2021 has been the year of the movie musical. Though the bright lights of Broadway have been in the dark for more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, musicals have remained in the spotlight — just on the silver screens of Hollywood instead of the stages of New York City. Whether major motion pictures like this summer’s “In the Heights” and this month’s “West Side Story” reboot, or filmed stage shots like “Hamilton” on Disney+ and “Come From Away” on Apple TV+ (I’m not even going to mention “Diana: The Musical”), here has been a ton of content.
The penultimate edition to this year’s collection is Netflix’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!” The directorial debut of theater genius Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of another theatrical genius, Jonathan Larson, best known for writing the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning “Rent.” With strong performances and innovative music sequences, the film was a love letter to musical theater and the artists who make it possible.
Larson’s tale is a brief one, as he died at the age of 35 from health complications due to an undiagnosed illness. Even more tragically, Larson died the morning of the very first off-Broadway performance of “Rent,” meaning he never was able to see the success of his much-beloved rock musical. In his young adult life, Larson wrote a handful of pieces that never gained any traction. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is a semi-autobiographical musical about his experience writing “Superbia,” a project he spent eight years writing that no New York producer liked enough to bring to the stage. So, the film essentially follows the “play within a play” plotline.
Unlike “Superbia,” “Tick, Tick… Boom!” played in theaters around the Big Apple as a one-man show with Larson playing himself. Though it never played on a Broadway stage, it had a few off-Broadway runs in the 2000s as several artists tried to showcase Larson’s previous works since he was no longer with them, but this is the first time it has been brought to the big screen.
The casting of this film was perfect. Andrew Garfield hit the ball out of the park with his portrayal of Larson. Having taken vocal lessons for the past year in preparation for the role, Garfield showed he had more talent than the average auto-tuned Hollywood actor. Despite not coming from a singing background, he was a believable Larson, as Larson was a better composer than a singer. Garfield also made Larson likeable. Larson could easily be an irritating protagonist, freaking out about not yet having a hit musical despite nearly turning 30. Instead of thinking, “This guy has got to get over himself and get a job instead of writing songs about being poor,” you genuinely cheer for him and hope he succeeds.
Probably my favorite aspect of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” was its theme of time and the idea of the artist creating work that can live beyond them and their lifetime. Larson, whose work defined the 1990s and early 2000s, was heavily influenced by Stephen Sondheim, another genius who worked from the 1960s to the ‘80s (and who is also a character in the movie). Sondheim was influenced by Oscar Hammerstein II, whose work defined the 1940s and ‘50s at the birth of the modern musical. All of these artists broke the mold when designing their theatrical works, ultimately influencing future generations of artists and writers. And who is the film’s director? None other than the current theatrical genius whose work is defining the 2010s and ‘20s — Miranda. The entire film felt like a “passing of the torch” from each generation to the next, adding innovation and ideas to the way a story can be told on stage.
I must say, I also watched this film after Sondheim’s passing on Nov. 26, so this idea of a “changing of the guard” was all the more apparent, and the “Sunday” music sequence — a song Larson wrote in homage to Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” — was all the more powerful.
Overall, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is a phenomenal movie I would gladly recommend to anyone interested, although “interested” is the key word of that statement. While I have nothing but good things to say about Miranda’s direction, any members of the cast or the toe-tapping tunes, I’ll admit that much of the genius of this film is only apparent to fans of theater.
Take the “Sunday” sequence for example: the customers of the diner Larson works at are all Broadway stars in one way or another. Any fan could play a game watching it, shouting out, “Oh, they were in ‘Hamilton,’” or, “Wait, she just won a Tony.” To the average viewer, however, these are just regular extras in a movie rather than a dream of your favorite stars sitting together over brunch, taking away a piece of the magic.
Will people like this film? Yes, I would think so. Would a theater fan like this movie? Without question.
“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is available to stream on Netflix.