Singer/songwriter Jonathan Larson, who died tragically early on the very verge of a potentially huge musical theatre career, is wonderfully brought to life by the charismatic Andrew Garfield in one of the best film musicals ever to hit our screens.
In an Oscar season where three musicals could all be in contention, Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda makes his directorial debut in an almost perfect example of musical theatre transference.
It’s the story of Jonathan Larson’s own life and the ticking time bomb title works on at least three levels. First there is the urgent need to find a second act song for his dystopian sci-fi musical Superbia. No lesser person than the genius Stephen Sondheim has told the very young Larson that the song is a must but Larson has writer’s block as the clock counts down to its workshop performance in front of all the leading Broadway producers.
Ticking bomb number 2 is a deadline imposed by his girlfriend, a dancer who has to move out of New York for her career and gives Larson an ultimatum to stay or go with her. And the further time bomb is outside the scope of the show – it’s our knowledge that Larson, moving up to his 30th birthday, (another deadline), does not know what we know – he is harbouring an unseen and undiagnosed aortic aneurism that will kill him on the eve of the opening of his subsequent runaway hit Rent the musical.
The genius of Miranda is to blend the score and dialogue from tick..tick, which Larson had workshopped, with other Larson material and also to take the action out of the confines of a cabaret stage to the streets of Manhattan. Alongside the main storyline, there’s a sub-plot about his long-time Gay friend Michael, who has abandoned the theatre for a successful career in advertising. But this is 1990 and Michael, along with Larson’s co-worker in a diner, is struck down by AIDS – another ticking time bomb.
There are terrific,emotive, pain-filled songs throughout the show but the absolute cracker is a parody of Sondheim’s Sunday, set here in the Moondance Diner, where the real Larson worked to pay his rent. “ Sunday in the blue, silver chromium diner”, sings Larson/Garfield. But wait: take a look at the mostly grumpy diner patrons. Broadway legends fill the Sunday brunch seats – including Joel Grey, Bernadette Peters, Andre DeShields, and Chita Rivera, to name only a few.
It’s a sharp and witty look at Manhattan life. Worthy of Larson’s mentor Sondheim. Larson tells us : “everyone’s unhappy in New York; that’s what New York is”. As the songwriting deadline looms, Larson’s electricity is cut off and he goes to his favourite swimming pool late at night. There, in a breathtaking piece of theatre/film, the notes and words of the required song appear along the pool’s underwater floor.
Does girlfriend Susan leave him ? Is the workshop of Superbia a hit? That’s too many spoils to reveal. But one final Miranda coup is that Larson gets a message recorded on his answerphone, telling him to be proud. It’s Sondheim- and in the film it’s the great man’s real voice, given added poignancy by his subsequent death.
It’s a really moving story about the art of making art, and all its anguish and pain. Up for the Oscar against Miranda’s own In The Heights and Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, it’s a toughie. What would be great would be if someone turned it and Superbia back into a full-blown stage musical – what a Larson tribute that would be. In the meantime we can marvel at Garfield’s great vocal talent and his totally believable tousle-haired young genius that never flowered.
Tick…tick… Boom! Is on Netflix