Every now and then, I expand my dialogue about storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of books and out into the mediums of TV and film. I do so by doing these analysis pieces once in a while about a TV show or film that has reached a significant time in its history (i.e. series premiere, series finale, film release, anniversary of a release, etc.). It’s been over a year since I did an analysis, which was on “Hamilton.” Today, I explore yet another Lin-Manuel Miranda project, only this time with him in the director’s chair. Today, I analyze the Netflix film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”
Musical theatre nerds (and even though who don’t proclaim themselves the label) might be familiar with a very particular, revolutionary rock opera from the mid-90’s called “Rent.” That was Jonathan Larson’s claim to fame that he sadly never got to live to see. What folks might not know is that a few years before the world got us singing about la vie boheme, Larson himself was living it as a struggling, up-and-coming composer, living in New York in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He was working at a local diner to make ends meet, he would do all his creative work outside of that, and he struggled with whether or not it would be better for him to take on a corporate job so that he doesn’t have to live like this, but sacrifice his dream in the process. All this was going on, while losing friends to the AIDS Epidemic that was happening at the time.
All of this and more was documented in a semi-autobiographical musical he called “tick, tick… BOOM!” While Larson himself performed the piece solo in the early 90’s, it was transformed into a three-person piece for Off-Broadway in 2001.
So for those who don’t know, the public high school I attended had a really strong performing arts program back in the day. It was considered one of the Best of the West as it was hailed, so much to where two months after “Rent” closed on Broadway, my high school got the rights to do a production of it. Being familiar with the program that had such a strong foundation, it was very easy for me to learn about the history of “Rent,” and inadvertently, the life of Larson, which eventually led to me learning about “tick, tick… BOOM!” So I had known about the existence of this work by Larson for quite a while, and was very intrigued to have learned that it would be adapted for film.
When I found out that Miranda was directing, it didn’t surprise me. I know he is an uber fan of Larson’s work and that the same spirit that fueled Larson very much is channeled in Miranda’s work ethic as well. “tick, tick… BOOM!” made for a perfect film directorial debut for him. It’s very clear he knew what he wanted from the project and his love for Larson’s work definitely channeled the way. Mind you, I have never seen this particular musical performed on stage before, but if I had to take a guess, I would say that Miranda’s interpretation of it made it feel larger than life.
I thought the acting all around was superb. I think Andrew Garfield as Larson was brilliant, and everyone else (Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens, among others) was fantastic. There was nothing showy or over the top about how they executed their performances. In a larger-than-life musical, their acting felt very grounded and their singing only added to it. I have to say though that out of everyone on the cast, Hudgens is really the only one I’m familiar with. It’s been years since the height in popularity of the “High School Musical” films, and to see her all these years later, bringing in-depth performances to projects as powerful as this one is really thrilling to see from her.
Since I had never seen “tick, tick… BOOM!” before yesterday, let me just say that it was very obvious to me that this was a musical penned by Larson. From the rock music, down to the bittersweet moments, to the way the dialogue was written, it’s everything that I know of his style from its successful successor. I also see just how much of Larson’s life experiences inspired some of the plot elements for “Rent;” from struggling to pay New York’s astronomical rent, the struggle to write a great song by a certain deadline, and how one measures the moments in a life.
When the official trailer for the film dropped last month, I got a taste of what I did not realize I would otherwise have expected going into this, which is that a lot of what Larson is experiencing at that moment in his life parallels what I’m currently going through. The struggle to get your creative work out and recognized by a larger audience is real, and even more so when the big 3-0 is not that far away. The fact that I have this going on during a global pandemic and Larson was going through his crisis during the AIDS Epidemic makes the parallels between this moment in our lives all the more uncanny. But one lesson that I’m glad to have learned long before Larson is that you’ve got to keep creating, because the more you do, the likelihood that eventually, something will land.
So I personally enjoyed “tick, tick… BOOM!” I can already tell that it’s going to be one of those films I’m going to be returning to quite a bit. It has all the qualities that I already love from “Rent,” but feels more personal with how much it parallels my life in this moment. As I said before, I’ve never seen this musical performed onstage, but maybe one day, once we’re long past the pandemic, I can find a theater that is producing it and finally get to experience it in the medium it originally hailed from.