaniment into a three-actor stage musical by David Auburn. For the film version, writer Steven Levenson and director Lin-Manual Miranda have combined the three-actor version with Larson’s original monologue version to form the basis of this biographical musical of the stagewright as he prepares to present a workshop of his original musical and passion piece, Superbia; while also dealing with the pressures of turning 30 without having any real success in theatre.
I went into tick, tick… BOOM! without really knowing anything about Jonathan Larson, aside from the fact he was the writer of Rent and that he had passed away on the morning of Rent’s first preview performance; so I was surprised to find that this film doesn’t really actually deal with that part of his life at all, and I think that was actually a great decision. tick, tick… BOOM! the musical provides such a tremendous insight into who Larson was as a person, that a dramatic recreation of the musical; with the scenes depicted in the show being acted out in full by a full cast, really brings the story to life in a new and fascinating way. Lin-Manuel Miranda, as someone who has been actively involved in both stage and film performance for the last 15 years, was the perfect choice to direct a project like this; being able to harness the theatrical sensibilities required for the shots of Larson’s workshop, while bringing his film and TV experience into the dramatic scenes as well. It’s hard to think of a project more perfectly fitted to a director in that regard; and his links to modern Broadway means that lots of recognisable faces (and, more importantly, voices) crop up during some of the larger ensemble numbers; including various members of the original cast of Hamilton, such as Phillipa Soo and Reneé Elise Goldberry, and add a true depth to the tribute being paid to the Larson.
All of this is said without mentioning Andrew Garfield, the man on deck to play Larson; and Garfield demonstrates why he should be regarded as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood today. Garfield has admitted that, when he was cast, he had absolutely no idea whether he could actually sing; and though he did take lessons during preparation for filming, it can unequivocally be said that Garfield can sing, and he can sing incredibly well. His trademark frenetic energy works very well for his portrayal of Larson, and the moments where he displays his deeper stresses are carried off incredibly well. Some of Miranda’s directorial choices are incredibly bold, and one in particular hinges almost entirely on Garfield’s ability to differentiate between the real version of Larson and the on-stage version of Larson; as the workshop of the song Therapy by Larson and friend Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), who is playing Larson’s girlfriend Susan; is intercut with a dramatisation of the actual argument between Larson and Susan (Alexandra Shipp). The sequence is a testament to Miranda as a director, to all the actors in the sequence, and to writing and editing team to make it work; as the performance of Therapy is highly-stylised, and cuts into an incredibly naturalistic performance of a real argument between two people in a crumbling relationship, and it’s a stunning sequence to behold; especially as Garfield manages to carry off Larson in a way that does not turn him into a villain, despite his actions in relation to Susan being pretty dislikable, which is what builds up to the argument in the first place. The film is full of dynamite acting moments from Garfield, and he brings a passion to Larson that one would expect from a young stagewright in New York; especially one who has gotten so close to a success that keeps slipping through his fingers.
The supporting cast does their share of the heavy lifting too. Garfield is joined by the aforementioned Hudgens and by Joshua Henry for the stage sequences; and both were chosen for their theatre chops (Henry notably starred as Aaron Burr in the Los Angeles production of Hamilton, amongst others). Both get the opportunity to show off their chops, with their incredible singing voices taking the lead for their performances; but they also appear in ensemble scenes throughout the dramatised sections as the narrative moves toward the workshop of Superbia.
While Hudgens and Henry are playing Karessa and Roger, who both take on the roles of Larson’s friends for the tick, tick… BOOM! show; the actors who play Larson’s friends for the dramatic sequences also get the chance to show off their chops, with the performance of Come To Your Senses from the musical of tick, tick… BOOM! being shared by both Hudgens, performing it on stage, and Alexandra Shipp performing it as the real Susan; and the outcome is fantastic, both audibly and visually. Robin de Jesús plays Larson’s friend and roommate Michael and puts in a sterling performance; as do MJ Rodriquez and Ben Levi Ross as Larson’s friends and Moondance Diner colleagues Carolyn and Freddy; all of whom are key players in the direction Larson takes as he preps for his workshop. Bradley Whitford puts in a notable, if brief performance as Stephen Sondheim; though more notable is that Sondheim himself makes a brief, audio cameo as he offered to recreate a key answerphone message that he left for Larson following the Superbia workshop; a moment that feels all the more pertinent following the director’s own passing earlier this year.
tick, tick… BOOM! is a wonderful film, centred on an incredible performance from Andrew Garfield and held up by a great supporting cast and an impressive directorial debut from Lin-Manuel Miranda. While the story cannot help but be desperately sad given that we know would happen to Larson following the events covered in the musical, and the film; it is a piece that is so earnestly filled with hope, and built upon the desire to chase a dream, that it can’t help itself but emanate a warm glow through beautiful performance, and is a great example of how musical theatre can be adapted to the screen, taking some interesting risks that overwhelmingly pay off; not least through presenting the dramatisation alongside a recreation of the stage performance. If you’re a fan of musical theatre then you absolutely must see this; and if you’re not, it might just make you change your mind.