“[…] lately I’ve been hearing this sound. Everywhere I go, like a tick, tick, tick… Like a time bomb in some cheesy B-movie or a saturday morning cartoon. The fuse has been lit. The clock counts down the seconds, as the flame gets closer, and closer, and closer, until… all at once [boom]”.
This is the first sentence of Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut tick, tick… BOOM! (2021), released earlier this fall. The movie, starring Tony Award winner Andrew Garfield, is a cinematic adaptation of the biographical musical of the same name. Composed and performed by Rent creator Jonathan Larson, it tells the story of Larson himself, as he struggles in New York City working as a waiter while trying to make it big on Broadway.
If you know me, you know that I am a massive fan of musical theatre. I listen to musicals all the time and I have watched probably every musical available to stream. I have not been able to see one of them live in theatres yet but it is definitely high on my bucket list. So, when tick, tick… BOOM! was announced, I was ecstatic. With the author of Hamilton and In The Heights directing, Andrew Garfield in the lead role, and music written by the composer of the musical that revolutionised Broadway, how could I not be excited? I was ready to see it right away.
Unsurprisingly, I loved it. The movie easily became my top movie of the year. Hell, it might be one of my favourite movies ever! Garfield interpreted Larson perfectly and the entire cast was simply amazing. Robin de Jesús in particular impressed me with his interpretation of Michael, Jonathan’s best friend. The music was also great of course. Larson’s songs are simply masterpieces, like everything else he has written. From the opening song “30/90” to the closing “Louder Than Words”, every song fits perfectly into the story and is performed flawlessly by the ensemble.
Aside from being an overall great movie, what really struck me was the message behind the story. For those who don’t know, tick, tick… BOOM! Is the life story of Jonathan Larson. When we meet him at the beginning of the movie, he is a young composer in the New York of 1990, who dreams of writing the next big all American musical. The movie follows him as he prepares for the first presentation of Suburbia, his first musical which he worked on for over eight years. However, the main focus of the movie, is Jonathan’s fear of reaching his 30th birthday without having achieved success. He mentions his 30th birthday many times during the film, and he gradually grows more terrified of it as the day comes closer. As Jonathan himself puts it at the start of the movie:
“And in just over a week, I will be 30 years old. Older than Steven Sondheim when he had his first Broadway show. Older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon. By the time my parents were 30, they already had two kids, they had careers with steady paychecks, a mortgage. And in eight days my youth will be over forever. And what exactly do I have to show for myself?“
Throughout the movie we keep hearing the sound of a clock ticking whenever Jon thinks about his birthday. Jonathan is in constant anxiety about his future, which is highlighted even more thanks to his friends. Michael, Jon’s best friend who once shared his same dream of Broadway success, has left musical theatre all together to become an employee at an advertising company. His girlfriend, Susan, an aspiring musical dancer, is thinking of leaving the city to teach in the Berkshires and wants Jon to go with her. However, Jonathan is stuck in New York because of his love for music and he doesn’t know if he should just give it up. In the song “Johnny Can’t Decide” his indecision is perfectly described, with lyrics such as “Can he make a mark, if he gives up his spark?”
Throughout the movie, which takes place in a single week, we see Jonathan slowly losing his grip on life. The stress of the presentation is obviously weighing down on him, as he starts arguing with every one of his friends and his girlfriend, and he is not able to write the last song he needs until the night before his workshop. When the presentation finally takes place, Suburbia, the musical he has worked on for most of his life, is not as successful as Jon hoped. People enjoy his music and his story, yet he does not get a single offer. He is told to just “write another one”.
This is the last straw for Jon and he tries to give up everything he has worked hard for all this time. He goes to Michael and asks him for a job in advertising. In a beautifully acted scene, Jonathan keeps saying that he is wasting time, he is wasting his life. It is obvious Jon is having a huge mental breakdown as he thinks everything he has done and everything he has worked for in the last ten years was for absolutely nothing. And now his birthday is in two days, he is running out of time. Everything changes when Michael reveals he is HIV-positive. He has a year to live, if he’s lucky. Suddenly, Jon realises how foolish he has been, worrying about running out of time when his best friend is literally dying. It is interesting to note that the movie never shows us the end of Jon Larssons’ story. A voiceover plays, narrating his achievements and ultimately his death. Indeed, the most tragic fact about Jon’s story is that he did write the next big musical: Rent, one of the biggest and most well-known musicals in history. Yet he never got to see it. The night before Rent’s first showing, he passed away at only 35 years old.
This is the first Writers’ Block article of 2022 and I originally wanted to write a piece on New Years’ resolutions. However, this movie changed my mind. Watching the film for the first time and thinking about Jonathan’s story, I began to wonder: Why does Jon keep working so hard? Why is he still fighting for something that may never happen? The simple answer is that he loves it. He loves making music, he loves creating stories and he loves bringing both of those to life. He keeps going because it’s the one thing he loves and he can’t live without.
Afterwards my thoughts shifted to his fear of reaching 30. Despite me being 19, I still somehow relate to Jonathan’s feelings. I will be 20 years old this year and I still feel like I just turned 15. I see people my age achieving greatness everyday, whether it is a successful career or relationship, and I feel like I’m being left behind. I know I’m young and I have time to reach my goals, yet it does not feel like it sometimes. Why are we so scared of growing up? I reckon it’s because we, like Jon, believe that we have a limited set of time to be successful. Jon constantly compares his situation to Stephen Sondheim, who composed West Side Story when he was just 27. Jonathan thinks he must do the same. We compare ourselves to others who were extremely lucky and got to do whatever they set their mind to early in their life, and expect that we should do the same. Except it isn’t the same for everyone and that is okay! The quote in most of tick, tick… BOOM!’s posters is the question “How much time do we have to do something great?” and the film shows us that we have all the time in the world. Jon is desperately trying to be successful before he turns 30, yet his biggest success comes when he is 35. Despite the movie’s title, we don’t have a clock ticking every minute reminding us that our time is running out. All of our time is set. We have our entire life to achieve what we want. We don’t have to achieve success at a certain age, doing it at 30, 40, or 50 years old does not make it less of an accomplishment.
Tick, tick… BOOM! leaves you with several questions about life, but with many answers as well. Like Jonathan Larson with Rent, the musical shows us success can be achieved when we least expect it. Despite what we may feel, we don’t have a set time for it. It is a good mindset to start the year with, and I definitely intend to think about it more as I enter 2022. I hope you will too.
Happy new year!
Written by Elisa Paci