By Tomás G Robinson, January 13, 2022
(SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN TICK TICK BOOM, AND DON’T WANT TO BE TOLD OF SCENES OR OUTCOMES TO THIS FILM, I SUGGEST YOU STOP HERE AND MOZY ON OVER TO NETFLIX AND CORRECT THAT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)
Two shows before RENT.
That’s where this story begins.
Watching the movie about Jonathan Larson, written by Stephen Levenson, based on a play written by Jonathan Larson, starring Andrew Garfield and directed by Lin-Manual Miranda (in his directorial debut, by the way), this story is about the last 15 years of Jonathan Larson’s life - just before one of his musicals debuted in a workshop.
No, this is not about that musical.
And yes, I said workshop.
It’s kind of about how Larson was almost finished with a song that is crucial to the second act in the musical, Superbia (now this is the musical we’re talking about), right up to, and just before he presented it in a workshop.
There was this song he needed in order to finish the show. You know, there’s a song in the middle of the play just before intermission, before Act Two. It’s needed in order to complete this show.
And he doesn’t have it yet.
And his life is crazy right now.
This, my friends, is theater. And for some reason, those not involved in theater will just never get it.
That something … that last song needed … is something that most people would say, “Oh screw it, we can continue without that song “… those are the people who aren’t involved in theater. Not an insult to them, not intended anyway. It’s just that, that’s the missing link that theater geeks, playwrights, actors and directors (among others) have that the “Normies” don’t. The unfinished song thing - It’s something (while watching this movie) that had me on edge up to, and until, he dramatically finished the song the day of the workshop, met the female singer to give her the music sheet, and made sure she can sight read music in order to perform it in a couple hours ... and all before the audience showed up on time. Whew! Thank God!
This film also tells us how everything he does in life - whether it’s wiping down tables at the café, going to his friend’s new apartment to cheer him on, or even hugging his girlfriend who’s just about to leave him and move far away … how during these everyday moments, and all moments, he’s thinking in the back of his head of how to turn this moment into a stage production song. And mid hug, she senses it, calls him out on it when she brings that little fact up to him during said hug.
And she was right. He was thinking about how to turn it into a song.
And she is gone.
It’s about how he goes to an advertising workshop for his friend so that he can get just the right amount of money he needs to afford one more musician in the band for his musical presentation. And in doing so, by not taking it seriously, hurts his friendship with his friend when he makes fun of a product they're supposed to be brainstorming about, not taking it as seriously as he should have.
Finally, just before the workshop, he hears back from his agent who hasn’t returned a call from him in months, that she’s invited everyone (who’s anyone) to his workshop, and that everyone is coming and that it had better be good. Of course, this kicks him into hyperspeed into cleaning up and preparing himself to sit down and write, write, write. And write the final song for the show, and just when you’re in the seat with him to really get this ball rolling, right then, right before the night of the presentation ... the power in his apartment goes off.
He forgot to pay the bill.
And we’re still sitting there, because this is his life, and this is our lives too. Right?
The musical. Superbia. A story about a futuristic world living in space under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother, is based off of the book Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell. A science fiction play based on a sci-fi book … and this is what he’s spent the last eight years on. Really? That kind of blew me away. Made me sad. Because that’s not the play, the musical we know of. I didn’t even know he did this. And that’s the point. He didn’t just wake up and roll over on the bed, grab his notepad and write RENT. No. That was several years later.
I was kind of bummed. Not that this wasn’t about RENT, but, because it’s the truth.
I was bummed at the reality of the situation.
But it also made me aware that it’s never (or hardly ever) going to be the first thing you submit that is going to be your grand production. It’s the fourth, fifth or maybe 52nd treatment you’ve submitted that has legs to move. So, Superbia … apparently it was good. It wasn’t great … it wasn’t marvelous. It wasn’t wonderful. It wasn’t this or that. But it was good enough to get him some attention, and it was bad enough to make him know that he needed to move on.
What was the story line to Superbia? We don’t really know because it’s not like they presented it in the movie – and at first, I was kind of like … huh? But then I realized that that wasn’t the point.
Superbia … it was all those things good and bad. But it was also unreal, unwavering in the story arc, and unable to be turned into something that can be shown on stage without spending millions. And no one is going to spend millions on an unknown, so what did you expect?
What did I expect?
I don’t know. (Is this article making any sense?)
After six messages to his agent, finally she’s on the phone, telling him about how the night went and saying how wonderful it was. Which was a half-truth. Because just before she hangs up her mid-90’s telephone sitting atop her desk, she tells him next time, “You should write about what you know”.
(That’s my head exploding. )
Write. About. What. You. Know.
And she was right.
And so, he does.
His second show, Tick, Tick Boom! It was better. It wasn’t ‘great’. But he keeps going.
Because, unless you were born lacking that one gene, the gene that keeps us artists glued to the dream, you’re just not going to get it. What this desire is to keep going. And that’s not a bad thing – not having that gene. Because, if I’m being honest, I envy you guys.
Talent … it’s a blessing and a curse.
Because who doesn’t want to be secure and comfortable? Who doesn’t want the white picket fence? And then, there’s that fork in the road. The one marking the place where we make that determination … yeah, we see all that, and we know how much harder making this path choice is going to be, and we still turn our backs on the easy path. Because we need to keep trying. It’s in our DNA. It’s that damned gene.
So, with all of that floating around him. All that surrounding his world, involving his world, people, friends, lovers, naysayers, yaysayers, parents, pushing him and pulling him in different parts of the world, their world.
Responsibility. Serious work. 401K’s, healthcare. All the things you want for your life. And it’s as easy as “just saying no” to your life’s work, your dreams, right? Well. Not really.
It’s all in the way you look at things, really. Isn’t it?
His life-long friend tells him he has tested positive for HIV. Remember, this is the 90’s. There are no drugs invented yet that will help slow down the virus or build up T cells. He breaks down. He realizes there are no other choices to be made. This also helps make him realize just how important time is.
No one is guaranteed time.
There is a short and quirky side story here. He has been lucky enough to have somewhat of a big cheerleader in his corner. It’s a composer of huge musicals that have circled the world many times over, who phoned him (after getting his number from his agent), to tell him not to give up. “Don’t give up. Be proud of what you’ve done”, and maybe they could meet to exchange ideas or go over notes he had from seeing the workshop. Who is this big deal? It’s none other than Stephen Sondheim. Yeah, that Stephen Sondheim. And that phone call gives him the pep that he needed in his step to get him to continue.
All my life I’ve been told this is the way things should be. You are born, you are taught about responsibility and a work ethic that everyone in the world is supposed to hold themselves to. And I did for a while. I did do that. I held that work ethic. And I was comfortable … very comfortable. I did all the right things and married ‘the right girl’ but for all the wrong reasons. These morals and expectations that they put themselves on, that you’re supposed to hold to yourself too, because that’s what our parents, and our parent’s parents were told.
You know, the Benefits. Four oh one Kays (I did that on purpose). Retirement funds. The golden parachute. These things are a huge part of that work ethic you learn growing up. And it takes all the courage, daring and drive you can muster up to turn your back on it and say no, to go in the direction of your dream.
And he does.
Jonathan Larson held true to his dream. And the result was RENT.
And RENT, well, that was a musical that did change the course of how musicals were looked at. It made us rethink what is possible on stage. It mixed genres and styles where in any other show would have seemed too cluttered or flowless. Because of this show … I can honestly say without a hint of reservation, that without RENT then, we most certainly would not have HAMILTON today.
And the sad thing is …
Jonathan never got to see his musical on Broadway. He worked it in rehearsal up until the last night of tech week, the night before its debut. And died that morning of an aortic dissection. Something that went undiagnosed even when he went to the doctor to complain about chest pains, dizziness and other common symptoms resulting from this oversight. He was misdiagnosed with the flu and sent home. After an investigation, it was disclosed that had it been correctly identified and diagnosed, he would have gone into emergency surgery, and it is very likely he would have lived through it.
He died quickly that morning. He never saw the completed show. A show that had a twelve-year run on Broadway (becoming the 11th longest running Broadway show ever) before traveling the world. A musical that earned him three Tony awards that he never got to hold. It was a musical that awarded him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
So, what am I saying?
Watch Tick, Tick, Boom! Or don’t watch it? I really don’t know. I don’t feel as if what I’m doing here is actually a review. I’m just running my mouth (or my keyboard), explaining what I got out of it.
I’m not sure you’ll get the same out of it, because I don’t know which category you fall in, in my previously stated comparisons.
Geek or Normie?
I guess you’ll have to make that decision for yourself, and I guess you’ll only be able to do so if you tick (or click) this boom.
About the Creator
A grandfather, father, son, brother, and friend. He's also a student in a masters program, artist, singer/songwriter, actor, writer & college grad making it through each day scathed, damaged and broken ... but, he’s still making it! Kinda.