tick, tick...BOOM!

“Compromise or persevere?” This is the crossroads at which Jon, one week from turning 30, finds himself in Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical memoir/show, tick, tick…BOOM!, which just completed a celebrated one-weekend run at the Encores! Off-Center series. 

As program notes state, tick, tick…BOOM! was “first performed as a solo rock monologue by Jonathan Larson in 1990. After Laron’s untimely death in 1996 [on the eve of Rent’s off-Broadway opening], it was revamped by playwright David Auburn as a three-actor piece.” It played off-Broadway (with Raul Esparza (Company, Leap of Faith) as Jon) in June 2001, and a cast recording was released in September of that year. The show became a cult favorite and has had continued life over the last 13 years, but this Encores! production marks the first major production in New York since 2001.

I’ve been listening to this for 13 years. Jonathan Larson’s truth has always resonated. In fact, last year, on my 30th birthday, I listened to the opening number, “30/90,” on repeat for about three hours. But just as I had felt after finally seeing The Last Five Years performed, after seeing this beautiful production, which starred Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Merrily We Roll Along), Karen Olivo (In the Heights, Murder Ballad) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Leap of Faith, Venice), I realized there’s nothing like experiencing the full show live and in person. (Not that I really needed to be reminded of that…) And I also realized there were details in the book that didn’t make it into the cast recording, and so I felt as if I finally fully discovered the show. 

tick, tick…BOOM! lets us into Jon’s world for the week leading up to his 30th birthday. He’s turning 30 and he’s not where he thought he’d be at that age; he’s not where is father was when dad was Jon’s age; and his friends, roommate Michael (Odom) and girlfriend Susan (Olivo) are on the precipice with him. Jon must decide if it’s time to compromise, get a corporate job and maybe leave New York City, or if he should persevere, continuing pursuit of his dreams, which is to write music, to sit down at the piano and “write a song that people will listen to and remember,” and to “do the same thing every morning for the rest of [his] life.”

This is something to which we can all relate, and it provoked in me, always the inquisitor, a series of questions: What happens to dreams? What do we sacrifice for our dreams, or, alternatively, what dreams do we sacrifice for our lives? Are we even living life if we’re not living or trying to live our dreams? Does selling out matter—is it a thing or is it just a bitchy misnomer for inauthenticity? And why does getting older have to mean anything other than getting older?

With tick, tick…BOOM! (and, to a larger and grander extent, Rent), Jonathan Larson did what he set out to do, which was write something that mattered; that shook up the norm; that spoke to his generation. (His work is so good and authentic that is speaks to multiple generations.)

I’m grateful to have seen this production, directed by Oliver Butler, to have seen tick, tick…BOOM! brought to life. Odom has a beautiful voice that was most gloriously on display in the contemplative “Real Life.” Olivo, whose voice I’ve never loved, packed a powerful punch in the show-stopping “Come to Your Senses,” which is actually a song from the musical Larson was writing and workshopping before writing tick, tick…BOOM! And Miranda is the perfect choice to represent the artist who is as much a fan of the art form as he is a practitioner. That’s who Miranda is, and that’s who Larson was. Larson’s legacy, which was greatly influence by Stephen Sondheim, lives on in Miranda, Joe Iconis, Shaina Taub and other writers whose actions speak louder than the words they write, who persevere and sit down at the piano and write songs every morning. 

Bonus: Head to The New York Times to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda sing part of "30/90."