Chances are that many of you have heard of Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece RENT, but I’m guessing that fewer of you have heard of his lesser-known previous work, tick, tick… BOOM! While I love RENT with all of my heart, it’s a shame that this musical isn’t more widely known because tick, tick… BOOM! is probably the better written musical.
tick, tick… BOOM! is about a young man named Jon who is living in New York in the 1990s and struggling to become a composer. He worries that he is never going to make it and that he has chosen the wrong career. The story is heavily based on Jonathan Larson’s own life, and was originally performed as a one person show. The musical never went anywhere in Larson’s lifetime, but after his death and the success of RENT, playwright David Auburn revamped the musical for three people and it was performed off-Broadway. Since then it has had a London production and an American national tour, along with several local productions.
The musical starts with Jon turning thirty. He’s panicking because he is thirty years old, still working at a diner, and his career as a composer hasn’t gotten him anywhere. Throughout the musical Jon is pressured by his friends Susan and Michael to give up his artist lifestyle. Michael has recently abandoned his acting career for a more lucrative one as a research executive, and Susan, Jon’s girlfriend, has stopped trying to be a professional dancer and instead teaches ballet to “wealthy and untalented children.” Both Michael and Susan are concerned about Jon due to his failing career, so Michael offers to get Jon a interview at his firm, and Susan starts to pressure Jon about leaving New York. She wants to get married and have children, which she sees as not being compatible with an artist’s life style (especially a failing artist).
Jon meanwhile is nervous about the workshop for his musical Suburbia, which is going to be reviewed by a famous composer who is heavily implied to be Stephen Sondheim. The show goes well, but still no one offers to produce the musical. On top of this he finds out that Susan is leaving him and moving to Massachusetts for a new job. Jon goes to Michael, upset by all this and tells him that he is going to give up trying to be a composer, but Michael oddly seems to have had a change of heart and tells Jon to keep with it. The two argue about it and Michael reveals that he has AIDS and hates his stable, but boring and unrewarding job. He pushes Jon to follow his dreams even if they are difficult.
The musical ends on a positive note, with Jon deciding to continue as a composer, Susan and Jon parting as friends, Michael and Jon having a stronger friendship, and even with probably-Stephen-Sondheim guy calling Jon to give him some notes on his script.
Despite the fact that RENT is the famous musical and one of my all-time favorites, I think tick, tick… BOOM! is definitely the better written
of the two because it is more focused than RENT. As much as I love RENT, the story can get confused by all the issues it tries to address—it talks about being a struggling artist, the AIDS epidemic, drug addiction, homelessness, and gay rights all in one two-act musical. And while RENT does okay with those issues, some clearly get less attention in the story than they deserve, and others are portrayed in a very heavy-handed sort of way. It sometimes seems as if Jonathan Larson is trying to bash you over the head with his message. tick, tick… BOOM!, on the other hand, focuses mainly on one issue—being a struggling artist—and handles everything in a much subtler way. Even Michael’s struggle with AIDS is dealt with in a much subtler and, I think, more heartfelt way than RENT did.
On top of this, while the songs in RENT and tick, tick… BOOM! have a similar sort of style, tick, tick… BOOM! tends to have better songs, which is largely reflected in the more poetic lyrics. In RENT, Jonathan Larson seems very concerned with getting his message across or moving the story along through the songs, but in tick, tick… BOOM! he seems more concerned with getting the feelings and emotions of the characters, or the tension of the moment to come through in the songs, which I think is what musicals are supposed to do. Seriously, check out this song that Jon sings about Susan. You can really feel how the two love each other and want to stay together, but want different things out of life at the same time.
Overall, I would highly recommend this musical, and, if there is a production of it near you, go see it. It will be worth your time.