Last Updated on 5th January 2022
Alexa Terry reviews Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom! now streaming on Netflix.
Now Streaming on Netflix
To avoid ‘de-christmassing’ my festive grotto I fired up Netflix and, having already binged both seasons of Emily in Paris, I pressed play on Tick, Tick…Boom!, something that I had been meaning to watch since it was released on the streaming service on 12th November last year. Although I knew I would be entertained whilst happily maintaining the company of Santa Claus for another hour or two, I hadn’t quite been prepared for the emotional bruising that ensued.
‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ is a feature film of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical rock musical of the same title, directed by Hamilton’s founding father – Lin Manuel Miranda, and with actor Andrew Garfield at the helm. It follows Larson, a struggling musical theatre writer, who hears a continuous ticking, triggered by his impending 30th birthday: ‘You get to a certain age and you stop being a writer who waits tables,’ he says, ‘and you become a waiter with a hobby’. It’s a story about failure and resilience which is, actually, rather refreshing. It spans the week impending the workshop for Larson’s musical ‘Superbia’ which has taken him 8-years to write. The graft Larson experiences is akin to many in competitive industries, and the rejection he faces is delivered with a relatable sting. It’s peppered with moments that become influences for his work, including clever ‘Rent-sims’ such as the dodgy answering machine and ‘home video’ perspectives which reflects that of character Mark’s videography interest.
Many Musical Theatre greats have cameo appearances, including Steven Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Jeanine Tesori; a notably poignant scene is the performance of ‘Sunday’ where the Moondance Diner (where Larson worked as a waiter and which has been reconstructed especially for the film) is heaving with customers, with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andre De Shields, Philippa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry amongst many. But the arrival of Bernadette Peters, (whom we see Larson watching in a recorded version of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ earlier in the film), is goosebump-inducing, intensified by Larson conducting the ensemble of theatre stars to the song’s climax.
Lin Manuel Miranda directs ‘Come to Your Senses’ with a different perspective; this is the song we see Larson struggling to write throughout the musical, and it’s usually a female solo (one which has probably featured in most female audition folders). In the film it’s delivered as a duet between Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) and Larson’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), offering a powerful alternative to the meaning behind its conception.
Larson’s workshop cast are, indeed, ‘Supberia’, led by Hudgens and Joshua Henry as Roger, and Bradley Whitford gives a touchingly detailed performance as Larson’s idol – the late Stephen Sondheim. Then there’s Andrew Garfield, and what better person to immortalise Jonathan Larson.
I could study the dictionary for a week and still not find the most fitting words. Andrew Garfield is, simply, impeccable, providing a masterclass in authentic musical performance. He is spirited, tender and has a rawness that runs to the bone. I could rewatch his performance of ‘Why’ on repeat, a song that wasn’t pre-recorded but performed live on set. With ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’ being his first singing role Garfield studied with vocal coach Liz Caplan in order to deliver the sung story – and deliver he does, with a side dish and dessert thrown in for good measure. He is what happens when you give an actor a song.
Tick, Tick…Boom! is a dedication to Jonathan Larson and his legacy, but also to what it means to fight on in the face of adversity. The fact that we watch his story with hindsight, makes it even more heartbreaking (if possible) that Larson never witnessed his dream in reality, that he never got to see the change he made to the world of Musical Theatre, that he died just hours before Rent had its first preview – the musical that would become award-winning and one of the longest-running shows on Broadway.
I’ll admit that, by ‘Louder than Words’, I was blurry-eyed, nay, weeping. I wanted to reach into the screen, take Jonathan Larson-cum-Andrew Garfield by the hand, and tell him that it was all worth it: the tedium of the Moondance Diner, his persistent, talented will to play on through raised hopes and rejection. It’s a reminder that if there’s a passion that ticks inside of us, we, too, can choose to keep going until that something (hopefully) sticks; because ‘this is the life, bo-bo bo-bo-bo, Bohemia.’