11/19/2021 tick ... tick ... BOOM! Netflix / Area Movie Theatres
WRITING LIKE YOU'RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME
For the second time this month, I find myself writing about tick ... tick ... BOOM!, Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical precursor to Rent. Just closed is Act 3 Production’s excellent staging, and now, (in a most unfortunate timing glitch) comes the release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie adaptation.
It is, quite simply, terrific, one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations it has been my joy to experience.
Let me start out with a template that will give a feeling of deja vu to those of you who read my recent write-up of Act 3’s production.
It is impossible to watch Jonathan Larson’s tick ... tick ... BOOM! without the reality of Mr. Larson’s early death coloring how we react. The play is, after all, the Rent author’s autobiographical We-Do-Not-Last-Forever-and-Mortality-is-Staring-Me-in-the-Face meditation on Life and Art and Dreams and Compromises and, most especially, Turning Thirty. OF COURSE, Mr. Larson’s early death (at almost-36) is going to cast a pall of melancholic irony over the entire play.
It is also impossible to watch this play from the advantage of 68 years of life without realizing it is a young person’s theme. The final moving anthem, “Louder Than Words” has a recurring chorus of “Cages or wings, which do you prefer?” – a cry to seize your dreams while you still can. Mr. Larson’s death before the success of Rent makes this especially urgent and poignant.
But it is an oversimplification. We face many choices, many milestones, many crossroads that will define the remainder of our lives. Experience and age eventually teach us that not every compromise is a “cage” and the “wings of a dream” more often than not takes us into different unforeseen cages. But dammit, it feels good to hear, to remember, to realize that even a Boomer of 68 still has the option to Seize that Dream!
I am part of the minority of Musical Theatre fans who was not initially overwhelmed by Rent. I first saw it as part of the initial national tour at a theatre that chose to set the sound level at ear-bleed levels, and I almost left at intermission because of the very real pain it was causing. Since I quickly fell into “judging mode” rather than “engaging mode,” I found the characters shallow, the plotting predictable, and most of the songs (at least what I heard through the din) completely forgettable.
But the show was inescapable – I saw several more productions and even worked on more than one, and eventually fell in love with the characters’ artistic ambitions and idealism I even grew to like (even love) the music. I also loved the 2005 movie version.
The first thing director Lin-Manuel Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson do right is remind us of Jonathan Larson’s fate, of the early death that will provide the BOOM to his ticking clock. Starting off with a video of a stage performance of the three-person play (a video that could easily be the work of Rent’s Mark), we hear the opening argument, that turning thirty is a crossroads, paradigm for the start of real maturity. And we end with videos and stills of Rent itself.
That concert is a recurring leitmotif, a reminder that we are watching a musical, a film of a musical that segues easily into the scenes the songs are meant to illuminate.
Miranda also takes many opportunities to give us bravura sequences that go far beyond anything that can be accomplished in a stage production. The most celebrated is the making “Come to Your Senses” a duet rather than a solo – we see Vanessa Hudgens (as actress Keressa) singing it at the workshop of Larson’s musical (Superbia) and we see Alexandra Shipp (as estranged girlfriend Susan) desperately singing it on the roof of Jonathan’s walk-up Soho apartment. The juxtaposition is compelling, and the women’s voices blend so well, it’s as if it were written for two.
But I found even better the staging of “Therapy,” the comic patter song signaling the end of the relationship. The concert version pulls out the comic stops, letting Andrew Garfield (terrific as Jonathan) and Vanessa Hudgens mug and milk it for every laugh and gag. But it is intercut with a very real, very desperate argument “in real life.” The result is an emotional sucker punch that combines deep emotion with flighty banter, making what on stage is a snarky amusing song into a deeply resonate portrait of a relationship failing apart at a basic incompatibility level. It is one of the many moments of “pure cinema” Miranda gives us.
The movie also includes a number of songs from Superbia that weren’t in the original stage version, making clearer what that show would have been like if it had been producible (not to mention finding a place for “Boho Days” a deleted song added as an extra to the original cast CD). If the themes we are told were really in Larson’s original show, it was uncannily prescient – a future society in which people are obsessed with handheld technology at the expense of real human connections. But described decades before the first iPhone.
OTOH, I did miss some of the songs that were reduced or cut completely. “Make Her Smile” is gone, “Sugar” is just a passing reference (“I wanted to see if I could write a song about anything”) and “Green Green Dress” is only used in the background (and over the end titles).
Did I mention the sheer joy of watching this if you happen to love musical theatre? It’s about a writer obsessed with creating musicals, with music by the songwriter who changed the sound of Broadway, directed by the man who created Hamilton. And it features roles and cameos by luminaries of the Musical world – “Sundays” (a Sondheim parody itself) is a veritable treasure trove of Easter Egg cameos – Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth Andre de Shields, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Joel Grey. Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry are there being very Schuyler-Sister-esque, and Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (from the original cast of Rent) come on as, of course, the “bums bums bums.” In an even shorter “blink and you’ll miss it” shot, a theatre workshop sequence is chock full of almost every songwriter working on Broadway now, but, because songwriters are “behind the scenes,” you’ll be hard-pressed to recognize them. Just know that they include the likes of Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell and Wicked) , Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) , Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) and many many more.
The movie is filled with performances from actor/singers at their peak. Andrew Garfield is the engine – singing like a seasoned pro and suffused with the desperate energy of one who is writing like he’s running out of time. Alexandra Shipp is delightful as Susan, showing us the dark side of living with an artist (every private moment is a potential public expression). Robin de Jesús brings a ton of heart and soul to Michael, and when he cuts loose in “No More,” it is a rapturous joy to watch. Vanessa Hudgens is also excellent as Karessa, who, thank heavens, is not portrayed as a dimwit as she is in the stage version. And Bradley Whitford does a spot-on Sondheim portrayal impressing in just a few short scenes.
This movie is a true delight, a moving and satisfying portrait of an artist the world lost too soon, and a brilliant plea for seizing the moment. Forget all my quibbles about it being a “young person’s show” from my earlier writings on it. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie of Jonathan Larson’s tick... tick.. BOOM! is for everyone who ever had a dream, who ever obsessed over a goal to the point of being a pain-in-the-ass to those who loved you, and a tuneful wallow in not-so-lost songs from a young genius. It also happens to be a brilliant cinematic debut from a director who hopefully has more musical adaptations in his (and our) future.
I’ve watched it twice already and plan on watching it again. Soon!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Netflix #TickTickBOOM! #LinManuelMiranda #JonathanLarson)