Wednesday, November 17, 2021

How a musical was born -- almost


         When I was a much younger man living in Manhattan, I met lots of people. Some of them were actors. I won’t name names, but one became a major star. Only one.
          The majority of young people who head to New York seeking a niche in the arts find impoverishment, heartbreak, and crushed dreams. New York teaches painful lessons: The world owes you nothing. All you'll ever achieve is a bit of status on the fringes of the endeavor you love. Maybe you won’t even get that far.
          The risk: You become too old to be considered promising. You have no fallback, and you’re unemployable. Such is the gamble.
          Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut deals with someone who took the risk. Tick, Tick ... Boom! explores the life of playwright/composer Jonathan Larson before he hit the big time with his award-winning musical Rent.  
          It’s not surprising that Miranda chose Larson’s play for his directorial debut. He knows this milieu. He was part of it. 
          And like Larson, Miranda, still best known for Hamilton, helped remake the musical form. Here, he revels in the energy of a diverse group of performers bursting with a singular ambition: to have their voices heard.
      Those familiar with Larson’s story also know that it ended with an unexpected and shattering exclamation point. Larson died in 1996 of an aortic aneurism on the day of Rent's first Off-Broadway preview. He was 35.
       So Tick, Tick ... Boom! is a sad movie? Not really.
       It's an upbeat look at a struggling composer who's trying to establish himself in musical theater. Tick, Tick … Boom! focuses on Larson's efforts to put on a workshop performance of Superbia, a futuristic musical based on George Orwell's 1984
     As Larson, Andrew Garfield puts the movie on his shoulders and carries it a long way; he's the focal point in an aspirational world that swirls with talent, hope and energy.
    Miranda organizes the musical around a performance of Tick, Tick ... Boom!, a show Larson performs on a bare stage with a piano and back-up band. Numbers from the stage play mix with depictions of Larson's bohemian life in New York City. 
   The mood ranges from excitement to the desperation Larson experiences as he tries to write the song that will complete Superbia. The story also deals with the AIDS onslaught that has begun to thin the ranks of the creative class, striking close to home for Larson.
    Miranda brings a few additional characters into focus.
    Robin de Jesus portrays Michael, a gay singer who traveled to New York with Larson but who tires of rejection and poverty. Michael opts for a more stable life in advertising. 
   Larson's girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) remains committed to him until she realizes that Larson uses intimacy to discover emotion for his songs. He’s too involved with his work to make a relationship succeed.
    Judith Light has a late-picture turn as the agent who gives Larson a tough lesson about the vagaries of theatrical endeavor.
     Larson supports himself by working as a waiter at SoHo's  Moondance Diner, a job that pays for the crummy apartment where he lives with an Everest of dishes piled in the sink.
   There's not much suspense about the outcome. Roughly half way through, musical master Steven Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) shows up to ratify Larson's talent. It's clear that the young man eventually will find a vehicle to propel his career. 
   Garfield, who does his own singing, pours on the energy -- sometimes to the point of annoyance and the movie's desire to celebrate the exuberant diversity that hit New York during the 1990s doesn't feel quite as fresh as it once might have.  
    Mostly, though, the movie remains engaging. Miranda works in a quick-cut, pop-and-flash style that reminded me a bit of director Jon M. Chu's colorful approach to the movie version of Miranda’s play,  In the Heights.
    Tick, Tick can be taken as an updated version of the “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on a Show” school of entertainment -- only smarter, more articulate and more driven.
     Perhaps fondness for its characters explains why at two hours in length Tick, Tick hangs on longer than it should.  It’s not only Larson who’s being celebrated and remembered; it's the dreams of youth.

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