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tick, tick … BOOM! NOW HAS A FILM AND A SOUNDTRACK By Peter Filichia


By Peter Filichia

Could he have ever imagined that this would happen with his one-man show?

Back in the nineties, Jonathan Larson wrote a solo musical that he first called BOHO DAYS. On second thought, he named it 30/90; on third thought, tick, tick … BOOM!

He performed it and made clear that he would be the only one who ever would deliver its words and music. After all, he was the one who constantly said “Tick, tick, tick” as a way of reminding him that the second hand of the clock was moving in the only direction it ever goes.

tick, tick … BOOM involved Larson’s angst at turning thirty in 1990; hence 30/90. Yes, that’s usually the first birthday that brings with it some dread. Jonathan perceived it as the REALLY Big Three-Oh. Given that he hadn’t “made it” by then, shouldn’t he give up? 

Not until he sees how SUPERBIA does. It’s his futuristic musical on which he spent so much time: eight years.

But unlike most of us, Larson was far unluckier at thirty, for his life was actually five-sixths over; his aortic aneurysm was only a half dozen years away, only hours before he was to see the first-ever performance of his musical RENT.

In 2001, five years after its legendary opening, there was interest in producing tick, tick … BOOM! Al Larson, Jonathan’s father, approved so esteemed playwright David Auburn turned Larson’s autobiographical one-person musical into a three-character biographical one, with Raul Esparza playing the composer-lyricist.

That led to an original cast album, which has now resulted in a soundtrack album, for Lin-Manuel Miranda has Andrew Garfield portray Jonathan in tick, tick … BOOM’s film version. If Larson had been able to see Esparza first and Garfield now play him so expertly, he probably wouldn’t have minded that his daddy rescinded his proprietary order that he and he alone should be the only one to perform the show.

In “Johnny Can’t Decide,” he laments, “Johnny has no guide.” That didn’t turn out to be true. After he played his songs in a workshop, Stephen Sondheim gave him validation and encouragement.

What a thrill, for Larson had long been obsessed with Sondheim. In “Why?” he quotes some Sondheim lyrics when he recalls that he and his best friend Michael appeared in WEST SIDE STORY when they were sixteen going on seventeen (to quote the title of a song that was co-written by Sondheim’s least favorite collaborator).

Michael tried to become a professional actor until he threw in the theatrical towel. He joined the corporate world as a market research executive and became rich and happy. 

Robin de Jesus is excellent as Michael. There’s good reason why he has a feel for Larson’s songs; de Jesus’ first Broadway appearance came during RENT’s long Broadway run, when he assumed the roles of “Steve, Man with Squeegee, Waiter, and others.”

(Since then, he’s amassed three Tony nominations.)

We can’t help noticing how we’re doing in life in comparison with our friends. Larson wrote about it in “No More” (a title that just may have been inspired by Sondheim’s song in INTO THE WOODS). Here it refers to the ice-cold-water flat that will no more be a part of Michael’s life: “Hello to shiny new parquet wooden floors as waxed as a wealthy girl’s legs.”

Jonathan observes that “Michael’s gonna have it all; his luck will never end,” unaware that his buddy’s “all” includes a premature death (albeit from very different circumstances).

Meanwhile, Larson focuses on SUPERBIA. Both the cast album and soundtrack offers one of its songs: “Come to Your Senses” (although Esparza revealed that in time that Larson actually dropped from it from his final score.

His single-mindedness in getting the show is a problem for his devoted girlfriend who has a good offer 116 miles away. “Susan wants a family,” he sings; “Susan wants a life with me.” It comes to a head in “Therapy,” which could just as easily have been called “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Understand-Me Blues.”

Too much like a Sondheim title? Well, in one of the show’s wittiest songs, Jonathan riffs on “Sunday,” Sondheim’s first-act closer to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Jonathan describes his Sunday, enduring his day-job at The Moondance Diner that became a morning-and-night job, too.

“On the soft green cylindrical stools sit the fools,” Jonathan wrote, using the same noun that Sondheim used in COMPANY about these ladies who lunch (but not at the Moondance Diner, heaven forfend): they’re “too busy to know that they’re fools.”

They’re not the only ones. The film shows us a customer, when his order was incorrect, snarling at Jonathan, “That’s why you’re just a waiter.”  

(In the film, it’s said by Brian Stokes Mitchell, who’s cast against type; he’s well-known as one of the nicest people in the business.)

And what did the workshop of Jonathan’s latest musical yield? “We’re intrigued by your talent,” his agent said in a phone call that he’d hoped would include the information “Nine producers are fighting for the rights.” Nope: “intrigued by your talent” was the best Jonathan would get – in 1990. 

No, art isn’t easy, as Sondheim wrote – and this from a man who’d won seven Tony Awards, an Oscar, a Pulitzer and a Kennedy Center honor. In the film, Sondheim makes a few appearances in the guise of three-time Emmy-winner Bradley Whitford. On stage, Sondheim’s participation was limited to his voice on an answering machine message, in which he gave Larson encouragement. Was this something Sondheim agreed to do for the production or was it the actual call that Sondheim had once made to Larson? It could be the latter, for many, many people who’ve received answering machine messages from Sondheim have never erased them.

Little did Larson know that he’d win the same award that Sondheim won for SUNDAY: The Pulitzer Prize. What’s more, RENT got the Best Musical Tony, which SUNDAY did not. 

If only Larson could have been around to accept the prizes.

Early in the film, when someone at a party asks what he does, he matter-of-factly answers, “I’m the future of musical theater.” Well, yes and no. Yes, because Larson’s RENT ushered in more rock musicals than HAIR or JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR ever did; no, because he didn’t live long enough to have a genuine future.

The original cast album offers one bonus track not on the soundtrack while the soundtrack sports four bonus tracks denied the cast album.

Larson himself sings “Boho Days” on the cast album.

Onto the soundtrack: “Green Green Dress” only gets forty-two seconds in the movie, but Garfield and Alexandra Shipp did sing the entire song for the film before it wound up on the cutting room carpet. Here it is in its one-song glory, sung by Garfield (who sings surprisingly well).

“Come to Your Senses” gets a lavish production and a potent rendition from multi-Grammy-nominated Jazmine Sullivan. Then comes “Out of My Dreams,” which isn’t from a musical. Explains Larson historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper, “Jonathan also wrote pop songs he hoped would play on the radio someday.” Now it just could happen, for Veronica Vasquez has recorded this story of an on-again, off-again relationship that would be welcomed on FM (or even good ol’ fashioned AM).

Another song that Larson didn’t earmark for a musical is “Only Takes a Few”; it was inspired by a road trip he took with his friends. (The folk band named The Mountain Goats does the honors.) The fact that Larson wrote it just because he felt like doing so – and not because some director told him he needed it for Act One, Scene Three – reiterates that Jonathan Larson was a writer who needed to express himself and write.

We’re as glad at that as we are sad that he wasn’t able to write more.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.