‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ is a love letter to musical theater

Andrew Garfield wows in Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut



By Shannon Moore

Even if you have never heard of Jonathan Larson, you have likely heard his work. As the writer and creator of the award-winning musical “Rent,Larson changed the musical theater landscape forever. Sadly, he never saw the success of his revolutionary work. Larson died from an aneurysm the day of “Rent’s” first performance. But before there was “Rent” there was “Tick, Tick… Boom!” — a semi-autobiographical musical about Larson’s life and struggle in the theater industry. The film adaptation of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” serves as an homage to musical theater and Larson himself. Adapted into a movie and released on Netflix this past November, it features Andrew Garfield in the starring role as Jonathan Larson. The film was also Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut. Miranda, writer of “Hamilton” and “In The Heights,” has cited his deep love for Larson’s story as major inspiration for the film’s direction. The end result is an incredible film adaptation that both casual fans and die-hard theater lovers will love.

The film itself is both a performance of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” inspired by the musical’s first debut performed by Larson himself as a one man show, and an autobiographical biopic about Larson. The pace of the narrative is a little confusing at first, but once you understand the alternating pattern, you realize how refreshing the structure is. Often, musical to film adaptations struggle with the whimsical performance aspect of theater, and fail to balance it with serious themes and narratives. But with Miranda’s guidance, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” finds the perfect balance between both.

The movie opens  with the number “30/90,” a song about aging performed by Andrew Garfield. Lyrics like “they’re singing happy birthday [and] you just want to lay down and cry,” set the tone for the musical, examining the pressures of feeling the need to leave a legacy and the struggle to make it in the showbiz industry. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” does a great job of showcasing just how difficult it is to have a career in entertainment. Garfield relays Larson’s love of theater perfectly, along with how this intense love eventually drove Larson to the brink of collapse. Another number, “Boho Days” is an upbeat song in contrast to “30/90,” performed at a spontaneous moment during a party. The lyrics are anything but upbeat, with Garfield singing “time is flying, and everything is dying.” “Boho Days” also recounts what it’s like to live in New York with barely any money and shows how hard Larson is struggling.

Every song on the soundtrack is incredible, with songs moving listeners to dance, and others moving listeners to tears. The real stand out of the film, however, is Andrew Garfield. Impressively, Garfield has only had some theater experience, but only with plays, never a musical. In fact, before casting him, Miranda doubted if Garfield could sing. Garfield can sing and impresses beyond measure.

Though I have always found Garfield to be a talented actor, I was caught completely off guard because he was able to drive me to tears multiple times in this film. My personal favorite song by Garfield is a number entitled “Why.” With soft vocals over piano amidst heartbreaking flashbacks, “Why” showcases just how incredible he is in this role. Garfield carries this film and he’s the anchor that keeps everything in place. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and I would be even less surprised if he wins.

Aside from Garfield’s incredible performance, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” honors the art of theater and its pioneers. The film also honors one of Jonathan Larson’s real-life mentors, Stephen Sondheim, who passed away last week. Sondheim plays a small yet important role in the film and is portrayed by renowned actor Bradley Whitford. One of the best musical numbers in the film, “Sunday,” was written by Larson in the style of a famous Stephen Sondheim song by the same name. In the film, numerous big names from the theater world are featured as extras, including Miranda himself. Joel Grey, Andre De Shields, Chita Rivera and many others. Even though “Tick, Tick… Boom!” premiered before Sondheim’s passing, the film honors his legacy. In the film, it almost feels like all these big Broadway names are thanking Sondheim for everything he’s done.

“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is a refreshing new take on the musical to film adaptation genre. With Miranda’s direction, Garfield’s stand out performance, and Larson’s beautiful life story and music, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is one of the best movie adaptations of any musical I have ever seen. Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals yourself, the narrative’s split structure allows anyone access to the theater world. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is streaming on Netflix, and I strongly suggest you watch it.

Shannon Moore can be reached at [email protected].