He never finished it in his lifetime, but Jonathan Larson’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM” might be the ultimate “Let’s put on a show!” musical. The guy whose grand achievement was “Rent,” the “musical for the MTV generation,” lays bare his struggles to get started, get on his feet and get a show on stage with a years-in-the-making musical he is about to workshop in New York.
If you’re putting that sort of plucky, Broadway Babies Make It Happen production on the screen, you could do worse than having the musical theater Man of the Moment, Lin-Manuel Miranda, directing it to life.
Miranda gives us a revised but affectionate, intimate and respectful adaptation of a stage show about one man’s deadline-obsessed creative process and how impossibly difficult it is to write and mount a musical and launch your career in the priciest, cruelest crucible of them all, The Big Apple.
And Miranda serves up a grand showcase for a singing Andrew Garfield, playing Larson and for rising star Alexandra Shipp, and a pointed reminder of the dazzling talent of Vanessa Hudgens.
It’s about a composer, author and lyricist stressing towards a deadline, struggling to put the finishing touches on the show — about to be “workshopped,” sung-through without sets or a full cast — for potential producers/investors.
He’s upset and frantic about that. But he’s even more freaked out by the fact that all this is coming to a head smack dab on top of his 30th birthday. He’s burned through his youth, his youthful potential and energy waiting on tables at the Moonrise Diner in Soho, living in an unheated flat with a string of indulgent roommates as he takes eight years writing and composing a sci-fi musical called “Superbia.”
I’m…running out of TIME!” he shouts at one point, as if we haven’t gotten the message long before then.
Garfield’s Larson is a Broadway “type,” relentlessly upbeat, a “show must go on” smile as his “public” face, even as the clock is “tick, ticking” away on his dream and the confluence of events piling on top of this one approaching morning in January of 1990.
That’s when his showcase “workshop” will be read/sung-through for a select audience of what he hopes will be Broadway luminaries. The film is framed in Larson singing and narrating from that showcase’s stage, with flashbacks taking us back to much that led up with what’s coming to a head right at that moment.
We meet the dancer girlfriend Susan (Shipp, of “Love, Simon,” “Shaft” and “All the Bright Places”) who is both his muse and about to leave for a job out of town, somebody who needs “an answer,” which is why she’s constantly telling him “We need to talk,” one of a sea of distractions he’s batting away.
“Everyone’s unhappy in New York,” he shouts at Susan, mid-argument. “It’s what New York IS.”
Debtors, an AWOL agent, the producer of the showcase (Jonathan Marc Sherman) and old roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus) are also among those yanking on his sleeve, needing his time.
And he needs a “second act” song for his character Elizabeth. Only he’s “blocked.”
As it’s implied that Michael, a high school classmate and actor who gave up his dream and went corporate, might offer an office job way out and that he might have been Larson’s lover and AIDS is the subtext of anything “Broadway” in 1990, we can see the distractions he faces are close to overwhelming.
He’s manic at times, extravagant — throwing a birthday party for his girlfriend when he can’t afford it, over-doing and over-spending on his workshop presentation. He’ll take “focus group” market research money, and the cash he can round up from selling his record collection, just to add another musician to the workshop band.
He works on that “missing” song, even as he’s having what could be a break-up argument with Susan.
“Scenes from a modern romance, as told in SONG” might work.
As we jump back and forth from Larson singing and telling the story of this showcase, and the tension mounting as he was struggling to keep all his juggled-balls in the air, “tick, tick…Boom!” makes us feel his pain and anxiety, if not share his suspense.
No, nobody ever heard of a Broadway musical called “Superbia” because it never happened. And we all know what’s coming for the whirling dervish of musical energy named Jonathan Larson.
As the show opens with a string of what could be called “affirming” tunes in the power pop modern musical style, it took a while to draw me in.
But Miranda turns the “What am I doing with my life in this diner?” number “Sunday,” a soloist-plus-chorus-piece inspired by Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” into a show stopper. The annoying New York customers in the crowded diner are Broadway royalty who join Jonathan’s vocalized gripes and dreams. Even a casual Broadway fan will recognize Bernadette and Bebe, Chita and Joel Grey. It’s downright thrilling.
Shipp and Hudgens have a lovely duet, “Come to Your Senses,” with “the one who got away” (Shipp’s Susan) and the singer/actress (Hudgens) hired to “sing” her part blended together in Larson’s mind.
Another showpiece is a rap number “Play Game,” about the compromises and demands made on artists just to get their play in front of an audience, knocked out of the park by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter. It’s one of the tunes added to the stage musical, which itself had to be pieced together and finished and made Off Broadway-ready by Tony winning playwright David Auburn (“Proof”) back in 2001.
The funniest scene is the moment Larson treasured forever, a hilarious “public reading” endorsement by Stephen Sondheim himself (Bradley Whitford), batting away shallow complaints from a never-humbled blowhard of a Broadway colleague (Richard Kind, always good for a laugh).
Miranda keeps all this engaging, even if becomes difficult to keep all of it straight in your head. Garfield lets us see a man keeping “overwhelmed” at bay. But it’s difficult for the audience to share his (relative) calm.
The songs range from beautiful and fun, to generic and forgettable filler, tunes serving their purpose in the narrative, but little more.
There’s no getting around the places all these stresses, characters and juggled balls can make the show drag, here and there.
But “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is still essential viewing for “Rent” fans and devotees of Larson’s legend, and an impressive audition for more musicals from the likes of Garfield, Hudgens and Shipp. And Miranda fans? He did a much better job than the crew that filmed “Rent.”
Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, some suggestive material and drug references
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Bradley Whitford, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Richard Kind, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens
Credits: Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson and Steven Auburn, adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:00