Movie Review: Tick, Tick… Boom!

Turning 30 can be a stressful time. Friends are getting married, having kids, establishing themselves in their careers and buying homes. If your peers aren’t pushing you to get on the same track as them, your parents or grandparents definitely are. “The clock is ticking!” they all say. (I chose to thumb my nose at all of them and move halfway around the world. Best decision ever.)

In the film TICK, TICK… BOOM!, aspiring lyricist and playwright Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME; BREATHE; SILENCE; HACKSAW RIDGE) is hearing the clock tick away in his head as his 30th birthday looms just days away. He’s spent eight years writing his play, Superbia, and it’s about to be workshopped for the first time. Jon feels that this is his last chance to be a success in the industry that he adores. After all, he says, his idol Stephen Sondheim made his Broadway debut with West Side Story when he was 27. To add to Jon’s angst, his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND), who was an aspiring Broadway singer and actor, now has a responsible job in advertising and he’d like nothing more than for Jon to have the same. Jon’s girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp, LOVE, SIMON), is considering a career change as well. She’s been offered a job teaching dance at a prestigious school in Massachusetts. Jon’s producer, Ira (playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman) has told him that he needs a new song for the play’s second act – something that Sondheim told him a few years earlier – but Jon just can’t seem to find the right words and music that will elevate what he sees as his magnum opus.

If you’ve seen the stage play, TICK, TICK… BOOM! (the film) is not quite the same but you will not come away disappointed. The play, which written by Larson and reconfigured after his death by David Auburn, features just three characters – Jon, Michael and Susan – with Michael and Susan playing multiple characters in the story. Here, screenwriter Steven Levenson (DEAR EVAN HANSEN) and director Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON; IN THE HEIGHTS) populate Jon’s world with different actors playing the characters. In a casting coup — evidence of the respect Miranda has amongst his stage peers or maybe the love the actors share for Larson or perhaps it’s a bit of both — some of Broadway’s biggest stars including Joel Grey (CABARET), Chita Rivera (West Side Story and Chicago), Bernadette Peters (Sunday in the Park with George), Phylicia Rashad (Clair Huxtable on TV’s THE COSBY SHOW), Philippa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry (HAMILTON), Bebe Neuwirth (Dr. Lilith Sternin on TV’s CHEERS! and FRASIER) and Laura Benanti (Melania Trump on TV’s THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT) make cameo appearances. Eagle-eyed viewers will even spot Larson’s close friend, Roger Bart (TV’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES), sitting at a booth at the Moondance diner. Bart sang backup in Larson’s production of Tick, Tick… Boom! and was the inspiration for the character Roger (Joshua Henry, Hamilton), who sings (beautifully, I might add) at Jon’s workshop performance in the film. Miranda, too, has a cameo as one of the diner’s short order cooks. Including all the cameos, references to Larson’s most famous work — Rent, Stephen Sondheim and his work, Hamilton, signage and advertising, there are over 40 Easter eggs in this film.

Garfield is excellent in his first on-camera singing role. He has said in interviews that he doesn’t consider himself to be a singer but perhaps that self-image needs to change. The actor also did his own swimming for the pool scenes. Miranda had apparently hired a swimming double for him but when the professional swimmer saw how fast Garfield could swim, he told Miranda that his services weren’t needed. Garfield had apparently swum competitively in his younger years at school. The best performance, however, comes from Susan (Shipp) and Karessa’s (Vanessa Hudgens, SECOND ACT; the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL series) show-stopping duet from the film’s second act, “Come to Your Senses” – the song that Larson has trouble coming up with. Each of them has such a beautiful voice but together they are magic. Make sure you have some Kleenex ready!

As Broadway lovers know, Larson died just a few years after the events of this play. Before he passed away, he penned Rent, which ran on Broadway for 12 years, garnering a number of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. Sadly, Larson didn’t live long enough to enjoy his success. He died just three months before the show opened.

TICK, TICK… BOOM! is available now on Netflix. For theatre nerds, this is a must-see. For everyone else, this is a must-see as well. This film will probably end up in my list of favourite films of 2021.

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