Jerry Dixon, Raúl Esparza, and Amy Spangerin Jonathan Larson’s tick...tick...BOOM!(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jerry Dixon, Raúl Esparza, and Amy Spanger
in Jonathan Larson’s tick...tick...BOOM!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A funny but true old saying holds that, if talent counted for everything, Leslie Uggams would have had Diana Ross's career. Well, the same sort of thing applies to shows: We all can think of entertainments that have run for years even though their artistic merit is questionable, while other, far more deserving productions have not caught fire at the box-office for one reason or another.

An excellent example of that phenomenon is tick, tick...BOOM! This autobiographical piece by the late, great Jonathan Larson -- creator of Rent -- may be the most joyous, warm-hearted, and profound musical running in New York City right now, yet it is not the monster hit that it should be. Everyone who sees the show adores it, but getting them there in the first place is the issue. The show's title might seem a particular handicap in light of the tragic events of last Tuesday, but it would be a shame if people decide not to attend for that reason. Aside from everything else, one of Larson's most important messages -- that time is fleeting and we should make the most of life while we possess it -- can provide great comfort in these sorrowful times. (Interviews for this article took place a couple of weeks before the World Trade Center tragedy.)

"We've been so well-received and the critics have been so favorable, but it doesn't seem to be taking off down [at the Jane Street Theatre]," says Raúl Esparza, who is giving a star-making performance in the show's central role of Jon -- i.e., Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm just before Rent began performances at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1994. "I don't know if it's our location; Hedwig was in the same theater and I understand that it really took a long time for them to find an audience. Also, we opened in the middle of the summer. Things like that probably affect shows more than we realize. I don't read reviews, because you still have to go on stage and do the show whether they like you or not. But some of our reviews that I've heard about were really surprising; John Simon, for instance, sort of raved about the performances. Michael Billington came in from London for The Guardian and loved it. The coverage in Time magazine was great. So there's been all this attention." One high-profile piece of coverage received by the show was an edition of TV's Charlie Rose that featured a fascinating discussion between Rose, Esparza, director Scott Schwartz, Al Larson (Jonathan's father) and David Auburn (the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Proof, who collated and adapted Jonathan's work to create tick, tick...BOOM!).

Stylistically, the show has very little in common with A Chorus Line, but these two musicals from two different eras are similar in at least one major respect. "Our show speaks to all kinds of people," says Esparza, "and a large part of it has nothing to do with the theater. It's mainly about something that everybody goes through -- the sense that we give up something when we make choices in life. At one point, we all say: 'I know I can't have everything, so I have to decide what I want most of all.' For Jon, it's a lonely choice to say 'I'm going to keep writing' because of the position he's in. His friends are sort of moving on without him. But he has to write. People can relate to that in so many ways -- why we choose the careers we choose and why we stick with them."

The story of what it took to arrive at this version of tick, tick...BOOM! is fairly well known. According to musical director Stephen Oremus, "It was a lot of work because the show was in such sketchy form when we first started. Jonathan left full scripts but, musically, there was very little written down. David Auburn and I had very similar jobs: He had to take Jonathan's material and kind of shape the piece into a more theatrical evening with three actors -- to expand it in certain ways but also to edit and change the order of things. I had to pick the best versions of the songs, then I had to expand them for three actors, do the vocal arrangements and the band arrangements as well. It was an amazingly creative process. What's most exciting to me is that people can't seem to tell what I added to the show. That means I've done my job.

"When you're dealing with something like this," Oremus continues, "it's all about trying to stay within the style. I worked on Rent for the better part of a year as musical director of the tour, so I tried to emulate the way Jonathan wrote for vocals -- that contrapuntal stuff he did, the way he wrote certain harmonies and things. At the end of the first week of rehearsals, we did a read-through and sing-through for all the producers, other prospective investors, and the Larsons. No one had heard any of my work, and at first I thought, 'Oh, I'm so fired!' It was the greatest thrill when Al Larson came up to me with tears in his eyes and hugged me and said, 'Thank you so much, that was beautiful.' "

One of the arrangements that Oremus is most pleased about is what he came up with for "Therapy," the show's funniest song. "Originally, it was just this little ditty that Jonathan sang by himself -- obviously -- and it started slow and got faster and faster," says the MD. "Now, it's a country-western duet between Jon and his girlfriend. When we were working on the song, I turned to Scott [Schwartz] and said, 'You know what this is turning into? It's 'All for the Best' from Godspell! Your dad wrote this 25 or 30 years ago.' It was hilarious."

Amy Spanger and Raúl Esparzain tick...tick...BOOM!(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Amy Spanger and Raúl Esparza
in tick...tick...BOOM!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Amy Spanger, who plays Jon's girlfriend in tick, tick...BOOM!, has been struck by the musical's universality. "When I talk to people who've just seen the show," she reports, "a lot of them say, 'This is my life' -- especially if they're around 30. I spoke to this one guy who is an investment banker; he drives a BMW just like Michael, the corporate best friend, does in the show. This guy told me, 'I get so much shit from all my friends for driving a BMW.' I thought: 'Wow, you've got a BMW? That's so amazing!' For people who know something about Jonathan Larson, it's interesting to get more of his back story in tick, tick...BOOM! But the show also speaks to people who don't know anything about Jonathan and have never seen or heard of Rent. I've actually had people say to me, 'Oh my God, what is Jonathan going to write next?' I have to tell them, 'Unfortunately he's not here anymore.'"

Like the other two actors in the show, Spanger had no personal experience of Jonathan Larson but feels a strong kinship with him and his work. "I did the first national tour of Rent," she says. "Initially, I played Mark's mom and other small parts; then I was promoted to Maureen after six months. Its kind of weird that I've played two of Jonathan's girlfriends in my short career: Maureen was based on one of his other girlfriends who became a lesbian. I think that was a tough pill for him to swallow!"

Says Jerry Dixon, the third member of the tick, tick...BOOM! cast, "I never met Jon and I never worked with him. The first time I saw Rent was that first performance on the night he died. It was pretty amazing. Since then, I feel that I've gotten to meet Jon through his parents, Nan and Al. One of the parts I play in the show is Al Larson; I mean, it's not actually supposed to be him specifically, but I am playing Jon's father. The character is a bit of a goof because some of the show needs to be funny and all that. The real Al is such a sweetheart, so I always tell people, 'I'm not playing Al!'"

For most of the evening, Dixon fills the shoes of a character named Michael, modeled on one of Jonathan Larson's closest friends. "His real name is Matt O'Grady," says Dixon. "I had dinner with him early on in rehearsal and he would come to visit once in a while before the show opened. Then he was around for the recording. It was really cool to meet him. We had a little get-together just the other day. He's still doing the marketing thing; he's a bigwig now. Before that, he was an actor in musicals. He'd had enough of hearing 'no' at auditions and decided to go someplace where he would hear 'yes' a lot more often: Madison Avenue.

"I think, at first, Matt was afraid that tick, tick...BOOM! was going to be extremely sad," Dixon says. "He was surprised that it turned out to be such a celebration -- not only of Jonathan's life but of life in general. Like the character, Matt is HIV-positive. He's never been sick with any illness or complication; he has an extremely low viral load, so he doesn't require any sort of HIV medication. He told Jon about his HIV status at the diner where Jon worked. He said he wanted to tell him in a public place because Jon was very emotional. Matt thought having HIV was his death sentence. Then, when Jon died, he thought: 'How can this be, that I've lost my friend?'"

Everyone in the cast loves the wonderful new BMG/RCA original cast recording of tick, tick...BOOM!, which should definitely burnish the show's reputation. (In a bit of sad irony, the CD's release date was September 11, 2001.) "It was such a pleasure to record the album," Dixon enthuses. "Stephen Oremus's arrangements are just beautiful; the band kicks all that music right out of the ballpark." In Oremus's opinion, "The CD sounds amazing. Jeffrey Lesser produced it -- he did the Rocky Horror CD -- and it was really exciting to be part of the process. They let me be associate producer on the album by virtue of my work on the show. They were, like, 'It's going to be hard to keep you out of the room as it is!' I was thrilled to be a part of making sure that the recording sounded the way that we all had intended for the show to sound."

"The album is really something else," says Raúl Esparza. "I'm pleased with it because it's like a pop album; there's almost no dialogue on it, so it just seems like a collection of really good songs." And Amy Spanger feels that "RCA did a great job with the production of the CD. It's so nice for me to listen to it because, on stage, I can't hear a lot of the orchestrations and I can't hear the other guys singing. To have the final product is lovely."

This recording is now your only option to experience tick, tick...BOOM! as performed by its original cast. Spanger will be replaced by Molly Ringwald beginning this week, and as for Raúl Esparza -- well, he was set to yield the role of Jon to Joey McIntyre (a former New Kid on the Block) in mid October and then begin rehearsals for the Roundabout Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. Now, given the subject matter of that show and in light of the attacks on America last week, the Roundabout has postponed it indefinitely. But McIntyre had already signed his tick, tick...BOOM! contract, so Esparza has to give up the role anyway and will be unemployed as of a month from now. (Not for long, surely). Do what you must to catch this incredible performance while you can.

As it happens, one of the most affecting aspects of tick, tick...BOOM! is its treatment of Jonathan Larson's worship of Sondheim. "Originally, Jonathan didn't have any mention of Sondheim in the show," says Esparza. "He had invented a character with another name who was supposed to be him. When Sondheim agreed to record the phone message to Jon that you hear at the end of the show, we said, 'Okay, let's go ahead with it.' I think it's a really beautiful moment when the audience hears that message because it places the show in reality: Jon talks a lot about his idol during the show and then he gets a phone message from him! It's such a moment of vindication and encouragement for Jon. There's also the sense that he really did feel this great need to write. We actually cut some things from the original draft, sections where Jon was talking about how he thought his heart was going to explode and he couldn't take it anymore. He said something like, 'I'm gonna have a heart attack, I'm so stressed out, something is going to blow in my chest.' We cut that because it just seemed like it would have been manipulative. People would also have thought we added the line, but Jonathan wrote it. It's eerie."

At the end of our interview, Esparza summed up the core theme of tick, tick...BOOM! -- a theme that holds more meaning than ever in light of recent events: "Life is so very short. You don't realize that when you're a kid, but you really have to grab the things that are important to you and say, 'This means something to me. It doesn't matter what it means to anybody else. I'm going to hold onto it.' Every time I do the show, it's like a lesson: 'Wake up! You've gotta remember to appreciate what you have around you right now.'"