Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Jonathan Larson's Struggle Against Time

In 1996, I was 19 and I had just put my papers in to serve a mission. On my way home from a meeting with my bishop, I heard an interview on the radio with some of the cast members of a new Broadway musical called RENT. They played “One Song Glory”, and I was so overcome with emotion that I had to pull over on the side of the road to listen to this beautiful song. I bought the soundtrack the next day and listened to it over and over again in my bright blue 1993 Mazda 323. I heard that they were selling tickets to RENT for $20, fitting for a show about artists struggling to pay their bills. The catch was that you had to wait in line all day to get the $20 tickets. No problem for me, I had all the time in the world! So I got to New York City at 3 am, and I waited on the trash-strewn street next to other young people waiting to get the cheap tickets. That night I sat in the second row of the Nederlander Theatre and basked in the one song glory of the original cast. I knew what I was seeing was special, but I didn’t really appreciate how incredible it was to witness live performances from Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Taye Diggs, and yes even Daphne Rubin-Vega.

RENT would go on to be the 11th longest running musical in history, win the Tony for Best Musical, and would be one of only ten musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize (a feat shared with Sondheim’s A Sunday in the Park with George and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton). It had a profound impact on my life, and shaped the way that I view people, art, humanity, love, and life. It’s a sad irony that Jonathan Larson, the creator of RENT died the night before his masterpiece debuted Off-Broadway. Like many of his songs, his life ended too abruptly. Truly, Jonathan Larson was a man who was haunted by time.

Larson’s obsession with time is evident in all his shows. RENT takes place over exactly one year. Tick, Tick… Boom! takes place in the week leading up to Larson’s 30th birthday. Superbia (which was never formally produced) is based on George Orwell’s 1984. Miranda, in his directorial debut, recognizes this central theme of time, and adds numerous symbols and references to time in Tick, Tick… Boom! (new to Netflix this week), including a constant tick tick ticking sound in the background whenever Jonathan feels stress and anxiety about his creative process.

There are some real treats in Tick, Tick… Boom!, chief of which include the song “Sunday”, a perfect homage and parody of “Sunday” from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. The song, besides being sharp and witty, features Broadway Royalty like Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chita Rivera, RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Phylicia Rashad. Tick, Tick… Boom! also includes the song “Swimming” which cleverly shows how an artist’s inspiration might come in the most unusual of ways. And in particular, only happened for Jonathan Larson when he was relaxed and performing self care. 

Overall, Tick, Tick… Boom! is an incredible film that at its base tells a compelling story of a creative artist. But it also is a lament on man’s struggle with time, which stops for no person. Tick, Tick… Boom! also beautifully and painstakingly chronicles the creative process, especially in the modern world where money, politics, and networking play such an important role in the creative process. This is a film written by a pained musical theater genius, directed by a modern musical theater virtuoso, and will be enjoyed by anybody who has any love for Broadway musicals. 

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