Netflix review: 'Tick, Tick... Boom' is a loving tribute to theater, Jonathan Larson

Fred Hawson

Posted at Nov 24 2021 06:20 AM

Andrew Garfield in 'Tick, Tick... Boom'
Andrew Garfield in 'Tick, Tick... Boom'

New York City, 1990. Jonathan Larson is turning 30 years old in a few days but he is still waiting tables at a diner. He had been writing his musical "Superbia" for eight years, and was about to present his songs in a workshop, but he still lacked a key song in the second act. His girlfriend Susan, a frustrated dancer, had serious intentions of accepting a teaching job in the Berkshires. His best friend since childhood Michael had given up his acting dreams and had become a successful advertising executive. 

The original musical "Tick, Tick... Boom" was written by the creator of "Rent" Jonathan Larson. It was semi-autobiographical in the sense that Larson himself experienced the frustration that came with trying to make it on Broadway. It originated as a one-man show, a "rock monologue" performed by Larson himself, and evolved from there. It was first staged June 2001 off Broadway with no less than Raul Esparza in the lead role. It had been re-staged and toured many times over since then. 

In the play version I saw back in 2016, there were only three actors on the stage. There was one lead actor playing Jon. Two other actors, one male and one female, played his friends Michael and Susan, who would also take all the other more minor supporting characters. Of course, in this film version, there was no need for the actors to take multiple roles. Each of the minor characters had a different actor to portray them. There were even a few other new characters who were written into the story. 

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Andrew Garfield was an amazing ball of kinetic energy as Jon. I recalled how exhausting this role was for the actor onstage, and Garfield definitely projected that anxious stress and frenetic intensity of his character burning right through the screen. His singing voice soared with a vital jumble of passion and emotions, in songs like "30/90," "Swimming" and "Louder Than Words." He had always been an excellent actor, but this demanding role expanded his range even more. He deserves award recognition for this.

Alexandra Shipp played Susan, whose conflict with Jon was tough to call. Robin de Jesus played Michael, who made pragmatic decisions in place of his dreams. Vanessa Hudgens played Jon's singer Karessa, who sang two of the show's best songs "Therapy" (with Garfield) and "Come to Your Senses" (with Shipp). Judith Light played Jon's agent Rosa Stevens, while Bradley Whitford played theater legend Stephen Sondheim. MJ Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross played Jon's co-workers at the diner, Carolyn and Freddy, new characters for the film.

Director Lin-Manuel Miranda used his clout to invite a number of theater luminaries to make cameo appearances in the song "Sunday," from his "Hamilton" ladies, the "Rent" bohemians to Broadway grand dames Chita Rivera and Bernadette Peters, and many more. 

This is theater wunderkind Miranda's debut as a feature film director, and it was an auspicious one. He was able to capture all the fantasies and turmoil going on in Jon's mind and effectively interpret them for us in cinematic images.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”