I stopped keeping track of how many times I’ve watched tick, tick…BOOM! since its November 12 release on Netflix. As a former theatre kid who used to dream of perhaps one day being in Rent, and who has watched clips of Larson for years with admiration, the film instantly found its way into my “comfort films” category.
tick, tick…BOOM! marks the directorial debut for Grammy Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. Written for the stage by Jonathan Larson originally as a rock monologue and penned for the screen by Steven Levenson, tick, tick…BOOM! tells the story of Jon (Andrew Garfield), a young theater composer in New York City. Jon, much like many others in the big city, dreams of writing the next great American musical. Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a performance that could launch his career or destroy it, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere, especially those close to him. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and must figure out what he, like all of us, must do with the time given to him.
No matter how many times I watch this film, I am reduced to tears by three songs consistently. As someone who doesn’t generally cry due to films (The Notebook and The Titanic have never done it for me), I want to share why these three songs have the emotional impact they do and why, in my opinion, everyone should give tick, tick…BOOM! a watch if they haven’t already.
Jonathan Larson’s loving homage and light-hearted parody to his idol Stephen Sondheim. The original “Sunday”, the masterpiece Act I closer to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, features lead Georges Seurat guiding the subjects of his newest painting into a glorious chorus in perfect harmony while on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Larson’s version swaps the scenic island for the legendary Moondance Diner, where Larson once worked as a waiter, subbing himself for Seurat. With Netflix’s adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM!, debuting director Miranda had to transform this song from Sondheim, to Larson, to Miranda. The result is a beautiful tribute to four decades of musical theatre.
Through a series of cameos from Broadway stars and familiar choreography, Miranda brought Sondheim and Larson together in a way that celebrates the history and diversity rich in the two musical theatre giants’ work. The scene is enough to give me chills with so many familiar faces showing up, but when Garfield’s Larson takes Bernadette Peters’ hand in the same way Mandy Patinkin took it in the original “Sunday”, the tears pour out of me.
If Larson could see this song on this scale, with a full transformation for the diner, a full ensemble to bring the harmonies to life and the amount of broadway history that was able to be thrust into a two-and-a-half minute long piece, he would also likely be reduced to tears. Larson would no-doubt appreciate the scale of work Miranda and the entire tick, tick…BOOM! ensemble put into fully imagining his vision for this singular number.
Okay, technically this first entry is two separate songs, but they go hand in hand in such a phenomenal and heart-gripping way that it only makes sense to include them together. “Real Life”‘s lyrics may only consistent of four simple words repeated with growing expression and desperation, yet it manages to be tragic all the same.
In the film, we hear this haunting song beautifully brought to screen by the immensely talented Robin de Jesús portraying Jonathan’s best friend, Michael. Jonathan has just learned that the musical that took eight years of his life to write, Superbia, has no future and feels as though his time is running out. Michael and Jonathan get into a disagreement over Jonathan taking life for granted, and Michael has reveals to Jonathan that he is HIV positive and therefore time is truly running out for him. As Michael sings the question “Is this real life?” repeatedly, Jonathan makes his way through the city in a panic, an expressive and emotional monologue on his lips as the world seems to be crumbling around him.
What follows “Real Life” is perhaps the most emotional song from the entirety of tick, tick…BOOM! In “Why”, Jonathan recalls his fondest memories with Michael and their journey together as two artists trying to make their way in New York City from childhood to adulthood. Not only is Jon reminiscing on his life with Michael and the events that made him want to spend his time on musical theater, he is also questioning if he has what it takes to make it in Broadway and if the amount of sacrifice that comes with this career is worth it.
This is the number where we see Jonathan come to his senses and decide that he needs to continue putting his all into his art, no matter the sacrifice that comes along with it. Performance wise, Garfield can (of course) always be counted on to deliver an emotional and heart-gripping performance, which is exactly what he does. The tears start streaming down his face, and my tear ducts take that as their sign to join in.
Given that Larson would, in real life, go on to write one of the most impactful stories about the AIDS epidemic, these numbers are vital in showing one of the most pivotal moments in the young artist’s life.
“Louder Than Words”
Jonathan Larson had so many questions left to ask and so many questions left to answer before his tragic passing in 1996. Whether the questions were big or small, Larson created an incredible ensemble of lyrics for “Louder Than Words”, using the lyrics to pose some of the many questions he had.
Maybe it is the emotional monologue about Jonathan Larson’s real-life impending passing that prefaces the song, but by the time Garfield sings the lyric “Cages or wings, which do you prefer?” for the first time, I am in tears. The lyrics that were so carefully chosen by Larson and the questions he chose to ask in this song reveal so much about who he was as a person. Larson was artistic, emotional, compassionate and intelligent human being with flaws who wanted to use what he loved most to improve the world: music. His questions are as deep and introspective as the art he gave to the world.
The song ending with Jonathan playing “Happy Birthday” on the piano is more emotional than originally intended by Larson when he composed the rock monologue initially. The entirety of tick, tick…BOOM! leads up to Jonathan’s thirtieth birthday, which he has been dreading as the signifier that his youth is over and therefore his time to open his first Broadway show has run out. For me, this is emotional to watch now because Jonathan Larson deserved to hear so many more “Happy Birthday”s.
Bonus – “Sextet” from ‘Superbia’
The sheer joy of hearing music from Superbia is beyond words, so much so that when the workshop cast sing ‘Sextet’ I can’t help but cry. It almost feels surreal to get to hear music from Superbia, which I certainly thought would never be a reality for me. The robotic and futuristic tune is too upbeat and joyful to bring me to tears, but it does inspire goosebumps. I truly wish a full-length Superbia was something possible, but am endlessly appreciative of the opportunity to hear even just a sliver of the show Larson spent 8-years of his life writing … and re-writing. I would love to see Superbia realized to its full potential on-stage or on-screen one day, but would also completely settle for a soundtrack recording.
Be sure to watch tick, tick…BOOM! streaming now on Netflix.