“tick, tick… BOOM!” has Jonathan Larson’s life leap onto the screen

Streaming recommendation of the week 1/21/22


Courtesy of Netflix

Andrew Garfield (pictured above) shows the struggles of turning 30 in the ’90s as playwright Jonathan Larson in Netflix’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”

Scout Carter, Staff Writer

Jonathan Larson isn’t a name that a lot of people have heard of. Unless they’re a major theater nerd or have fallen in love with the radical rock revolution that is “RENT,” a reference to Larson is likely to draw a blank for most. Before this year, even those who would consider themselves musical connoisseurs of the most obscure Broadway shows knew very little about “tick, tick… BOOM!”—other than the fact that it was one of the only other major shows that the “RENT” creator ever wrote. A cult classic, “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a semi-autobiographical testimonial to what it takes to be a starving artist, with Larson typifying this portrait.  

However, when this movie was announced to be produced by Netflix with the famed, fan-favorite Lin-Manuel Miranda as its director (with Miranda also making a quick cameo in the film), more people than ever knew about “tick, tick… BOOM!” Talk about the movie grew when its leading man was chosen: Andrew Garfield. Many felt that this was coming from left field—though he has a rich theatrical background, having recently won a Tony Award, Garfield had never been seen in a musical before. This skepticism of his qualifications, along with other starry additions to the cast such as Vanessa Hudgens and Bradley Whitford, only drew more viewers in, making the movie a great success when it released in theaters and on Netflix in November 2021. 

The film itself depicts the week or so of the composer’s life before his 30th birthday. The great Broadway composers who came before him, like the legendary Stephen Sondheim, had found great success well before this age, according to Larson. His lack of success might be short-lived, however, with his upcoming work, “SUPERBIA,” a futuristic, genre-defying piece that has been in the works for eight years. His girlfriend Susan wants him to give up his scrimping lifestyle, though, as she has been offered a long-term position in the Berkshires and asks Jonathan to accompany her. Larson navigates these stressors whilst the reality of the AIDS epidemic hangs in the air, affecting many of his close friends. Tragically, nobody ever ends up actually biting the bullet and producing his show, leading the real-life Larson to dive into the work that would eventually actually make him famous—“tick, tick… BOOM!” and, of course, “RENT,” as the epilogue of the film’s commentary notes. However, like many other artists, Larson’s fame only came after his death. On the morning of “RENT”’s off-Broadway premiere, the composer tragically passed due to an aortic dissection—he would never get to see the full success of the show and its lasting impact on the musical theater industry. 

This impact has certainly found its way to Case Western Reserve University as well. Most directly, “RENT” was put on by our musical theater group, the CWRU Footlighters, in April 2011. But much more broadly, it’s easy to see the continued influence that Larson has had on the kinds of shows we put on here. One large example of this would be a production put on just a few shows after “RENT”—that of “Next to Normal” from the mind of Tom Kitt, another show proclaimed to be a rock musical. This is a common descriptor among the kinds of shows that get produced in today’s musical theater industry. But during Larson’s time, he was deeply underappreciated. To create a show that combined the traditional tunes of musicals with the energy of rock was certainly groundbreaking. The film shows that this is exactly why Larson’s show was never picked up—very few people had the vision to get behind his concepts. But hindsight is 20/20—we can certainly thank him now for his work in shaping the musical theater we see today. 

Jonathan Larson was a musical prodigy, one whose life was tragically cut short, robbing us of the many years of successful music that he could have had. Though we never got a slew of shows that could break our hearts like “RENT” can, we will forever feel the ways in which Larson shaped musical theater. This is why “tick, tick… BOOM!” is an essential movie to watch. Look past the star-studded cast and production team and you get a love letter to art, to those who lost their lives to AIDS and to the man who put all of those feelings into a show that tells us to keep on living with the time that’s left. 

“tick, tick… BOOM!” is streaming on Netflix.