How the Tick…Tick…Boom! Film Guides Us Through Our Own Struggle With the Ticking Clock
Musical-theater fans have been having a very good year: Broadway is back, and there's not one, not two, but seven movie musicals and two professionally shot productions being released this year. And Schmigadoon! Out of that abundance, I can say without reservation that Lin-Manuel Miranda's adaptation of Jonathan Larson's musical Tick…Tick…Boom! is the not just the best movie musical released In 2021, but one of the best of all time. It's an adaptation of the source material that is faithful, but also deepens, expands, and improves upon the musical in which it's based.
And I'm not just saying this because the characters talk about Sunday in the Park With George and then Bernadette Peters makes a cameo.
The film version of Tick…Tick…Boom! begins the same way that the musical version does. We see a character named Jon take the stage and sit behind a piano. He introduces himself to us. Then we hear a voice-over: "This is Jonathan Larson's story. Before the Tony Awards. Before the Pulitzer Prize. Before we lost him." This was the part that made me lean forward in my seat. This was all new material written for the film.
Tick…Tick…Boom! was first performed by Larson himself in 1990, as a one-person show. It was about his frustrations about turning 30, having toiled on a musical called Superbia for eight years with no productions to show for it. Meanwhile, his best friend Michael has quit acting to go into advertising while his girlfriend Susan wants to move out of New York City and start a family.
In the background, Jon keeps hearing a clock ticking, a sense that he's running out of time to make his mark. Larson died in 1996, before the premiere of his industry-changing musical Rent. Not long after his passing, Tick, Tick…Boom! was turned into a three-actor piece by David Auburn, and has been an off-Broadway and regional theater staple ever since.
I had never been a fan of the musical. I saw it off-Broadway in 2016 when I was 28, and I was unmoved. So, I came into the film skeptical and unexcited.
I am a writer constantly on deadline — I hear those ticking clocks of deadlines all day, every day. Jon's struggles in the musical, about whether to continue making music or "sell out," felt, to this millennial, myopic, privileged, and passé. The artistic angst of selling out was prevalent during the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s. These days, artists are pursuing their dreams while working a day job well into their 30s, 40s, and 50s (you have Pulitzer-winning playwrights who teach at universities as their day job to make ends meet).
To my eyes, Jon in Tick…Tick…Boom! was broke, but he was not poor. He was privileged, with parents who could help. He wasn't a dancer like his girlfriend Susan, who was beginning to age out of the youth-obsessed dance world and dealing with her own biological clock. And Jon didn't have AIDS like Michael during a time when being gay was tantamount to being a social pariah. The ticking for both Susan and Michael seemed substantially louder. In comparison, Jon's felt low stakes.
That was why it was a surprise to me that I left Tick…Tick…Boom! the film having felt the, well, boom. I was electrified. I wanted to watch it again. It was the opposite of the feeling I had when I first saw the stage musical.
That is because Tick…Tick…Boom! isn't a re-creation of the stage show for Netflix.
This year, we have been inundated with a flood of movie musicals, some that translated better to the screen than others. In general, a stage musical requires the audience to suspend their disbelief. They have to allow themselves to exist not in a literal space, but a metaphorical one where emotions aren't just hidden inside, they're sung out. A movie musical is inherently challenging because films often tend to exist in a hyperrealistic space. A stage musical needs to make a case for why the characters are singing. A movie musical needs to make a case for why this musical should be a film at all.
That is why the best stage-to-screen adaptations aren't just a re-creation of the theatrical work. They either deepen the themes of the show through stylization, such as in Chicago. Or they contain elements so fantastical that it can only be created onscreen — such as the bird's eye shot of Julie Andrews dancing on a hill in The Sound of Music, the 96,000 dance sequence in In the Heights, or the Sunday brunch sequence in Tick…Tick…Boom! Trims, additions, expansion, and stylization are also essential to translate a story from one medium to another.
In adapting Tick, Tick…Boom, Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) expanded it past the three-actor conceit. New characters were added, new dialogue was written, monologues and songs from earlier drafts of Larson's stage version were added, and some songs were removed (Miranda risked the ire of Larson fans by cutting "Green Green Dress," but that song was always a cringe). Stephen Sondheim also contributed a small rewrite to the script when his character comes in.
Miranda and Levenson deepened the character of Jon (played by Andrew Garfield), imbuing him with a bit of Alexander Hamilton and George Seurat. Jon in the film is someone who is always writing, always seeing lyrics and music in the air — even during an argument with Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Music is all-consuming for him. It also alienates him from the world — similar to Seurat in Sunday in the Park, we see how Jon's myopic mindset hurts the people around him.
Susan and Michael in the film are also more fully realized characters: Susan has an expanded backstory and is not just the nagging girlfriend, and Michael (Robin de Jesús) has a personality beyond his belt collection. They are not there to be foils that justify Jon's worldview, they argue with him and challenge him, and the film sympathizes with all three.
The film also adds dramatic stakes in the form of the Superbia workshop: Jon needs to write a song for the second act that he hopes will improve the show, and he pins his hopes on the new song being the thing that will get the show produced, obsessing over it at the expense of his personal life. Unlike the stage musical, where Jon tells the audience about songwriting, in the film we can see Jon struggling to write a song. We truly feel his love for the craft, and it is that illogical love that makes Jon's selfishness understandable. As a writer constantly on deadline, I empathize with Jon.
More crucially, we see that Jon is writing like, well, he's running out of time, to quote one of Miranda's musicals. Adding to that, the film adds a prologue and epilogue, where Susan provides the God view: Little did Jonathan know, he would revolutionize musical theater, and he would also die at the age of 35. Suddenly, the ticking makes even more sense.
Those sequences may seem like a way to spell out Larson's story to a wider audience, but they also provide crucial context. Why is Larson writing like he was running out of time? Because he truly was.
Said Miranda in the New Yorker: "[Jon] understood so much, and yet at a certain level you can't let yourself understand. You don't know the day you're going to die. On a subcellular level, he understands there's a clock ticking."
When you watch the film knowing that Larson will be gone within a handful of years, the dramatic stakes are heightened. This is a story about a man with so many songs to give. He doesn't know that he is going to die. But he lives everyday like he might. That's not foolish. It's brave.
Tick, Tick…Boom! is not just a story about one composer trying to write a song, or a man overcoming his personal doubts despite the world telling him to give up. It is also about time itself and the notion that time is finite. That is why the show and film ends with "Louder Than Words," where Jon asks, "Cages or wings? Which do you prefer?" He directs the question to us, asking us to listen to our own clocks.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic where that ticking sound has never sounded louder. And that metaphorical tick, tick…boom! has led to people quitting their jobs en masse, to pursue their passion, or prioritize their personal life. During the pandemic, one line came up repeatedly in my head: "No day but today."
People on their deathbeds most often regret working so hard and not living a life that was true to who they really were. The ticking is there, so how do we make sure that when the boom happens, we won't look back with regret? Tick, Tick…Boom! began as Jonathan Larson telling his own story. And through Lin-Manuel Miranda's faithful-yet-expanded, all-the-right-places adaptation, Larson's story now lives outside of himself and inside of all of us, guiding us through our own battle with the clock.