Alexandra Ship

tick, tick… Boom!

20/11/21

Netflix

Lin Manuel-Miranda is having a bit of a moment. After his breakthrough with Hamilton, it was perhaps inevitable that we’d be seeing a lot more of him, but, close on the heels of the filmed adaptation of his first theatrical endeavour, In the Heights, here’s his directorial debut. And, just over the horizon, lurks the Disney animation he’s created the music for – Encanto.

It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate director for tick, tick…. Boom! Here, the second musical by the late Jonathan Larson is turned into a production that’s about as meta as you could ask for: a show about a show about the creation of another show, Larson’s debut production Superbia. This adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, was something he spent eight years of his life working on, but was destined to be seen by only a handful of people.

It’s hardly a spoiler to point out that Larson was the creator of Rent and that he died tragically of an aneurism, at the age of thirty-five, the night before its premiere. The show subsequently went on to enjoy a twelve year run on Broadway, and won countless awards.

When we first encounter Jonathan (Andrew Garfield), he’s trying to write a song for Superbia and, like any real genius, he’s suffering for his art, eking out a precarious existence in his down-at-heel flat. He’s trying to maintain a troubled relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Ship), and he’s working at a local diner earning the pennies to fuel his dreams of success. His best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), who he’s known since childhood, throws over his own long-nurtured ambition of becoming an actor and goes into the world of advertising, reaping himself a beautiful high-rise flat into the bargain. He offers Jonathan a way in to that world but Jonathan is adamant.

He will achieve his dream, whatever the cost.

Tick, tick… Boom! is all about the pain of artistic endeavour – the pursuit of success at all costs – and, inevitably, because we know what’s waiting for our hero a few years down the line, the whole enterprise seems shockingly accentuated. Brilliantly staged and easily accessible, TTB wastes no time in its setup but flings us headlong into Larson’s world. We see his story as presented by him and his fellow performers as a kind of rock-opera-workshop. The songs are accessible, the lyrics witty and relevant and Garfield is exceptional in the central role, piloting us to the dizzy heights and awful depths negotiated by any artist trying to be heard.

Those fearing that this will be unbearably ‘arty’ can relax. This is a story that covers all of the emotions from exuberant to poignant, and it would be a flinty heart indeed that doesn’t warm to a tragic tale of youthful genius that comes into flower just a moment too late. The spectre of AIDs hangs heavy over the proceedings – and, as some of Larson’s closest friends succumb to the illness, we begin to understand how Rent came to fruition.

‘Write about what you know,’ advises Larson’s elusive agent, Rosa (Judith Light). So he does – and finally finds the story that’s been eluding him for so long.

This is a delightful film, one that will strike chords with anyone who has striven to create art of any kind. Yes, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through its heart, but just look and listen. There’s joy here too.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney