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tick, tick… BOOM! An Ode to the Artistic Spirit

When it was announced back in 2018 that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was directing the film adaptation of a musical by Rent creator Jonathan Larson, it got a whole lot of musical theatre geeks really excited, really quickly. Including, but not limited to, me! I was super jazzed at prospect of a proven creative polymath like Miranda trying his hand at adapting such terrific material as tick, tick… BOOM!, an underrated gem and fascinatingly nuanced bit of autobiographical storytelling.

Well, it’s not exactly autobiographical. That’s part of what makes it interesting to me. Let me back up a bit:

See, tick, tick… BOOM!’s relationship with factual reality has always been a complicated subject. It was first staged as a “rock monologue” performed by Larson himself—six years before both his death, and his posthumous rise to national fame as the creator of Rent. Larson played a character named Jon, very similar to but also distinct from himself, and told the story of Jon’s life, which was again very similar to but also distinct from his own life. Specifically, it centered on Jon’s experience trying to get his first original musical off the ground in the lead-up to his thirtieth birthday, something that had happened to Larson six months before he started on his own follow-up musical, which was tick, tick… BOOM! itself.

A couple years after Larson’s death, playwright David Auburn (writer of Proof) was hired to take the show and convert into a somewhat more conventional book musical for three actors, which has since been produced all over the world. In this version, Jon is still a fictional character, perhaps even more so now that he’s no longer played by the man upon whom he’s semi-autobiographically based.

Miranda’s film adaptation of tick, tick… BOOM!, which dropped on Netflix November 19th, makes the film explicitly and unequivocally about Larson himself. It runs straight into the metafictional web in a way that maybe should have made the finished product confused and clumsy, but actually works so well that it feels like the best way for this story to ever be told.

Screenwriter Steven Levenson (librettist for the controversially acclaimed Dear Evan Hansen, and showrunner of the un-controversially acclaimed Fosse/Verdon) wastes no time in establishing the film as being about the real Jonathan Larson. Near the very top of the movie we get narration from Alexandra Shipp, who plays Jon’s girlfriend Susan, talking about Larson over archival documentary footage. The narration transitions into a scene depicting fictionalized Larson (played to perfection by the absurdly talented Andrew Garfield) performing tick, tick… BOOM! on stage, leaving us with the most important line in the entire adaptation: “Everything you are about to see is true… except for the parts Jonathan made up.”

Jon (Andrew Garfield) and Susan (Alexandra Shipp) snuggling up next to each other in front of a brightly-painted brick wall.

If there was ever any uncertainty about this movie’s relationship to fact, this offers the context we need: this is a story about Jonathan Larson’s life, just not the way it happened literally. This fictionalized story is framed within the context of his original production of tick, tick… BOOM!, which is itself a staged recreation. I might be making it sound more confusing than it is, but the point is that it makes it clear that this story is Larson’s interpretation of his own life through his art—the art being what matters most to the outside world.

The result is a film that is both an adaptation of the source material, and, in a way, also about the source material. Aaron Sorkin did a similar thing with his underrated directorial debut, Molly’s Game. Knowing Miranda’s great love for Sorkin’s work, (The West Wing star Bradley Whitford has a cameo as the late great Stephen Sondheim) I wouldn’t be surprised if Molly’s Game influenced his decision in how to adapt the show to the screen. That said, I do think there’s a simpler answer: he and his collaborators wanted to celebrate Jonathan Larson himself.

This is a film with a truly striking amount of love for Broadway, the musical theatre community as a whole, and the people who make their art within it. That’s not really surprising given both the backgrounds of its creators, and the simple fact of its subject matter, but the reverence makes has a pleasant novelty to it. However counter-intuitive it may sound, Hollywood musical adaptations don’t usually go out of their way to endear themselves to fans of the source material.

tick, tick… BOOM!, on the other hand, has an entire cast loaded with experienced Broadway performers, regardless of whether or not they have crossover appeal. Granted, it is still headlined by a movie star to draw in mainstream audiences, but for what it’s worth, Andrew Garfield rocks the house. For someone with no prior training, who only learned singing technique specifically for this job, Garfield is a natural, and he more than holds his own with the seasoned pros.

Jon (Andrew Garfield) and Michael (Robin de Jesús) standing on either side of a kitchen table in a cluttered apartment, both holding on to the same folded-up rent bill.

When I say seasoned pros, I mean the rest of the cast really is a who’s who of musical theatre. The Boys in the Band Tony winner and In the Heights alum Robin de Jesús plays Jon’s lifelong best friend Michael. Joshua Henry, best known for the last revival of Carousel, appears as Jon’s actor friend Roger (named for Larson’s friend and Broadway star Roger Bart). But even in the smaller/non-singing roles, Broadway nerds will be playing the “Hey, is that…?” game. Laura Benanti (She Loves Me, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) appears as a focus group supervisor. Judy Kuhn (Les Mis, Fun Home) and Danny Burstein (The Drowsy Chaperone, Moulin Rouge) make cameos as Jon’s parents. Seriously, the cast list in the end credits might as well be labelled “Lin’s iPhone Contacts List”.

The already famous peak of this is the number “Sunday,” a pastiche of the song of the same name from Sunday in the Park with George about the hectic Sunday morning shift that Jon works at the Moondance Diner. To suit the song’s purpose as an illustration of how every part of Jon’s life gets filtered through musical theatre, this is the scene of a million cameos. Yes, that is Brian Stokes Mitchell! That is Chita Rivera! That sure as hell is André de Shields! And how can you do a Sunday in the Park homage without Bernadette Peters?! Every single patron of the diner is played by a Broadway star from Jon’s past, present, and future/after-life, all forming the chorus of anyone’s dreams. That’s the kind of thing that says, “Yes, viewers, we are just as big a bunch of geeks as you!”

Jon (Andrew Garfield) standing in the Moondance Diner with his arm raised, with Carolyn (MJ Rodriguez) and three diners (André de Shields, Beth Malone, and Brian Stokes Mitchell) standing behind him in various poses.

Is the result overly self-indulgent, or even masturbatory? Well, who’s to say? As a huge musical theatre nerd, it certainly delighted me in particular, but I also think there’s a more universal appeal to Jon’s story. Granted, I see “universal” as a matter of degrees anyway; there’s always some point at which a person’s familiarity with the subject matter is going to color their feelings about any story. But Jonathan Larson loved musical theatre, and his love informed the way he wrote the original version of tick, tick… BOOM!, so doesn’t it make perfect sense for the filmmakers to bring their own love to the mix?

Maybe I’m dwelling too much on how much this movie respects musicals, so I’m actually going to completely switch gears and talk about much this musical respects movies. I won’t go on a whole in-depth rant about diegesis here, but suffice it to say that musicals rely on heightened reality, and a lot of directors (from both stage and screen backgrounds) have fumbled at translating that heightened reality into their movie musicals. But once again, Miranda knocks it out of the park, solidifying “directing” as one of his innumerable talents—and directing musical numbers specifically: keeping the energy up with camera movement and choreography, carefully balancing more literal elements with stylistic fantasy flourishes. All of the visual aspects of filmmaking, the things that really make it filmmaking, are fully utilized, without ever coming off as over-produced. The editing by Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum in particular is brilliant, perfectly tuned in to the ways you can punctuate a musical number with even a single cut.

Overhead view of Jon (Andrew Garfield) floating in a pool, with sheet music superimposed underneath.

Maybe I’m over-interpreting when I say that this feels like a reflection of the film’s love for the arts as a whole more than any individual craft, but hey, I see it there so I’m saying it. I see a movie that with its craftsmanship says, “Hey! Aren’t movies great?” and “Hey! Aren’t musicals great?” and “Hey! Isn’t making art great? And also really hard? But also really great?!

However much it might speak to the musical theatre nerd in me, more than anything it speaks to the creative in me. As somebody who didn’t come into this movie with an overwhelming attachment to Larson’s work, (I have always loved tick, tick… BOOM! itself, but I’m not a big fan of Rent) it got to me because more than being just a tribute to the man himself, or even the Broadway community as a whole, it’s a tribute to the motivational struggle of the artist. It’s not an easy path. There’s a reason for the clichéd adage about show business/the arts in general, “If you could do anything else with your life, do that instead,” (however much you or I may disagree with the sentiment.)

Still, there’s no mistaking how the film itself feels about whether that struggle is worth it. Larson’s own fear of the titular “ticking” of his life away was tragically prescient given his all-too-soon passing, and as I’ve said, the film makes sure we know that right up front—so that when the narrative tells Jon that the pain was worth it, it’s also telling us in the audience that it’s worth it, too.

Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) resting his head against his fist with a pensive expression.

The character Jon reveres Stephen Sondheim (so say we all) and feels blessed to have only the small amount of contact with him we’re shown in the story, but Sondheim was a larger presence than that in the real Jonathan Larson’s life. He was a frequent correspondent and mentor figure well before the events dramatized in tick, tick… BOOM!. When Sondheim passed away at 91 a few weeks ago, Miranda shared an e-mail exchange they’d had in which Sondheim expressed pride in his mentorship of younger artists like Larson, and felt it as a kind of repayment for the guidance of his own mentor, Oscar Hammerstein.

When we create, we also make ourselves part of a tradition of other creators, past and future, and that community is one of the most worthwhile things about making art. tick, tick… BOOM! feels like a movie made in that very spirit: it honors those who came before, and it also encourages those who will come after. It pushes up to keep the tradition alive. It says, “Our friend Jonathan is gone, but you are here,” and, now, “Our friend Stephen is gone, but you are here.” It says, “Give us more to see.”

Written by Alex Boruff

Alex Boruff is a New York-based screenwriter, author, actor, director, podcast editor, and overall creative-type goofball.

2 Comments

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  1. I Did assassins with your mom. I’m sure you don’t remember me but I remember you when you were a little boy. So glad you grow up to be a theater geek

  2. Hi, I knew nothing about Jonathan Larson going into watching tick tick boom, though I knew there was a musical called rent that my sister kept wanting me to see. The movie blew me away and now I am obsessed with the music, reading reviews, etc. I particularly appreciate what you said in your review about what Jonathan tells us about his life in tick tick boom being the most important part, more important than the facts of his actual life, because I’ve been struggling with the issue of what of this is true and what of this is not true. It is impossible for us to know, of course. But an interesting viewpoint. My one comment for you is that I think you could use less “I” language and generally not reflect so much on what you write. I imagine readers are more interested in what you have to say than in what you think about what you’re saying or what you think they may be thinking about what you’re saying. Again, thanks for your perspective and for the information that you shared.

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