On 25 January 1996, the off-Broadway premiere of a new rock musical by composer Jonathan Larson was to take place in New York City. Loosely based on the Italian opera La Bohème, Rent went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and become one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. However, Larson sadly never got to see his name celebrated among musical theatre due to his untimely death the morning of Rent‘s off-Broadway premiere. Over 25 years later, In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his feature film directorial debut by adapting another of Larson’s notable works – an autobiographical ‘rock monologue’ titled Tick, Tick…Boom!.
Starring Andrew Garfield as Larson, Tick, Tick…Boom! follows the composer in 1990s New York as he struggles with his career as a composer amid a quarter-life crisis. Set in a pre-digital world at the height of the AIDS crisis, he is living a decadent life of modern bohemia, where he is surrounded by aspiring performance artists and musical interludes that flow as quickly and easily as alcohol. All the while, he waits tables at the (very famous) Moondance diner and constantly jots down notes for future songs ahead of a workshop that can see his lifelong project Superbia debut on Broadway. But as the film goes on, we soon see that that there are two different sides to our protagonist – Larson: the composer or Larson: the individual.
This melee of identity causes an imbalance between fiction and reality, which further highlights the two great loves of Larson – his work and his social circle, and they are constantly pulling him in opposite directions. His lifelong pursuit for a career on Broadway sees Larson struggle with the bills. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is pursuing a career in modern dance with a job offer in the Berkshires while his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has abandoned his acting dream (and the rundown apartment he shares with Larson) for a lucrative career in advertising and Park Avenue. They continually support him in his work while inspiring words from Broadway idol Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) drive him to continue but he fails to encourage them similarly. He instead chooses to focus on his work, resulting in some redundant songs that provide him with an outlet to escape life’s harsh realities and inevitably causes chaos in his relationships and the narrative. With such a constant need to delve into fantasy, the film inevitably prevents audiences from seeing him as a person and resonating with him as a reliable narrator.
However, Dear Evan Hansen screenwriter Steven Levenson effectively breaks down the narrative so we experience the emotional highs and lows of Larson’s early career. In the driving seat is Garfield, whose strong piano and vocal abilities keep audiences engaged throughout the composer’s tumultuous journey. Complemented by the vibrant supporting performances from Shipp, stage actor Joshua Henry and High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens, the film also showcases Miranda’s confident direction, which in turn instils an energy that beautifully translates Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical onto the big screen and pays homage to modern musical theatre (epitomised by epic musical number Sunday, a Broadway version of Guess Who?).
Overall, Tick, Tick…Boom! is like its protagonist – full of chaos, passion and brimming full of talent. Despite the occasional confusion, Miranda delivers an assured debut with Garfield in his strongest and most profound role to date.
Tick, Tick…Boom! is out in UK cinemas now and is available on Netflix from 19 November.
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda; Steven Levenson (screenwriter)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry
Runtime: 115 minutes