Being a lover and admirer of musical theater, probably since I was 5 years old and saw Annie on Broadway
Jonathan Larson was the voice of new broadway as the nineties rolled in and I wasn’t ready yet. I was coming full bloom on my love affair with Kander and Ebb having lovingly outgrown my relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein thanking them with all my heart for a beautifully tilled soil of my Broadway flowerbed. They prepared me for Kander and Ebb, and unknowingly the greatest love of my life who was right around the corner, Stephen Sondheim. I was very aware of Jonathan Larson. How could you not be in the 90s? A new broadway songsmith dies tragically and suddenly as his magnum opus hits the stage. RENT.
A story of his friends and the realities of New York in the 90s. Love, art, gentrification, income inequality, AIDS, addiction, friendship, and as I realize typing this perhaps so much has not changed. Maybe we only adjust to COVID as we continue to make huge strides on AIDS and HIV research and cures in this 2021 landscape. A place looking back I never thought we’d see having lost so many beautiful talented souls to that virus. And as the ticking of the WHO counter tells us at the typing of this we are nearing 5,232,562 cumulative deaths globally and 778,336 deaths of that in the United States my home country that is so divided on topics of vaccination vs. unvaccinated, science vs. myth and misinformation, fears vs. logic and terrifyingly stand on the precipice of the overturn of Roe v. Wade. I recognize this piece of filmed art to be a reminder that things are still possible and things can change.
I’m going to be real. I like RENT. But I saw it for the first time in my 30s and I was too far from the beautiful bohemian attitude of these gorgeous young people searching for their place and space in a world that doesn’t take kindly sometimes to people who deviate from the standard path forward. I say this because I sat there in judgment watching that first opening song come to a close and thought to myself “Look I know you want to live this amazing life full of art and love but you still have to pay rent yo.” I wasn’t completely blind to the realities of life in this capitalist society I live in. I had functioned within in as a taxpayer now for 15 or so years…and I wasn’t young enough to consider a life of bohemian living inside an abandoned warehouse with a backup heater of a trashcan. The music…is beautiful. The idealism is…wonderful but as an aging person so unrealistic for so many.
Still, I appreciated the groundbreaking nature of his vision of the Broadway soundscape. We are nothing without the ability to evolve, but I wasn’t ready for him yet. I just wasn’t. Years later I watched the incredibly campy and wonderful “Reefer Madness (The Musical)” and in researching the performers stumbled upon Amy Spanger who I quickly learned was Susan in the Off-Broadway Premiere Cast 2001 so I determined that one day I would catch Tick, Tick…Boom! It’s funny how we invite a new destination into our cosmos, isn’t it?
Well 2020, Covid shows up. 2001 I moved to Tennessee making my yearly dedicated trips to see an annual musical with my friend Jennifer was no longer an easy feat to make happen. Would I ever get to see it now? In the meantime, with so many musicals popping up from movies I had become somewhat disillusioned with the musical theater because I want them to create something new…something of their own. Not rehash old stories that fit on a VHS Tape or DVD player. I loved Broadway because it created something fresh and produced new stories set to song and I really loved that Sondheim and Larson and others kept improving that singing narrative to be more real and beautifully put while not pretending that everything is coming up roses. Needless to say, Tick, Tick…Boom! Went on the back burner.
Insert Lin-Manuel Miranda and the ongoing evolution of the musical theater. Love him or hate him, I have come greatly to appreciate him. He’s simultaneously pushing things forward while highlighting and honoring the past and that is appreciated…greatly. Art isn’t perfect nor is it easy. It does sometimes outgrow the culture in which it was created, but as a believer in historical perspective, I see that as not being something to necessarily cancel but to learn from. To recognize that the art was good but was so limited and shortsighted. It was not indicative of our true landscape and the melting pot of America, and sadly pleasing everyone in the theatre will continue to become harder and harder with each box that needs to be checked to assure that everyone is represented. That’s not saying I don’t want us to strive for that, we just have to realize that different artists provide different world views and perspectives. An open dialogue and respect (both of which are dwindling faster than cones of cotton candy in a rainstorm in our current socio-political environment), could help us move forward together rather than continue to divide us.
But are we okay with failing upward?
I don’t know that we are. Some of us are because we’ve not had any other choice than to keep failing and moving upward and forward. Often with horrible bruises and scars to show for the journey and the cast of Tick, Tick…Boom! for Netflix simultaneously delighted me beyond words using such wonderful actors new and old that show that gorgeous expansiveness of Broadway. It was a musical that I got far easier than RENT. It’s a musical of pushing forward despite the things that hang in the balance or loom largely in front of you. It’s about the things you have to do, to get where you want to be and the detours that surface to throw you off your trajectory. The cameos are wonderful. Sondheim in it is gracious and generous and hopefully true for Jonathan Larson as I’ve not done all the fact-finding missions yet. Andrew Garfield is delightful as the hopeful composer and lyrist turning 30 blissfully unaware of his looming death at age 35 and still feeling that existential pressure to make something. Leave his mark. Create.
I feel that. Sitting here in my bedroom typing this as my ticking becomes louder and louder at age 47 and I am grateful for the truths inside this piece of art that we now get to enjoy because someone made it accessible for the greater audience watching the screen. A great reminder that possibilities still exist in spite of all the odds stacked against us. If you’re not a musical theater person it may not be your thing, but if you’re willing to give something a try…why not let it be Tick, Tick…Boom!