By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When Lin-Manuel Miranda was 17, he was exposed to the musical Rent for the first time and he became attuned to the original contemporary music and diverse casting demanded by Jonathan Larson, the show’s creative genius.
That inspiration and connection to writing for theatre was reinforced when in 2001, as a theatre major senior in college, he saw a three-person off-Broadway version of Larson’s tick, tick… Boom!
Miranda has said he felt Larson was directly communing with him as someone interested in changing the dull and tedious landscape of Broadway. Larson’s spirit loomed large, even though he had died five years before, just prior to Rent‘s Broadway opening in 1996.
When offered the opportunity to direct a film version of tick, tick… Boom!, Miranda jumped at the chance. Having been steeped in making movies over the last several years with masters like Rob Marshall (“Mary Poppins Returns”), Miranda felt his toolbox was full enough to embark on his directorial debut.
Previously available in theaters and still streaming over Netflix, tick, tick… Boom! has proven to be a thoroughly personal journey back in time to the New York City of Miranda’s youth and a deeply felt homage to Larson for all that he did to change Broadway through his industry and dedication.
Miranda’s casting was critical in recreating the world of Jonathan Larson, basing much of his scenic designs and shooting locations on research about him. “It was a very clarifying experience for me,” Miranda has said. “It means the world for me to bring it to the screen.”
In the role of the charismatic, but troubled Larson, he selected Andrew Garfield, whom he had seen in the London production of Angels in America. While positive he had made the perfect choice as an actor, Miranda was not certain Garfield was capable of carrying off the demanding role as both a singer and keyboard player. Garfield had never before been asked to sing, but he answered in the affirmative.
As it turns out, the gamble wasn’t much of a gamble at all. Garfield’s voice is not only strong when it needs to be, but is also tender when required in the more reflective moments of the film, which revolve around his personal relationships.
Nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, Garfield’s performance is in a word spectacular and the overall scope of bringing this “small” musical to the big screen may have the result of its being the best film musical since Marshall’s “Chicago” almost two decades ago. There is considerable buzz surrounding this remarkable actor and the role that might nab him his first Oscar.
Miranda has admitted the film may well be his most personal work ever and it shows, despite his not receiving a Best Director nomination from the Academy. Most of the music contained within the frames of the finished product is culled from the short, but remarkable repertoire left behind by Larson. Jingles he penned were employed as background in some scenes. The first time director derived some of the material from Larson’s never-produced musical Superbia, which is used as a MacGuffin to indicate the level of commitment and frustration Larson felt as an artist.
Miranda pulled out his heavy guns by assembling his ace musical team from In the Heights, Hamilton and the TV production he executive produced of “Fosse/Verdon.” Consisting of Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman, Steve Gzicki and Kurt Crowley, they helped fully realize two Larson songs – “Swimming” and “Sextet” – that were initially little more than sketches on pages. The resulting soundtrack is full and sumptuous, but still very much identifiable as bearing Jonathan Larson’s unmistakeable creative spark and genius.
The first time director also went back to the creative wellspring of his own choosing with the casting of Robin de Jesús in the role of Michael, Larson’s best friend who realizes he no longer can afford to be a struggling artist. Michael achieves a financial windfall as he becomes a conformist, but Larson believes he has sold out to the system by becoming a part of the madcap world of advertising and marketing.
De Jesús adds a counterbalance to Garfield’s performance and his character is largely responsible for carrying Larson during a particularly low emotional ebb, when he questions whether his art and his craft are truly worth the pain and anguish he is suffering. Michael’s admission that he is but one of thousands of would-be actors on Broadway and off. “Do you know how many Jonathan Larsons there are in the world?” he asks, raising a single finger and staring back into his friend’s soul. “One.”
Supporting cast members also include Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens with whom Miranda has also worked previously in Hamilton and In the Heights. Henry plays Roger, a friend who helps him process his musical identity, while Hudgens plays Karessa, Larson’s musical muse for whom he writes his most expressive and loving music.
The scenes between Garfield, Henry and Hudgens are uplifting and offer musical counterpoint to the other emotional scenes between Garfield and Alexandra Shipp as his girlfriend Susan. Susan is emotionally torn between her love for Jonathan and the advancement of her own career as a dancer. Their scenes are pivotal to the tension in the film in which it becomes apparent that Jonathan is incapable of being true to anything other than his art.
There are several surprise scenes involving a compendium of Broadway greats from both the talent pool and those creative teams who have contributed to most of the major musical theatre successes of the past four decades. Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre will recognize one after the other and thrill as to how Miranda has incorporated his tribute to the past in this poignant love letter to Larson. Miranda has made Larson more relevant than ever before, even if he’s been dead for more than 26 years.
tick, tick…Boom! is nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Actor (Andrew Garfield) and Best Film Editing (Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum) and is available through Netflix streaming service.