The increasingly ubiquitous Lin Manuel Miranda strikes it home yet again, with the third of his four dynamite movie musicals to find release in 2021. That the first proved a confounding flop at the box office and the second saw its theatrical release shelved is neither here nor there. This EGOT chasing virtuoso is on a role. Unlike In the Heights and Vivo before it – and, indeed, Encanto to come – tick, tick…BOOM! is unique in the quartet for casting Miranda not as lyricist but director. Working from the late, great Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical text and songbook of 1990, Miranda’s debut in the hot seat proves a sensation. Not one that is entirely unmitigated but a mighty attempt at perfection nonetheless.
Larson’s best known work is RENT. That’s the epochal, Pulitzer Prize winning, genre defining hit that saw Larson’s name enjoy well over a decade on Broadway at the turn of the century. tick, tick…BOOM! was its quieter, semi-autobiographical predecessor. The two shows share themes – not to mention the HIV/AIDS crisis as a backdrop – and posthumous tones of tragic irony. Larson died by aortic dissection, aged just 35, before either found success. Rarely has life provided so cruelly apt a metaphor for a budding artist’s struggle to break out in New York. It was the night before RENT’s Off-Broadway debut that he was taken.
In tick, tick…BOOM!, Larson – played, with effortless charisma, by a grinning Andrew Garfield – recalls the creation of a third musical. One that never even made Off- Off-Broadway. It’s a running joke of Miranda’s film that nobody quite ‘gets’ Superbia. A futuristic, space satire. A rock retelling of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ for the MTV generation. An epic, eight years in the making. tick, tick…BOOM! plays out the final week before Larson was to present Superbia to his friends, family and would be financiers. The title’s meaning is twofold. It is the mounting anticipation as showtime approaches and a manifestation of Larson’s own fear of failure. Could this be it? He is just one week away from turning thirty. Here, a devastating crux. Stephen Sondheim made his Broadway debut at 27.
Garfield fizzes throughout the journey. His enthusiasm appears boundless, while the depth of characterisation he achieves proves remarkably investable. All here is captured from Larson’s perspective, with Miranda using the musical’s original one-man-show set up as his launch pad. We open and close with Larson on stage, accompanied by two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry) and a band. His audience in his rapture. Betwixt, flashbacks bring Larson’s story to life, offering fine visual dynamism as contrast to the film’s theatrical grounding.
It’s an approach that works well, if to the detriment of the character arcs afforded Garfield’s supporting cast. An opening narration heralds the film as an entirely true story – ‘except from the bits that Jonathan made up’ – but only once is a diversity of perspective allowed to break through. This is the wholly brilliant sequence that sees Larson’s girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), accuse him of reimagining an argument between them as a future stage number. In parallel cuts, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Even then, the song is so darned good that it’s hard to blame him. How can so loveable a hero be at fault? He is. Frequently but, perhaps, forgivably. Hindsight is everything.
For a first timer, Miranda proves himself as surprisingly assured. If anything, his work here is too smooth, with glitz and glamour occasionally stealing from the story’s rough and ready surroundings. Ryan Heffington’s choreography is, however, sublime, working wonders with a soundtrack of tunes no less thrilling than when written, thirty years ago. Certainly, the brief ‘Boho Days’ is an early, a Capella winner, while ‘Louder than Words’ resonates as a finale long past the closing credits. There are a raft of cameos for contemporary Broadway legends and, in one scene, a ginger tabby almost steals the whole thing. It’s superb, yeah.