They say you will rarely catch a real New Yorker at Times Square. It’s all just tourists, crowding at the M&Ms store picking up chocolates, and taking selfies in front of giant LED screens. Many of these visitors have only seen Times Square on their televisions before.
Every year, as the ball drops on New Year’s eve, the countdown to ring in the new year is broadcast around the world. A giant screen displays a counter, and revellers stand in front of it chanting in unison: 10, 9, 8, 7… As the clock strikes 11.59pm, a clock counts the seconds: tick, tick, tick…
Time Square is also home to the Broadway Theatre District. If you visit the area, one of the top tourist attractions in the world, you’ll see many aspiring actors singing and performing out on the streets for tips. These performers, many of whom are incredibly talented, are waiting for the day that they’ll get their big break. Tick, tick, tick…
And, of course, at any Broadway show you’ll also see ‘theatre nerds’, some of their wide-open eyes barely hiding their dreams of one day being a part of this industry.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the smash hit broadway musical Hamilton, and the director of the musical film Tick, Tick… Boom! is familiar with the dream. In his film adaptation of the semi-autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, a Broadway giant in his own right, he tells the story of Jon (played by Andrew Garfield in the film) trying to make it on Broadway in the late 1980s/ early 1990s.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical Tick, Tick…Boom! explores universal themes of self-doubt, living in a big city and the race against time, and has a powerhouse performance from Andrew Garfield
Larson was the writer and composer of Rent, a critically acclaimed musical that ran on Broadway for 12 years. He also received many accolades, including three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But all these prizes were awarded after Larson’s death, at the young age of 35. He spent most of his life struggling and right at the cusp of truly making it big.
Miranda’s film focuses on the days when Jon is workshopping a play called Superbia, that never made it to Broadway. Jon is struggling to make ends meet, while holding on to his loved ones and fighting the feeling that he is running out of time.
Garfield, more widely-known for his roles in big flicks such as Spider-man than his theatre work and Tony Award-winning performance in the play Angels in America, gives one of his most memorable performances as Jon. The actor, who also took singing lessons for the film, makes such a convincing Jonathon ‘Jon’ Larson that one is left awe-struck when archival footage of the real-life Larson appears on the screen.
Tick, Tick… Boom! explores themes that are universal. Most can relate to the feeling of being in an apparent race against time. Many also know just how difficult surviving in a big city can be. “Everyone is unhappy in New York,” Jon says at one point. But everyone’s unhappy is different. Many of Jon’s struggles are very specific to being a broke, idealistic artist. It is these individuals the film will resonate most with.
Ultimately, the film is Miranda’s love letter to Broadway and, of course, Larson. This adaptation is made, first and foremost, for lovers of Broadway. This is clear in storytelling elements that will only be recognisable to those with at least some familiarity with Broadway and its history. For example, the film takes subtle digs at Cats, a divisive musical that has been panned for having no plot. (Cats’ 2019 screen adaptation was also universally panned by critics).
In another song ‘Sunday’, where we see Jon trying to make it through the Sunday brunch rush at the diner where he works, many popular Broadway actors, including ones who have been part of Rent on stage, appear as patrons at the diner. These are big stars, but not necessarily ones that everyone watching the film would recognise. And the film also makes multiple references to Rent that, again, not everyone will catch.
But anyone watching will be engrossed in the music and recognise the care with which the film has been crafted.
Time is a theme that Miranda, Larson and many before them have explored. But Miranda finds a way to make his exploration feel fresh. We hear the clock ticking from time to time, and it often mixes with other mechanical sounds of the subway train moving or Jon’s heartbeat racing. But while the tick, tick, tick continues, we never hear a boom.
In one scene, Miranda uses an element we have seen many times before to build tension and show time running out, an electric kettle placed on a stove. Jon places a kettle of water on the stove as he receives a call about a deadline. But we never hear the whistle of the kettle. Instead, Jon’s electricity is cut off because he has not paid his electric bill. His electric stove stops working, and the water never comes to a full boil.
That is how Miranda treats the narrative too. He builds the tension, but lets it simmer. There is no dramatic death scene or big climax. Instead, as the credits start to roll, the subtle voice of the clock follows the viewer: tick, tick, tick…
Tick, Tick…Boom! can be streamed on Netflix and is rated PG-13
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 12th, 2021