A new incarnation of Jonathan Larson’s “autobiographical rock monologue” tick…tick…BOOM! is now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse, once again helmed by its original off-Broadway director, Scott Schwartz. This musical is a poignant and hauntingly prophetic tale of the crisis of commitment for a struggling composer when he reaches a self-imposed deadline for achieving success by his 30th birthday. Through the words and the music, we hear Larson’s voice and get a glimpse into the inner life of an artist on the cusp of greatness, yet fearing that he will never achieve his life goals.
There is no doubt that Jonathan Larson was a unique talent who became the voice of a generation on Broadway with the production of his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Rent. What is not well known is that before the mega-success of Rent, Jonathan was working as a waiter in a New York diner by day, in order to spend the rest of his time composing what he hoped would be the ultimate Broadway experience for the MTV generation.
Jonathan had a single driving ambition to meld the worlds of rock and musical theater to reflect the tastes and times of the world he lived in. While he had some early achievements that were critically acclaimed but never fully produced, true success in musical theater eluded him until the New York Theatre Workshop brought his modern adaptation of La Bohème to life in 1996. Tragically, the night before his dreams were about to be realized with the opening of Rent, Larson died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart aneurysm at the age of 35, cutting short a youthful and promising career.
It was during the composer’s salad days that he wrote and performed tick…tick…BOOM! It was written as a response to and release of the frustrations that Larson felt after the workshop staging of his play, SUPERBIA, which, though critically well received, was too unwieldy an operation for a full theater production. tick…tick…BOOM! was transformed after Larson’s death into a three-actor version which premiered off-Broadway in June of 2001, garnering seven Drama Desk Award nominations, and winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.
Musically, tick…tick…BOOM! does not match the power of the score of Rent, yet the songs still resonate with real emotions and the uncompromising truth of the terror one faces when having to make life choices. They say that maturity lies in the ability to make decisions and live with the consequences. In tick…tick…BOOM!, we meet the main character, Jon, just before his 30th birthday. Jon hears the ticking, like a countdown before a catastrophic explosion, as he struggles to decide whether to stay a composer/waiter, sell out to the corporate world like his roommate, Michael, or settle down in domestic bliss with his girlfriend, Susan, in Cape Cod – away from Broadway and his dream of writing “Hair for the 90’s.”
All the while Jon rails against having to make any choice at all, preferring instead to invoke the spirits of Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz in a bid to stay forever in his pre-30 state of youthfulness.
Despite the deep themes and undercurrents of universal truths about growing up in a world full of choices, tick…tick…BOOM! is still filled with laughs and humorous moments. This is musical comedy, after all. We can laugh at some of the characters that fill Jon’s life: his caricature of an agent with whom he has such little contact that he mistakes her for an elderly woman attending one of his workshops; his obsession and reverence for Stephen Sondheim, who is not only an idol but such an ideal that Jon cannot even say his complete name out loud.
The hidden and not-so-hidden tributes to Sondheim are especially amusing to musical theater insiders and to those familiar with Larson’s admiration of the Broadway icon. tick…tick…BOOM! revolves around the birthday of the main character, similar to Sondheim’s Company. Larson has also included a musical homage to Sunday in the Park With George with the song “Sunday,” where Jon sings about, belittles, and arranges the diner patrons in an artistic rendering reminiscent of the staging of the song of the same name from the Sondheim classic. At the end of the show, the character, Jon, receives a congratulatory voice mail message from the real Stephen Sondheim. Of course, Larson had Sondheim’s permission to include the bit, a testament to the mentor relationship that the two shared.
Other highlights in tick…tick…BOOM! are the song “Therapy,” in which Jon and Susan argue about the state of their relationship, with clever lyrics designed to say so much without really coming right out and saying anything, and “Come to Your Senses,” which is a showstopper in Jon’s workshop musical, SUPERBIA.
Of course, it’s the actors who bring Larson’s songs to life in this production. The cast is headed by Colin Hanlon as Jon, who aptly portrays Larson’s enthusiasm, his exuberance for music, and his frustrations with the uncertainty of success in such a way that the audience is instantly drawn in and rooting for the realization of his dreams.
Wilson Cruz plays Michael, Jon’s best friend and advocate, who at first tries to persuade Jon to join the corporate world in order to live the good life, but through some tragic circumstances of his own ends up arguing for Jon to continue as a composer. Pearl Sun plays Susan, Jon’s girlfriend, who is tired of New York and wants to settle down near a beach. Although their love was apparent, I never believed that Susan had a chance of convincing Jon to make the change. Cruz and Sun also play all of the other minor characters, with Sun providing a knockout performance of “Come To Your Senses.”
Luckily for the world, Larson chose not to settle for a more certain life. With tick…tick…BOOM!, the composer seems to have finally found his true voice in song, composing from the heart and creating a story based on his own experience which in turn continues to resonate with the experiences and life choices of audience members everywhere. We can feel the author’s presence in tick…tick…BOOM!, share his pain, and begin to see the stirrings of the genius that will lead to the creation of Rent.
With tick…tick…BOOM! and Rent, Larson challenges us to follow our dreams and live each day to the fullest. It is tragically ironic that Larson’s own countdown ended just as his star was about to rise, but I feel sure that somewhere, Jonathan Larson knows that he has indeed changed the face of American theater and is the star that he always knew he would be.
Westport Country Playhouse is a not-for-profit theater and cultural landmark for Connecticut. Under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos and management direction of Michael Ross, the Playhouse creates quality productions of new and classic plays that enlighten, enrich, and engage a diverse community of theater lovers, artists and students. tick…tick…BOOM! will run at the theater through July 18th. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit their website.