Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hugely creative film adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM! has been, it now seems safe to say, a huge success. Fittingly for the story of Jonathan Larson, a man who referred to himself as ‘the future of musical theatre’, it is an inventive movie musical that shows what the genre can be and has the potential to reinvent it.
tick, tick…BOOM! is more than just a very good movie musical, it is part of the legacy of a man who steered musical theatre in a new direction. It’s the story of the man whose work and life inspired a generation of musical theatre artists and fans alike. Including director Lin-Manuel Miranda. Without Larson there might not have been a Hamilton, without Larson, many of today’s musical theatre fans might not be fans at all.
When it comes to Larson, Rent is the musical we all remember of course, but actually tick, tick…BOOM! has long had an important place in his legacy. It is one of the only other full-length works of Larson’s we have record and performances of. It originated as his one-man show Boho Days, and its existence is owed to producer and Larson’s close friend Victoria Leacock, who believed after Rent that the world deserved to see more of the writer and composer’s work. The musical it became, tick, tick…BOOM!, was the result of unearthing snippets of Larson’s work from other projects that never saw the light of day—including Superbia, the thread that runs through the show alongside Larson’s looming 30th birthday—as well as Larson’s own notes, and stories from his life. As the opening of the film states, ‘All of it is true…except the bits that Jonathan made up.’
Larson was of course a master at adapting his own life for his stories, occasionally romanticizing of course, but what’s a good musical without a bit of romanticizing, and Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! becomes more the story of how he did that with Rent than it ever was. In 2001 tick, tick…BOOM! on stage gave us the missing puzzle pieces of Larson’s life. In 2021, tick, tick…BOOM! the film puts those puzzle pieces together with Rent at last.
The stage version is of course very different to the movie (as well they should be, but that’s an argument about musical theatre form for another day). tick, tick…BOOM! on stage was a back-to-its-roots, small-scale production with three performers, and a band—Larson would have been relieved it wasn’t just a piano, at least—which felt like a throwback to the Rent of New York Theatre Workshop; stripped back, rough around the edges. The film version feels like the future of the movie musical, and what Chris Columbus and Stephen Chbosky’s 2005 film adaptation of Rent film should have been (defiantly another article in itself. Lin-Manuel Miranda for a Rent remake anyone?)
The beauty of Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! is its ability to make a musical about making a musical and in the process creating a love letter both to Larson and musical theatre. With the stage version that was a hard line to walk, still relatively soon after Larson’s death; a life story that was so concerned with ‘would he manage to succeed?’ Now, twenty-five years after his death it feels as it always was, the perfect way to celebrate his legacy, with the benefit of now knowing all that that entails. We hear Andrew Garfield as Larson declare in the film, ‘I’m the future of musical theatre’, something that the writer would apparently say in life. And he was right. Not just in the way he reimagined, by writing a game-changing musical, but also in the people he changed along the way.
The film expands the world of Rent in that we see the workings of how we get to that place of Jonathan telling his story. It’s become trendy among younger musical theatre fans to bash Rent, to tell us the characters are all terrible people, to even tell us that the musical is terrible. Perhaps Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! will shed light on the fact that the story was Jonathan’s truth, it was his life, including the funerals he went to, the friends he lost.
What tick, tick…BOOM! does crucially in terms of illuminating Rent is to highlight a much-overlooked element; the friendships and the impact of AIDS. One of the most heart-wrenching lines in Rent is from Mark, when he says to Roger, ‘Maybe it’s because I’m the one of us to survive.’ We spend so long thinking about lovers, and blood family members left behind during the AIDS crisis that we often forget the friends who lost people too, people who were family to them. In Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! we see this addressed in Jonathan and Carolyn’s fear for their friend Freddy who ends up in hospital, and in Jonathan’s moving vow to be there for Michael, ‘Whatever happens next’. We see too, an often overlooked dynamic—not just in stories about AIDS but more broadly—close friendships between straight and gay men, just existing in the world of the film unquestioned. It’s a powerful friendship, sexuality aside, that speaks to the idea that would become integral to Rent, that of chosen family. We perhaps understand from Miranda’s re-telling of tick, tick…BOOM! why Rent mattered so much to Larson, and by extension why it came to mean so much to the audiences who had also gone through what he had.
We also come to further understand Larson as a writer from tick, tick…BOOM!, making it a fascinating biopic exercise as it, retrospectively, uses its subject’s own words, it’s also a brilliant and moving act of nostalgia. We’re so used to knowing the details of the lives of the people behind the works we love, but up until now, all fans of Larson have had to survive on is a few grainy video recordings, a handful of interviews, and the songs. The real triumph of Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! is the feeling it creates of Larson being here with us again, just for a moment.
Garfield and Miranda manage to do the near-impossible, creating a version of Jonathan that feels like its own character for this film, but also authentically Larson. That’s where the theatrics come into play. It is, as the opening states, completely true, aside from the bits Jonathan made up. In the theatrical sequences in the film, Garfield is playing Jonathan Larson; he can impersonate him as he was on stage (as seen here in a video that went viral on twitter that shows them one above the other). Then, when he is in the ‘real’ world of the film as Larson, he can step away from mirroring Larson’s exact mannerisms, and create a character that’s still Larson, but one that doesn’t rest on being perfectly him.
tick tick …BOOM! feels like being invited into the mind of an old friend. Like getting to spend time with someone we’ve lost, and in essence for Rent fans, and poignantly Jonathan’s friends and family, that exactly what the original stage production was; a way to bring more of his work to life and in doing so allowing us to spend more time with him. Rent and Larson’s other work remains a kind of memorial to him, but tick tick …BOOM! particularly so.
It matters that this was the theatrical backdrop to Miranda’s new film version because it is rooted in theatre, it is rooted in musical theatre mythology now too, but crucially tick, tick…BOOM! embodies Larson before he was mythologized. Yes, the words of the musical’s script (and the film’s screenplay) were written after the fact, but the songs themselves are unfiltered Larson. It brings to mind ‘They are your words, George’ from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which the show-stopping number Sunday in tick, tick…BOOM! is a musical tribute to.
It’s his Sunday, as the film clearly points out clearly with the characters watching the Bernadette Peters/Mandy Patinkin version as Larson wrestles with how to be an artist and how to maintain his life, but also filled with the kind of existential dread of ‘finding your voice’ that haunts every artist. Fusing that with the, perhaps less than subtle, parallels with Sondheim’s Company, following in the footsteps of his mentor in framing Jonathan’s 30th Birthday much as Bobby’s 35th is in Company. In Larson’s case too he focuses on the career angst over romantic angst, but the parallels, along with of course his tribute to Sondheim’s Sunday is still there. In David Auburn’s version he shifted the birthday element to the end, so we see after all Larson’s professional struggles, he’s still loved, celebrated by his friends. We see him come through it if not renewed then resilient to carry on. For theatre nerds too, that the original production of tick, tick…BOOM! starred Raul Esparza who then went on to Broadway acclaim in John Doyle’s production of Company a few years later, is a pleasing, neat parallel.
Speaking of theatre nerds, the whole film of course is a love letter to the theatre Larson adored. It is filled with visual references, and jokes—‘Cats auditions this way’, a series of parody theatre posters in Schubert Alley—and what might be the biggest gathering of musical theatre legend in film history. This is all there for the reading for theatre nerds because Larson was musical theatre to his core, and Miranda manages to weave that into the film by making it a love letter to the theatre of today that Larson helped to create. Because Miranda is that theatre nerd that Larson helped to create. Without Rent we likely wouldn’t have Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s said repeatedly that Rent and Larson inspired him to write, and you can’t help but think of the Tony Award opening in 2013 that Miranda wrote for Neil Patrick Harris with the lyrics that made every theatre kid cry in recognition:
“There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere who’s sitting there, living for Tony performances singin’ and flippin’ along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses,
So we might reassure that kid and do something to spur that kid,
Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight,
We were that kid.”
It’s always felt like a certain generation of theatre kids—Miranda’s generation—were that kid, looking specifically at Rent. Including of course, Neil Patrick Harris who played Mark on tour. There’s a generation that were raised by Rent and it’s part of the through line of musical theatre. Miranda incorporates that in his film. In Sunday in particular he manages to integrate generations of musical theatre, from Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters, through to the original cast members of Rent (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Adam Pascal and Wilson Jermaine Heredia), to ‘second generation’ Rent star Mj Rodriguez, to the performers and shows that came after Rent, with original Hamilton cast members, Philipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry (who was in the closing cast of Rent). Oh, and it wouldn’t be a Lin-Manuel Miranda movie musical without a cameo from the man himself. It’s a meta, spider diagram leading back to Rent (Joel Grey, of course the original cast of Wicked with none other than Idina Menzel, original Maureen or André De Shields, part of the original cast of Hadestown produced by NYTW, part of the Rent legacy in creating new musicals there…we could go on and on). The point being Miranda appreciates and integrates the legacy of Rent in all its multitudes.
While Miranda expands the world of Rent, giving us the context for Larson’s writing of it and the roads that led there, he gives us these meta nods to the world of musicals it fits into. The film also incorporates wonderful ‘Easter egg’ references, from the visual of Larson riding his bike echoing Mark in the film version of Rent, to the answering machine references—and the iconic ‘speeeaaak’ greeting—to my personal favourite, Michael calling Jon ‘pookie’. There’s more to be found on repeat viewings, and that really is what embeds this as a film for musical theatre lovers. Most moving of all is the close up of Jonathan putting a kettle on to make tea. Unspoken, but clear to anyone who knows the story. Larson was boiling a kettle to make tea when he died. The film avoids dwelling on or foreshadowing too much of that part of his story, but that nod, powerful and important, is there. And that’s the shadow across the film, to those who grew up in Larson’s mythology; it ends in both victory and tragedy.
The final number, Louder Than Words, acts as an affirmation of this. It asks the characters—and the audience—a series of questions: Why do we carry on when we know we’re in for pain? Why does it takes some kind of tragedy to get through to us? Why should we keep trying hard when we can just get by? Sung as a trio, the essence of the piece is why should we try so hard for our dreams when we could just coast along. With Jonathan then asking, ‘Cages or wings, which do you prefer?’ Evolving it into an anthem for change, for keeping fighting for whatever it is you want. A kind of call to arms that echoes La Vie Bohème and What You Own from Rent. The phrase ‘What does it take to wake up a generation?’ could almost be foreshadowing Larson’s own impact. The words he wrote before Rent were a fully realized dream, which makes an audience want to say, ‘actually Jonathan you will’. Because of course, if not ‘the next one’ that he sits down to write in the film, but the one after that, becomes the show that shaped the future musical theatre, and the show that shaped a generation of musical theatre lovers, performers, and of course, writers, like Miranda, who would follow. It feels right to finally tell Larson’s story, through his songs this way.
Why tick, tick…BOOM! matters to the nerds (like me)
Most musical theatre kids have a Rent story. Everyone who loves it, who really loves it, has their reasons why. For me, it was being a 20-year-old on the bus desperately trying to get my CD Walkman to play What You Own without it skipping. Then it was Boxing Day—you don’t know how much I wish it was Christmas Eve—two months after my father died, sobbing like I never had before, and rarely have since, at a musical that felt like it reached out and fixed something in me. Look, it hardly takes a lot of work to figure out that, yes, a queer musical theatre-loving teen loved Rent. But there was something about being part of that generation that ‘the musical that defined a generation’ changed, that stayed with us all. And tick, tick…BOOM! became part of that.
I don’t know how to explain to people that the original cast album of this show is engrained not only in my mind, but deep in my soul. More so even than Rent perhaps. Everything I know about being a writer I learned first from Jonathan Larson, but also from these songs. They are a part of me in a way that so few pieces of art are, they taught me about love when it was an abstract concept, they taught me about being a writer before I was one. And I know instinctively, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
tick, tick…BOOM! occupies a particular place for the now 30-somethings of musical theatre. In the early 2000s, it was part of a subset of musical theatre; not the ‘classics’, not the big hitters, though we found our way there via Rent of course. When we discovered Rent, we discovered alternative musical theatre. It was the era of Sh-K-Boom records, the era of Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in The Last Five Years. It was Songs for a New World and I Love You Because. Later it was See What I Wanna See because Idina was in it. It was whatever mix and match of those off-Broadway musicals you discussed on BroadwayWorld, or with your college friends. It was belting out Come to Your Senses or attempting to duet Therapy when you’d exhausted Take Me Or Leave Me. It was crying along with Louder Than Words in your bedroom and dreaming of doing what Jonathan did.
tick, tick…BOOM! has always been a life raft in a different way to Rent. For me, for most of us, Rent is a place for the big feelings; the love, the loss of our teens and twenties, and beyond. It’s about finding yourself. tick, tick…BOOM! has always been about something far more frightening: daring to dream.
It raised us. It was our beacon of ‘you can do this too’.
I don’t feel that I would be the person I am without Jonathan Larson. I wouldn’t be the writer I am, I know that. We all have our Holy Trinities of people who make us write, but more importantly keep us writing. For me, Larson is the core of that. He showed me stories that moved me in ways I didn’t understand at the time, gave me language for experiences I didn’t have words for. He gave me a style to emulate. And in a world where I am often ‘too much’ or ‘too sentimental’ or ‘not edgy enough’ for theatre, I look to Larson with his open-hearted sincerity and conviction to write the stories he knew he had to, and I say over and over again, ‘that’s who I want to write like.’ What Miranda gives us in tick, tick…BOOM! is the man behind that and a reminder to write your stories, to make your art, however difficult it might be.
Larson gave me my love of Broadway—of musicals, yes—but also a very particular love affair with New York theatre that endures even now. The years of traveling across the Atlantic to seek out obscure shows, often purely because they had some connection to someone who was once in Rent, raised me as a baby theatre nerd. The shows my love of Rent led me to shaped my love of theatre, and my life.
My love of Larson’s work led me to write a PhD on it. My whole career, my whole life as it looks now, are literally because of Larson’s work.
With tick, tick…BOOM! Larson gave me the words to be a writer. I first saw that musical live the summer I moved to London to do my Masters in theatre. That moment of, ‘Yes, I’m going to jump in, I’m going to live this dream.’ But also now, as someone who has not only passed the tick, tick…BOOM! moment of turning 30, but also passed the age Larson was when he died, there’s a question too of ‘Have I done enough?’ But also the affirming nature of keeping going, of ‘cages or wings?’
I’ve watched everyone around me age out into versions of Michael or Susan. Chasing the different dreams of security and family and of the ‘right time’ to do things. While I feel perpetually stranded between Johnny Can’t Decide, the ‘compromise or preserve’ moments, and Why, and thinking ‘I want to spend my life this way’, always circling back to, ‘How do you know when it’s time to let go?’ From Johnny Can’t Decide, these lyrics feel like they’re both burned into my consciousness, but also ripped from my diary. That desperate need to create, to do the things you feel that you are here to do, but also dealing with the push-pull of Real Life.
More than ever lately, I’ve found myself retreating into Larson’s words, not in Rent, but in tick, tick…BOOM! for those times I get to think ‘Hey, what a way to spend a day’, having finally got to spend large portions of my time writing. In times of doubt I remind myself, as Jonathan made that vow, ‘I’m gonna spend my life this way.’ Because one thing we all took from Larson’s life was his tragic untimely death, and the reminder that maybe we should lean into our art, whatever gifts we might have there, just in case there’s not that much time left.
I’m so thankful to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Garfield for giving new life to Jonathan’s world.
Yes, Rent was the future of musical theatre, but more importantly, Jonathan Larson was the foundation of our love for theatre, and for so many of us, he made us writers.
Thank you Jonathan Larson.
By Dr Emily Garside