Review: tick, tick…BOOM!

by Lynn on November 16, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Written by Steven Levenson based on the play by Jonathan Larson

Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Cast: Andrew Garfield

Robin de Jesus

Alexandra Shipp

Judith Light

Vanessa Hudgens

Bradley Whitford

Jonathan Marc Sherman

This pulsing, driving film captures the focus and obsession of the late Jonathan Larson as he struggles to prepare his first musical for a workshop and he hopes, greater things. It’s also director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love-letter to the Broadway theatre, something he knows about personally having written; In The Heights and Hamilton. This is his feature-film debut. Initially the busy camera work, the jump-cut editing and the eye-popping filmed shots seemed like the frenetic energy of Hamilton in which Lin-Manuel Miranda has to top himself with every frame. The film settles down and we know we are in the presence of a skilled, sensitive director.  

From the film info: “The film follows Jon (Andrew Garfield), a young theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical. Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York City; from his friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; amidst an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have?”

tick, tick…BOOM! reveals Larson as a man obsessed. He’s obsessed with almost being 30 and has not made it as a musical-theatre maker. He notes that Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story when he was 27-years-old. This is true, but nobody calmed Larson by saying that Sondheim’s mentor was Oscar Hammerstein II who lived next door! Sondheim had a foot in the Broadway door because of his mentor/neighbour.  So Larson obsesses about writing his sci-fi musical that he is preparing for a make-or break workshop at Playwrights Horizons. Larson has been told by Sondheim (Bradley Whitford, wonderfully twitchy and kind) himself at a previous workshop of new work, that there needs to be another song at a certain point in the musical, and when Larson finally sits down to write it, he’s stuck. Larson is obsessed that his agent Rosa Stevens (Judith Light) has not returned any of his calls. Larson is stressed that his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) wants to talk about their future but he can’t think of anything but finishing the needed song.

Through it all Larson’s friends rally round him, cheering him on. His corporate friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) offers solace and comfort. Susan tries to understand but needs him to notice her needs. Larson is a charming, energetic host of parties in his small ‘hole’ of apartment. But always, there is the workshop.

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson bursts with charm, energy, conviction and focus. And he sings from his guts.  Larson is single minded and uncompromising. He insists on a four-person band and not a piano at the workshop, and he’s right. Sondheim shows up at the workshop adding more pressure to him. And he waits for his agent to call him later with all the offers of a production he knows he will get. Judith Light plays Rosa Stevens, Larson’s agent, as a harried, hard-nosed force. But she has compassion for him when she has to deliver the bad news about the musical’s future. She tells him to ‘write what you know.’ And what he knows is his life and how difficult making art is.

Larson has worked for eight years on this sci-fi musical and he can’t envision doing that for a new musical. He’s despondent that he will be a waiter for the rest of his life. Then he gets a message on his answering machine. It’s Sondheim (and that really is Stephen Sondheim’s voice on the message). He liked the musical. He believes that Larson is talented and has things to say. And he, Sondheim, would love to talk to him about the work, if it’s ok with him. A life-line. Faith. That’s all one needs in art, someone who believes in you. Larson continued after that….tick, tick…BOOM! is the result.

Steven Levenson’s script captures the grit and grind of making musical-theatre. He captures the charm and obsession of Jonathan Larson. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda illuminates Larson’s life and the musical theatre in this stunner of a film, a love-letter to the musical theatre. It opens up a world of the musical to embrace those who love that theatre form, and also offers winks and nudges in insider information and scenes that will charm the musical aficionado.

Sondheim’s musical (music and lyrics, with book by James Lapine) Sunday in the Park with George is about Georges Seurat (1859-1891) a French post-Impressionist painter. Seurat was obsessed with creating art. The culmination of Act I is the painting he was creating: “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” A stunning, moving reenactment done to a song called “Sunday.”

In tick, tick…BOOM! there is a scene in the diner where Larson works. It’s Sunday. It’s busy with people who want brunch. Larson is harried. A guy wants the bill. Another wants more coffee. An impatient man spells his name as if there should be a reservation and there isn’t any. And it’s all done to a song called “Sunday” Written by Jonathan Larson (and Stephen Sondheim). It copies Sondheim’s song.

Lin-Manuel Miranda makes this a focal point in the film. It’s huge. There are wonderful effects to open it up. The people in the diner sing the song. And it’s so obviously a kiss to the musical theatre if you know the man who wants the bill is Joel Grey; the man who wants more coffee is Brian Stokes Mitchell; the impatient man is André de Shields; the profile of the woman with the red curls is Bernadette Peters who was in Sunday in the Park with George, and Chita Rivera is the woman in the black hat, and on and on. all giants on the Broadway musical theatre. Glorious.

Larson’s obsession with finishing his song is echoed with George in Sunday in the Park with George being obsessed with “Finishing the Hat.” George forgoes everything, including his girlfriend Dot, to finish the hat in the painting. Jonathan does the same with Susan his girlfriend, to finish his song. Connections.

tick, tick…BOOM! paved the way for Jonathan Larson to write Rent, his huge Broadway hit. It ran for 12 years on Broadway. Larson didn’t live to see his success. He died from an aortic dissection on the morning of the first preview. Shattering. The film tick, tick…BOOM! is a celebration of Larson’s life and the musical theatre. See it.

Nov. 14 tick, tick…BOOM! Plays in movie theatres.

Nov. 19 tick, tick…BOOM! Plays on NETFLIX

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