THE TITLE of Jonathan Larson’s 1991 musical tick, tick…BOOM! is meant to convey the sense of panic that the writer felt during one frenzied week as he raced to complete his musical Superbia in time for a once-in-a-lifetime workshop for the movers and shakers of New York theater. But the title of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new film also captures Larson’s larger sense of time slipping by—the menacing sound of a metronome is a recurring motif—as he contemplates his thirtieth birthday, just days away, and the realization that he has yet to have a musical produced on Broadway. He also seems to have had a premonition of his own limited time on earth (he died before turning 36). But it’s only when his best friend and roommate Michael reveals that he’s HIV-positive that he grasps the full gravity of “I haven’t got much time.”
The omnipresence of AIDS in Larson’s best-known musical, Rent, has led many people to assume that its creator was gay and that his death in early 1996 was due to AIDS. In fact, Larson was straight and has a girlfriend named Susan in tick, tick… He died of an aortic dissection that may indeed have been a ticking time bomb for years. The reason for the prominence of AIDS in Rent is clearly due to Larson’s deep bond with Michael (Matt O’Grady in real life), which goes back to when they were eight years old. The HIV announcement comes just as a rift is opening between them following Michael’s decision to abandon acting to take a corporate job with an ad agency, allowing him to move out of their downtown slum and into a glam-pad on the Upper East Side.
The structure of Miranda’s film is ingenious, working on a kind of “meta meta” level. Larson’s musical tick, tick…BOOM! was itself a one-man-show about the creation of the musical Superbia, focusing on those crazy days before the big workshop and (spoiler alert) the failure of any producer to come forward. In this way, Larson found a means to work the songs from Superbia—which were, after all, a hit at the workshop (it was the science fiction plotline that fell flat)—into a new context, that of their own production during that tumultuous week when, among other things, Susan presented him with an ultimatum about moving to the Berkshires and he struggled to write the crucial song that would complete Superbia. Miranda’s film adds another layer of self-reflection by intercutting scenes from the one-man show with a dramatic narrative that re-enacts the events being recounted.
The two streams are connected by the actor who plays Larson both as the star of tick, tick… (which is performed with two other singer-musicians in later productions) and as Larson in “real life.” His name is Andrew Garfield, and he is brilliant in both capacities. The rest of the film’s large cast, headed by Alexandra Shipp as Susan and Robin de Jesús as Michael, form a dazzling array of friends, performers, business associates, and coworkers at the Moondance Diner. There are also cameos from a cavalcade of Broadway stars, including Chita Rivera, Joel Grey, Bernadette Peters, and Miranda himself as a cook in the diner.
If the confluence of so many life-changing events in a single week—Michael’s revelation, Susan’s ultimatum, Larson’s thirtieth birthday, the workshop—strains credulity, so be it. Larson admits in tick, tick… that a lot of what you’re hearing is stuff that “Jonathan made up.” The film goes along with the conceit, providing a day-by-day countdown to the workshop, with Larson engaged in more rehearsals, writing sessions, trips to the pool, contretemps with Susan, calls to producers, etc., etc., than there are hours in a day. In truth, Miranda was well aware that these events actually took place over months or even years, while some items were greatly oversimplified. For example, Larson had attracted Sondheim’s attention and even mentorship long before the workshop, and it continued afterwards in the form of commentaries on work submitted by Larson and letters of recommendation to New York producers.
Another bit of poetic license is the suggestion that Larson considered giving up theater and joining Michael in the corporate world. This loss of faith could not have lasted long: Superbia was completed in 1990 (after eight years of toil) and tick, tick… was ready to go a year later. All the while he was working on Rent, which opened on Broadway in 1996 and had a twelve-year run. In a bizarre twist of fate, Larson died on the day before opening night. Years later, another bit of weird timing occurred when Stephen Sondheim died a few days after the release of tick, tick… last November. In the film, Sondheim’s mentorship is telescoped into a message left on Larson’s answering machine praising Superbia and urging him to continue writing musicals. He did just that for the few years that remained. While he describes himself, a writer of musical theater, as the last of a dying breed, Lin-Manuel Miranda has proven otherwise, and now he has made a brilliant cinematic musical about a musical that’s about a musical. The genre lives!