Chances are you’ve heard of playwright Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Rent,” which had a 12-year run on Broadway. It’s a little less likely that audiences are familiar with “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” a semi-autobiographical musical (originally performed as a solo piece) about Larson’s attempt to get his first musical, “Superbia,” produced.
Although Larson performed “Tick, Tick…Boom!” as a rock monologue during his lifetime, the work wasn’t configured as a three-actor musical until playwright David Auburn reworked it after Larson’s death. Now, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” has undergone another adaptation; this time, the musical has been translated into a film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, starring Andrew Garfield as the passionate playwright.
This new adaptation keeps Larson’s story alive by introducing it to larger audiences in a format more accessible than ever before, contributing meaningfully to the project’s evolution from stage to screen. Miranda’s “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is what a musical film adaptation should be; the film maintains the essence of the musical’s stage performance value while using its new medium to expand on its worldbuilding and storytelling potential. The film cuts between Garfield’s Larson performing his work on-stage and recreations of the life events he sings about, building tension through juxtaposing the creatively dramatized and the “real” as well as bringing stylized life to Larson’s artistic journey. And, it’s an incredible journey too.
“Tick, Tick…Boom!” tells Larson’s story starting from when he works as a waiter at SoHo’s Moondance Diner and simultaneously preparing for a Playwrights Horizons workshop of his musical, “Superbia,” which he has been writing for eight years. The film explores Larsons’s stressful attempts to write and perfect a final, key song for “Superbia,” his internal pressure to live up to his idol, Stephen Sondheim (who, to much of his chagrin, had his first musical produced on Broadway at age 27 to Larson’s 30) and his relationships with his friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) and girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) as working on the musical begins to consume his life.
The film’s implementation of the musical’s songs is quite unique. Some of the songs are presented as they are in most musical film adaptations: interspersed throughout the narrative as all of the characters in the scene suddenly begin to sing and dance. Others are performed during the “on-stage” sequences, similar to how Larson himself likely performed them, and some cut between the two worlds of storytelling. The songs in the film are captivating and immersive, rarely coming off as corny and always smoothly and meaningfully moving the story along. The vocal performances throughout the film are also highly commendable, particularly the powerful and expressive performances from Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Larson’s friend and “Superbia” actress, Karessa Johnson.
Garfield’s performance elevates the film in its entirety. He is able to keep Larson’s character likable and sympathetic while portraying him growing increasingly flustered, stressed and obsessive. Larson experiences a wide range of emotions throughout the film that often changes dramatically from one scene to the next. Garfield eloquently paints a picture of this ambitious, struggling artist who constantly teeters on the edge of elation and devastation. The years of hard, dedicated work are coming to a close, the length and challenges of the journey always on his mind and the question of whether his efforts will pay off or whether they will all be for nought is finally to be answered.
The film is incredibly tense. It is clear how much Larson wants “Superbia” to succeed and just how much he has sacrificed to get to the judgment day that is his long-awaited workshop. Every scene in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is filled to the brim with emotion, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats, similarly nervous and holding Larson’s hand as the final verdict is delivered.
“Tick, Tick…Boom!” is a stunning musical adaptation and biographical film that excellently balances rising tension with cathartic release. The film tells of a riveting artist’s journey that everyone can appreciate.