Composer Jonathan Larson died at the tragically young age of 35, from a dissecting aortic aneurysm, just before his magnum opus “Rent” opened on1996 and transformed the Broadway musical. One of the many young talents whose lives and careers were influenced and or changed by “Rent” was Lin-Manuel Miranda who, almost twenty years later in 2015, created his own pop culture phenomenon “Hamilton”, writing the script, music and lyrics (in 2008 he had already made a Broadway splash by staring in, and writing both the music and lyrics for “In The Heights” which was released as a movie earlier this year).
Now, he repays the complement, making his directorial debut adapting “tick, tick. Boom!”, a tribute musical constructed around Larson’s songs and musings from the year 1990 when he was about to turn thirty and was depressed that he had nothing to show for his efforts at this critical milestone. In fact, the movie is constructed as a flashback from1992 when Jonathan performed his “rock monologue” “Tick, Tick….Boom” in front of an audience at the New York Theatre Workshop accompanied by his friends Roger (Joshua Henry) and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) as he describes he events in the week leading up to his 30th birthday – the first song is appropriately titled ”30/90″.
This sounds like a complex set-up, but Miranda’s movie works by keepings the basic storyline simple and low-key, helped immeasurably by a streamlined script courtesy of Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and a wonderful performance by Andrew Garfield as Jonathan. As the seven day countdown begins, we see him juggling work at the Moondance Diner in SoHo (cue the song “Sunday” in which the “Diner Ensemble” is filled with New York musical theatre glitterati in everyday garb – you get to play spot the celebrity!) and preparing a workshop at Playwrights Horizons of his work-in-progress of eight years, “Superbia”, an adaptation of Orwell’s 1984! At Playwrights, Bradley Whitford does a very credible impersonation of Larson’s idol Stephen Sondhiem who is wonderfully wise and encouraging throughout the rehearsal process. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp), frustrated by his indecisiveness and obsession with his career, breaks up with him (cue “Therapy”) while his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), who left acting for the more lucrative career of advertising (cue “No More”) has just moved out of their shared apartment for flashier digs on the Upper East Side. And then there is the New York City of 1990. A city whose theatre community has been decimated by AIDS, and Jonathan struggles with the dichotomy of giving birth to a new musical while several of his friends have died or are dying (cue “Play Game”).
To the best of my knowledge, Andrew Garfield has never done musical theatre but he’s a natural or, at least, he’s a great actor playing a natural. His gangly frame moving with loose-jointed awkwardness is infectious and, whether behind or in front of the piano, he is the heart and soul of someone who lives for music. He can also carry a tune. Although we know the eventual outcome, there is no great tragedy awaiting us at the end of the movie. In fact, it is a celebration of the life of someone who has given joy to thousands of theatre and movie goers.