Tick, Tick…Boom!

Shubert Theatre

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

–Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Jonathan, the scrappy, talented, neurotic hero of Tick, Tick…Boom!, is a man in crisis. It’s 1990, he’s a week away from his 30th birthday, and while his friends are whizzing along in BMWs he seems to be stalled on the highway to nowhere. An aspiring composer living in SoHo, he dreams of writing “the Hair of the 90s”–a musical that will energize young audiences and stir reaction against the conservative, stifling materialism that engulfs America. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “George Bush is president.” His futuristic opera is about to be workshopped for an invited audience of “interesting people,” among them a famous songwriter whose name is so holy Jonathan can only whisper it: S—-n S——m. But Jonathan has misgivings that his work will be too quirky for Broadway and too expensive for the fringe, leaving him to scrounge for more grants to cut more demo tapes and mount more workshops while he squeaks by on his earnings as a waiter. “I’m a promising young composer,” Jonathan says. “I’ve been promising so long I’m afraid I’m starting to break the fucking promise.”

Meanwhile his dancer girlfriend, Susan, wants to leave Manhattan for Cape Cod–and if he won’t go with her, she implies, she’ll go alone. And Michael, Jonathan’s gay roommate–his best friend since childhood–has dumped his acting career to make real money as a Madison Avenue market researcher, embracing the perks of the good life: a slick car and a new apartment where the bathtub is in the bathroom instead of the kitchen. But Michael knows he’s living on borrowed time: he’s just been diagnosed with AIDS.

Jonathan is living on borrowed time too. He doesn’t realize it–but we do, because he’s the alter ego of Jonathan Larson, the creator of this autobiographical musical. When Larson penned the one-man show that evolved into Tick, Tick…Boom!, he didn’t know that he would indeed go on to write “the Hair of the 90s”: Rent, the Broadway hit about Lower East Side artists coping with drugs, AIDS, and homelessness. He also didn’t know he would die of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 36, shortly before his masterpiece’s much anticipated opening in 1996.

The cult that has grown up around Rent and its creator provides a potent subtext for Tick, Tick…Boom!–an engaging little musical that doubtless would have had trouble reaching a national audience under different circumstances. Originally called 30/90, this “rock monologue” got put on hold while Larson turned his attention to Rent, a reworking of Puccini’s La boheme in which a Larson-like observer documents the lives of his outsider circle. After Larson’s death, several of his friends convinced his family to let them transform 30/90 into a three-person one-act. Playwright David Auburn (Proof), arranger Stephen Oremus, and director Scott Schwartz shepherded the revised and retitled work into a successful off-Broadway production, now playing here in a touring edition.

If Larson’s posthumous celebrity gives Tick, Tick…Boom! marketability, the show confirms that Rent was no fluke. In both distinctive, openhearted scores, Larson displays a knack for blending pulsing rhythms and catchy melodic hooks with the character-based conversationality of musical theater. Highlights include Jonathan’s driving “30/90”; his urgently horny duet with Susan, “Green Green Dress”; a droll depiction of the couple’s rambling late-night conversation, “Therapy”; “Sugar,” a comically upbeat ode to Hostess Twinkies and other junk food; “Come to Your Senses,” a powerful pop ballad carried over from Larson’s Superbia; the anthemic climax, “Louder Than Words”; and “Johnny Can’t Decide,” a trio for Jonathan, Michael, and Susan characterized by almost painfully pretty intertwining harmonies. Nothing here seems destined for the status of Rent’s rousing finale, “Seasons of Love,” but these songs are as good as many of the later tunes.

Larson’s lean, lyrical sound is clearly influenced by the pop he heard as a teenager in the 1970s: Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Cheap Trick, the Cars, Billy Joel. But Larson’s authentic connection to his musical roots lifts his work above clever pastiches like Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, and Little Shop of Horrors. Even more important, both Rent and Tick, Tick…Boom! are largely free of the bombastic bathos that drenches the rock-based scores of shows like Cats, Evita, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon. Best of all, Larson uses rock idioms to dramatize believable, complex relationships onstage. Bravo to Schwartz, Oremus, and Auburn for giving this lean, lovely little piece a new lease on life.

Jonathan’s epiphany in Tick, Tick… Boom! takes place at his birthday party. The workshop has gone smoothly but unsuccessfully: none of the “interesting people” offered to bankroll a full production. Susan has indeed decided to move to Cape Cod, leaving Jonathan behind as a lover though not as a friend. Michael has begun the process of living with AIDS, aware that every minute is precious. And Jonathan has come to understand that 30 is a beginning, not an end, and that life is meant to be enjoyed in the moment. When the phone rings, he decides not to interrupt the party despite the message he hears being left on the answering machine: “Jonathan? Steve Sondheim here. Congratulations. You’re going to have a great future.” The moment is comic, but given Larson’s untimely death, the implications are tragic.

During his brief career, Larson impressed showbiz insiders as one of the few songwriters of his generation who didn’t seem to be imitating Sondheim. Yet what permeates this portrait of the artist as a young obsessive is Larson’s awe of the master. In the show’s funniest number (at least for musical-theater aficionados), Jonathan dramatizes his hectic job serving weekend brunch as a parody of Sunday in the Park With George, arranging his noisy customers in calm, perfectly composed tableaux like figures in Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Later, reminiscing about his youth, Jonathan recalls that he and Michael performed in a White Plains High School production of West Side Story.

The reference is brief but illuminating. Arguably no musical has exerted a more profound influence on generation after generation of teenagers than West Side Story, which introduced lyricist Sondheim to Broadway audiences. Aside from its brilliant jazz-based score and inventive fusion of dance and drama, the show enjoys lasting importance because of its romanticized but potent expression of adolescent angst, earnest idealism, bratty irreverence, religious iconography, and surging sexuality. West Side Story begat Hair–and Hair begat Rent, as Tick, Tick…Boom! makes clear. All three shows are concerned with the way that rebels and misfits treat one another, preaching a tribal unity among outcasts. And all three shows are permeated by intimations of youthful mortality: from gang violence in West Side Story, Vietnam in Hair, and AIDS in Rent. Similar intimations abound in Tick, Tick…Boom! One could ignore them and just enjoy the charming songs and familiar story–but that would be like seeing West Side Story without knowing it’s based on Romeo and Juliet.

As structured by “script consultant” Auburn, Tick, Tick…Boom! employs three actors: one playing Jonathan, the other two playing Michael and Susan and dividing several smaller roles between them (including Jonathan’s loving if not very verbal dad and a brittle chain-smoking agent). The charismatic Wilson Cruz brings tremendous charm and underlying pathos to Michael, and Nicole Ruth Snelson is an intelligent and appealing Susan. Jonathan is played by two actors: Christian Campbell (from the film Trick) at prime-time performances and Trey Ellett at matinees. I had the opportunity to see them both, and Ellett is superior to Campbell in every way. Campbell’s Jonathan is sexy but surly; his anxiety reads as hostility, and while he strikes undeniable erotic sparks with Snelson as Susan, it’s hard to understand what she sees in him when they’re not in bed. Ellett, by contrast, is empathetic and instantly likable–and believable as a man described as a bit of a dork. For Jonathan’s pre-midlife crisis to be touching rather than annoying, we have to like him. Ellett, who looks a bit like the young Matthew Broderick, conveys a self-deprecating humor, romantic warmth, and emotional variety that Campbell lacks. He’s also a much better singer; Ellet’s voice is husky, emotive, and free of Campbell’s huffing and puffing, the result of poor breath support.

Anna Louizos’s set, effectively lit by Howell Binkley, employs little in the way of furniture–a chair here, a rolling stepladder there. A crack four-man band sits on a catwalk above the stage, silhouetted against a colorful backdrop of collaged New York images. The dominant visual motif is a clock, echoing the script’s central concern. For Jonathan, mounting anxiety takes the form of sound. The ticking he hears in Tick, Tick…Boom! represents time passing. And the boom is–success? failure? destiny? death? Or all of the above, rolled up into one mysterious, messy package. The boom is life.