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‘Tick, Tick… Boom’ shows ‘Rent’ playwright Jonathan Larson like never before

“What does it take to wake up a generation?” When Jonathan Larson wrote this lyric, he did not know that he would find the answer. Larson is most well known for writing the hit musical “Rent” which ran for 12 years on Broadway. Unfortunately, on the day of the show’s first Off-Broadway performance, Larson died of an aortic dissection at the age of 35. He never had anything on Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, before “Rent.” However, Larson had an Off-off-Broadway autobiographical rock monologue entitled “Tick, Tick… Boom” three years prior. After the success of “Rent,” some of Larson’s colleagues turned this monologue into a three-person musical that played Off-Broadway. Now, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has directed and turned this musical into a full movie. Released on Netflix on Nov. 19, starring Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield, the film of “Tick, Tick… Boom” is showing audiences Larson as a struggling playwright. I was riveted by this musical. From the story to the songs to the many amazing performances, this is a film I urge everyone to see.

The location is Manhattan, and the year is 1990: Larson is preparing a workshop for his upcoming musical “Superbia,” a dystopian story where people are always being watched and always having to impress. He has been working on this for eight years, and now an audience will finally see it. 

The life of a struggling playwright is certainly not the easiest. He is working at the Moondance Diner and can barely afford his small and dirty apartment. His friend Michael (Robin De Jesus) was an unsuccessful actor, so he took a cushy job in advertising. Michael is trying to convince Larson to join him in this safe world. Larson never listens to him. Larson is dating a dancer named Susan (Alexandra Shipp) who has been offered a well-paying job teaching dance in the Berkshires, which is hours away. Larson does not want her to go, but she thinks it is a great opportunity. A lot is happening around Larson, but he is putting almost all of his energy into this workshop. His 30th birthday is also approaching soon, and Larson feels disappointed that he has not achieved any success. Larson is questioning what he is doing, even though writing musicals is the only thing he knows. During this time, the AIDS epidemic is growing and even though this does not personally affect Larson it affects a lot of his friends. It is a reminder that everyone is running out of time.

This story was told in a very unique way. Most of the film takes place in a way that you would expect for a movie, but other parts take place on stage. Larson shares his inner thoughts for most of the events in this movie on a stage. He talks to the audience like it is stand-up comedy, and he plays the piano to sing his worries. I really enjoyed this choice, as it made this film more personal. Songs that were not told on stage were told fantastically, from creating a magical diner to singing while sinking in a pool. This makes the musical numbers feel more natural in a way, as it is not randomly breaking out into song. 

The songs alone, all written by Larson, were powerful. From the high energy existential crisis opening number “30/90” to the more hopeful and deeper ending song “Louder Than Words” and everything in between. This is a musical with songs that you will be humming hours after you watch this musical. Even if you do not have time to watch this film, I highly recommend you listen to the soundtrack for the catchy and emotional tunes.

This was an amazing film that would be nothing without the stellar performances. Andrew Garfield became Jonathan Larson, showing the struggles in Larson’s life. He portrayed hope, stress, love, depression and so many more emotions. He played Larson within the scenes of his life and also on stage with an audience. Before this film, Garfield had not sung professionally, and he had not even had professional training, but Garfield brought so much power to the songs. I was also impressed by the supporting actors. De Jesus’s performance as Michael was a moving performance. De Jesus brought this character to life by going from an exciting and confident side character to an emotional man whose happiness may be a facade. Shipp’s performance as Susan was also impressive, as she showed a fun-loving spirit and a deep frustration towards Larson, becoming an effective foil to Larson. While these actors were the stars of the film, I also enjoyed the performances of even the smallest characters, from Larson’s coworkers to the workshop actors to his agent to his random acquaintances. Everyone had a lot of energy and quirkiness and they were all the important puzzle pieces of Larson’s life.

I finished this film thinking a lot about how much we lost when Jonathan Larson died. This film showed that Larson was a creative genius who had so much to bring to the world. It was sad in a way watching this movie, seeing that he was working so hard for success and then never got to witness it. I am generally a lover of musicals, but this was a different experience. It taught me about a great playwright with his own songs. I got to learn about life as a struggling artist in New York City, and I was introduced to a fun cast of characters. I hope this film and Garfield’s performance get award recognitions, as the brilliance of this film should be celebrated. If you have Netflix, put “Tick, Tick… Boom” on, and get prepared to go through an amazing musical rollercoaster of emotions.

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