If you have seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wedding video, where he choreographed a group song and dance for his bride — and if you haven’t, you must — you will recognize a rough-edged joy of seeing a musical unfold. It is the effort that I found so charming — imagining the calls, the scheduling, the rehearsals, and the hush-hush-hush secrecy of it all to surprise his wife. It is this effort that is always missing when watching musicals. The melodies and foot scrapes emerge from the actors like speech, an effortless production of art that doesn’t ask you to peep behind the screen and imagine the labour, and instead just expects your head to rest against its glittering, rousing extravaganza. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick … Boom!, where he unveils the life of the late musical theater playwright Jonathan Larson in the bohemian and AIDS-struck New York of the 1990s, gives you both — artistry that is laboured, and artistry that is effortless.
Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), “the last of [his] species”, likes to see if he can write songs about anything. Sugar. Heartbreak. Swimming. When he is pressed up against his girlfriend in a moment of parting, he is tapping his fingers on her back as if she were a piano and she asks him, aghast, if he is already thinking of transcribing this moment to art. How greedy and unsteady artistic genius can be, unable to inhabit a moment without wondering about its eventual artistic quality. Lin-Manuel Miranda, in an interview, warned those in love with artists, for their “mike is always hot”.
Andrew Garfield’s performance is unpolished, unfinished, and to be sure, this is a good thing. To have in a dialogue exchange, not a sense of completion, but a lingering incomplete thought not yet articulated.
The effortless production of music by Larson, anytime, anywhere, cements this genius. The labour he sometimes experiences during a creative block cements the heartbreak and doubt that plagues this genius. Together, it provides a portrait of art as art is — euphoria inflected with greed and despair.
Jonathan Larson spent his twenties writing Superbia, a dystopian rock musical that people loved but didn’t get. Where are the aliens, they wondered, if this was a dystopian show set in the future? Later, Larson wrote, composed, and performed Tick, Tick… Boom!, a one man show about an artist in the weeks leading up to him ageing thirty — an autobiographical, existential scream into the audience. It was this play that Lin-Manuel adapts, but frames it with what happened after the play, in Larson’s life. In 1996, before the first scheduled off Broadway performance of Rent, Larson’s breakthrough musical which would go on to win a Tony and a Pulitzer, an aortic aneurysm burst through his life and he died. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom! we are told of this death as the movie begins, allowing us to feel the titular tension — when will the ticks boom into silence?
The tenor of the show isn’t complicated, sometimes it is even a bit too sincere, the kind of sincerity that thinks asking questions is an act of profound consequence. (“Why do we like to play with fire?”, “Why do we wait for a catastrophe for a revolution?”) When Larson is asked, “Are you letting yourself be led by fear or love?”, he is moved by this choice, and its implications, even if it is so simplistically laid out. We are moved, too, for the concoction of rousing music, earnest performances, and a sweeping, inviting camera throttles any space for skepticism. It is claustrophobically love-laced, and we are asking to be gagged.
Director Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) — who played Larson in a stage version of this musical in 2014 — takes full advantage of the medium. The song ‘Swimming’, composed in a stream of consciousness when Larson repped laps across the pool, was axed from the stage version of Tick,Tick…Boom! because it wouldn’t translate well. Miranda, looking at the song, understood that “this only makes sense if you’re swimming at that speed”, and folded it into the film, staging it in the chlorine blue pool, flinging the camera across as if from a catapult, making the lines that run along the floor of the pool look like a five-line staff for musical notes to be engraved on. He even got the lyricist Stephen Sondheim — who played a mentor to Larson in real life, and who is played by Bradley Whitford in the film — to record a voice message that plays at the end of the film. (The recording was a rewrite. Lin-Manuel had shown Sondhein a cut of the film, and Sondheim thought the last voice note his character leaves “sounds a little cliché”. Sondheim recorded his own voice, and it was a gamble, but given we don’t hear much of Whitford’s voice in the film, it worked.)
Andrew Garfield’s performance is unpolished, unfinished, and to be sure, this is a good thing. To have in a dialogue exchange, not a sense of completion, but a lingering incomplete thought not yet articulated. The camera, too, stays on his face for longer than it would if the film wanted to be snappier and clearer. It gathers his eyes as they move sharply to his left, pouring over his friend driving the car. What is that look? Is it doubt? Is it caution? Is it sarcasm? Is it friendly disgust? This incomplete sense of feeling alongside the trite, sincere kindness of the musical numbers injects doubt into fantasy, and ambivalent realism into the extravagant fullness of musicals.
Larson is always frazzled, his hair always messy (his father — not a fan of that mop; his mother — not a fan of his father’s opinions), and his eyes are always glazed, like they are ready to pour out — in sadness or euphoria. You don’t know which, but maybe the point of the whole production is not to know but to feel. Logic is, after all, an overcorrection, an imposition, an aftermath. For what can stand in place of a beating heart?