“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is a film adaptation of the autobiographical musical written by Jonathan Larson, following the composer as he navigates his blossoming professional and complicated personal lives. Larson is perhaps best known for writing the musical “Rent,” which made its Broadway debut in 1996, the same year that he passed away at the age of 35. Larson won three posthumous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize in drama for his work on “Rent.” Five years earlier, however, he performed “Tick, Tick… Boom!” as a solo work.
*Mild Spoilers Ahead*
Written before his big break, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” documents Larson’s journey as he tries to establish himself on Broadway. The titular onomatopoeia refers to Larson’s anxiety, which is increasing as time passes. As he reaches the age of 30, Larson feels that he has a limited window of opportunity for success in musical theater, so he ramps up the internal pressure to produce something great. At the time, he had been working on a dystopian, futuristic sci-fi musical called “Superbia” for eight years. While the musical was about to get its first workshop production, it was still missing the crucial, second-act solo that always acts as a turning point. Meanwhile, he was juggling a minimum wage job at a diner, feeling external pressures to switch careers and dealing with losing younger friends to the AIDS epidemic. The film goes back and forth between Larson’s story and his one-man show telling the story.
In the film adaptation, Larson is portrayed by Andrew Garfield, who masterfully conveys his sense of urgency and uncertainty. Garfield does an incredible job at imitating Larson’s mannerisms, from his speech to his piano ticks. Garfield’s Larson, just like the real one, has a lot to say, but he is held back by the realities of his everyday life. The film captures Larson’s unwavering passion as well as the highs and lows of the creative process, especially when undertaken by someone trying to invent themselves. He is portrayed grappling with questions like: When do you call it a day and take a safer but less fulfilling job? What do you look to for inspiration when you have a week to compose a new song?”
Eventually, Larson learns that he can, in fact, use the environment around him to tell a compelling story. The story of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” foreshadows the eventual creation of “Rent”; one instance that stands out is Larson’s electricity getting turned off, which forces him to light a candle.
The portrayal of Larson’s quarter-life crisis (particularly poignant considering that he did not know he would die so young) is refreshing and freeing. So often, we are told that milestones must be accomplished by a certain time — graduate college at 22, start a family by 30, etc. — so it is deeply relatable to see Larson falter and wonder if his dream is worth it. However, it is also important to remember that everyone’s life moves at different paces. The film serves as a much-needed reminder to take life as it comes and not be overwhelmed by time or aging. It urges audiences to pursue their passions without giving up; you never know what might await you around the next corner. And it is the beauty of the journey, filled with the mundane, that makes whatever time we do have all the more special.
The film is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who became a household name as the creator of the critically acclaimed musical “Hamilton.” Miranda certainly understands and appreciates the struggles that a Broadway artist such as Larson had to deal with, from writing and composing a work to finding the resources to make it come to life. Watching “Rent” on Broadway on his 17th birthday is what Miranda says transformed him from “being a fan of musicals to trying to write my first musical.” It showed him that musical theater did not have to be extravagant; it could also be about the day-to-day experiences of real people. This notion inspired Miranda to create “In the Heights,” another Tony award-winning musical set in the neighborhood that he grew up in. Miranda even played Larson in a 2014 stage production of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and he consistently cites Larson as an idol.
There is an iconic line in “Rent” that questions how one can measure the life of a man, which echoes a similar line in “Hamilton” that asks who tells the story of the dead after they are gone. In an oddly beautiful way, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is Miranda’s way of telling Larson’s story with heart, humor and glory. It is a magical love letter to one of his icons, and it is surely worth the watch.