‘Tick…Tick…BOOM!:’ an ode to NYC Creatives


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Britni Dunn, Editor-in-Chief

Tick… tick… tick… the endless metronome keeping track of fading time weaves its way into the entire film version of Jonathan Larson’s musical “Tick… Tick… BOOM!” and will ring in your ears for days after viewing.


Jonathan Larson was a musical theatre writer and composer (“the future of musical theatre,” as he, and now many others, would put it), well-known for writing the Broadway smash-hit “Rent,” which reshaped American theatre. Larson’s life is richly poetic and the appreciation the actors, director, and crew have for him are apparent in the movie’s entirety. Larson tirelessly worked on shows throughout his life, infamously passing the night before the off-Broadway premiere of “Rent” from a sudden aortic aneurysm. Larson has since been an integral voice in musical theatre and has inspired generations with his works, so it is only fitting that this story was made into a film.


The film vignettes between Larson performing the staged performance rock monologue, “Tick… Tick.. Boom,” and the scenes described in the play. This is an intricate and meaningful layout for this film that seems to be a musical that works even better as a movie in a rare case. 


“Tick…tick…BOOM!” was initially staged as a rock monologue with Jonathan Larson leading the audience through writing “Superbia” and eventually getting to “Tick.” The show was challenging to perform as it was Larson for the entire time singing and acting. The freedom the film brings to the story allows for a structure that can smoothly give viewers a look into the show.


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The film in its simplest sense is an ode to Jonathan Larson, New York City, and the beautiful yet torturous experience of writing. Lin Manuel Miranda fittingly made his film directorial debut with “Tick.” After seeing “Rent” at 17, Miranda was inspired to write his own works. As one of Larson’s many admirers, he and screenwriter Steven Levenson put their best into displaying who the writer was. 


The film paints a portrait of Jonathan’s life that is rich and telling. His friends consist of people of color, queer people, and creatives representative of New York City. The film focuses on this and builds an accurate and telling look into his day-to-day life and the road to “Rent.” The musical also highlights the week he turns 30 and simultaneously prepares for what he hopes to be a life-altering workshop of his musical “Superbia,” which still has a song left to be written. Larson is also noticing the turmoil around him regarding the AIDS epidemic, as many of his friends are actively passing away with no help from the government. His own best friend, Michael, reveals his HIV diagnosis toward the end of the show, pushing Larson to write about the epidemic.


“Tick,” goes through Larson’s struggle with writing “Superbia” for eight years and is one of the most striking looks into the fulfillment and pain of writing in New York City. Larson works in The Moondance Diner and feels time pass by as he is kept from writing and working on his creative projects, offering an authentic look into the life of aspiring writers and creatives of all kinds in the city. 


In a gorgeous display of what it’s like to work in a busy NYC Diner, the performance of “Sunday,” a play on Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” offers a dream-like version of Moondance based on Larson’s Broadway aspirations. Miranda used his connections in the theatre world for this scene, as it features cameos from countless iconic Broadway performers. The number includes Andre DeShields, Philippa Soo, Bernadette Peters, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Chita Rivera, among many others. This adds levels to the song, an ode to Sondheim, Larson’s hero, whom many of these performers have admired for their whole careers as well. 


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Sondheim plays an integral part in Larson’s story, offering his insight and being Larson’s hero and a mentor. Played brilliantly by Bradley Whitford, Sondheim acts as a guide for Larson throughout the film, offering suggestions for “Superbia,” showing up to the all-important workshop and sending Larson a message of congratulations after. Miranda had sent Sondheim the screenplay version of the voicemail sent to Larson, which he did not believe was accurate enough. He ended up sending his own voicemail to be featured in the film, making for somewhat of a full-circle moment that is deeply moving. Especially in light of Sondheim’s passing on Nov. 26, the film’s highlighting of Sondheim’s impact was heartbreakingly beautiful. 


One of the most celebrated scenes was the performance of the song: “Boho Days,” a spontaneous musical number that tackled the feat of looking natural. Garfield handles the song with joy and a lackadaisical grace that makes viewers want to rewind over and over. As Garfield hops to his neighbors in the most care-free Jonathan Larson-esque way possible, he sings what might ultimately be the message of the show: “More like a family than a family/ hey/ time is flying and everything is dying/ I thought by now I’d have a dog, a kid, a wife/ the ship is sort of sinking/ so let’s start drinking/ before we start thinking/ is this is the life?/ this is the life.” Garfield’s Larson flawlessly portrays his knack for lyricism and love for performing as he runs through his cramped apartment full of people. 


Not only does Garfield shine throughout, but his co-stars offer dynamic and personal performances that make for an intriguing story. Alexandra Shipp dazzles the screen with immaculate vocals and a heartbreaking portrayal of Larson’s girlfriend, Susan Wilson. Susan’s character is integral in understanding Larson’s personal life and how writing consumed much of his life, his dedication ultimately ending their relationship. Robin de Jesús is the perfect best friend to star opposite Garfield, offering not only comedic relief but the clarity that Larson desperately needs throughout the show. Larson’s coworkers and friends were portrayed in a rich, multidimensional way by Ben Levi Ross as Freddy and MJ Rodriguez as Carolyn. Vanessa Hudgens offers her vocals and heartfelt performance for the film as Karessa, who performs in the “Superbia” workshop as well as the staged version of “Tick.” 


The film somehow encapsulates the experience of not only Jonathan Larson, but artists across the city. It is somehow even more personal and relatable as a movie than a staged production. As we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic and ever-growing economic and social pressures, this film reminds us that art and the artists that create it can create change in such monumental ways, from, as Michael says in the film, “writing musicals in your living room.”  “Tick… Tick… BOOM!” is one of those films that stays with viewers after, whether consciously or subconsciously, and encourages everyone to make their own way despite the state of the world.