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Amy Spanger and Raul Esparza in tick, tick...BOOM!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A songwriter, frustrated at not getting a show of his on Broadway and complaining to increasingly impatient friends, is the protagonist of a posthumous musical. No, theater mavens, you aren't about to get a post-mortem on Edward Kleban's just-shuttered A Class Act. This is a review of Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM!

Hard to believe that two musicals about songwriters unable to nail productions of their musicals on the Great White Way would show up within months of each other, but it's true. And it happened during a season when musicals about musicals, or musicals that plunder the conventions of musicals, seem to have become all the rage; just start with The Producers, then go on to Bat Boy and Urinetown. In tick, tick...BOOM!, a character identified as Jonathan in the program (but called Jon in the text) is gazing at his soon-to-be-30 navel and not liking what he sees. It should go without saying that the intermissionless piece is autobiographical; it represents the late Jonathan Larson's reaction to turning the Big 3-0 in 1990, a time when he was experiencing internal tick-tick-booms because he hadn't yet realized his dream.

When the piece was unveiled at Second Stage in 1990 and at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1992 and 1993, it was a one-man show--and Larson himself, backed by a band, was the man. I happened to catch the third version. Although I can't recall it in detail, I remember that it seemed abrasive and indulgent, an example of a not atypical post-baby-boomer attitude: the arrogance of misguided entitlement that the young seem to share. When I left the theater, it didn't occur to me that, five years later, the author would shock and delight the world with Rent (which, incidentally, reworks many of the tick, tick...BOOM! themes.)

What comes into play with something like tick, tick...BOOM! is the response that the over-30 audience would be likely to have toward the subject matter as contrasted to the response of those under 30. Not being where you expected to be at the time of that big birthday can register as nearly catastrophic to those who have not yet reached it; over-30s, including me, might tend to view the same dilemma as quaintly amusing.

It is true that Larson died the night before Rent began previews began, just short of his 36th birthday. To that extent, he could have been right in feeling that he needed to accomplish a lot in a hurry; the ticks and booms he heard may have been some foreboding of the aortic aneurysm that killed him. But tick, tick...BOOM! can also be seen as just a show about an ambitious chap who is turning 30 and behaving childishly at the prospect.

Perhaps that's what David Auburn, billed as script consultant, took into account when he was asked by the tick, tick...BOOM! producers to futz around with Larson's various treatments and extract a playable tuner from them. Auburn, it hardly needs to be mentioned, is the Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Proof. As such, he has demonstrated an understanding of the intellectual and emotional crises that brilliant, thirtyish characters can endure, and he presents them with compassion. Although Auburn has been giving interviews in which he vigorously denies bringing very much to Larson's work that wasn't already there, he's undoubtedly the guy who has made the musical as appealing (even if blandly so) as it now is. His greatest contribution to the enterprise--which looks and sounds as if it will fill the Jane Street Theatre for some time to come--is in changing the script from a one-fellow carp session into a three-actor play; the added thesps impersonate Jon's girlfriend, Susan (Amy Spanger), and his best buddy, Michael (Jerry Dixon), plus a handful of additional characters including parents, corporate types, and an agent called Rosa Stevens (read Flora Roberts?).

Although it's difficult to know who does precisely what in a collaborative effort, it seems that Auburn's sense of humor was a leavening factor in tick, tick...BOOM!. At the very least, Jon is much lighter about his awfully important self than he was in 1993. Did Auburn write the line "Everybody we know wants to do something else," or did Larson? The script is dotted with similarly amusing observations, enough of them to make Jon's complaints bearable. Still, even with Auburn's help, tick, tick...BOOM! isn't about very much more than a guy who is bothered about an upcoming birthday and who only calms down when at last he's blown out the battalion of candles. During the couple of weeks covered by the narrative, Jon and Susan realize there isn't much left of their romance. Jon botches a job opportunity at Michael's market research firm, pulls off a workshop of a musical called Superbia (which does exist), and learns that Michael has received an AIDS diagnosis.

Another Spanger/Esparza moment
in tick, tick...BOOM!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The raison d'etre for the revived/revised tick, tick...BOOM! is Larson's songwriting. Without question, it validates the project. Jon says during the show that he's determined to bring rock to Broadway. This is odd, since Larson never wrote traditional rock, and for all the right reasons--among them, the fact that shows require the kind of character songs that rock composers and lyricists can't or won't create. Larson's music was the type of show-rock and had been anticipated a few decades earlier by, among others, Galt McDermot and the lyricists of Hair. It could even be said that the rockier Larson gets in tick, tick...BOOM! (e.g., "30/90," "Louder Than Words"), the less effective his tunes are. They're rants, whereas the power-ballad-like "Come to Your Senses," the folkier "Johnny Can't Decide," and the more Broadway-esque "Therapy" are engaging and/or moving. Not to mention the laugh-out-loud "Sunday," a send-up of brunching New Yorkers set to the only slightly-altered central anthem from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George.

The show is served well by its director, Scott Schwartz, who has already been very busy this year with Jane Eyre and Bat Boy and is turning out to have a nice way of staging musicals. His most significant talent may be his ability to recognize a show's intrinsic qualities and make sure they're unobtrusively evident when the lights go up; there's nothing showy about the way he sends his actors across the rather shallow Jane Street stage with its serviceable set by Anna Louizos. Though the musical staging going on here isn't very elaborate, Christopher Gattelli also keeps things moving. There is a good deal of music heard, and arranger and orchestrator Stephen Oremus, sitting on a raised upstage level with three other musicians, sees that the melodies sound as good as Larson must have hoped they would.

Raul Esparza's Jon is likable and identifiable. The actor lately played Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show but looks entirely different here in David Zinn's idea of Soho street clothes; he has a strong voice and an attractive penchant for underplaying. Amy Spanger, who was swell in , doesn't get the opportunity to shake her "holy cow!" body (which is a shame), but she sells her songs and demonstrates that she can be vulnerable or funny when necessary. So does Jerry Dixon: As Michael, he's believable without at all working the AIDS angle for easy pathos. The three performers play and sing very well together.

Listening to this old-new show proves further that Jonathan Larson's premature death, like that of Ed Kleban, ended a flow of wonderful material. If nothing else, it gives more of Larson's songs a chance to live on. And it holds out the possibility that their eventual explosion onto the pop culture scene is only a matter of tick, tick...BOOM!


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