The Big 3-Ohhh

Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s first play explains a lot about his later hit one.

By Trey Graham
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Tick, Tick…Boom!

Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Matt Gardiner

At MetroStage to Nov. 25

You’ve gotta have a soft spot for a show that does wry musical homage to Stephen Sondheim on the high end and The Jeffersons on the low. Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, did both—without undue strain, either—in Tick, Tick…Boom!, a 90-minute coming-of-age-in-the-arts-world comedy that’s getting a winning if not quite wonderful production at MetroStage.

The autobiographical Tick, Tick—whose title refers to the composer hero’s all-too-sharp awareness that he’s on the cusp of 30, though not on the cusp of success in the field he’s so passionate about—is a kind of rough-draft rock musical, and it might have stayed in Larson’s trunk if he’d survived. But he died, suddenly and famously, with Tick, Tick unfinished, just as his better-known show was on the verge of rocketing into theatrical history. (Rent has now played 11 years and more than 4,700 performances on Broadway.) Tidied up and readied for the stage by Larson’s mourning friends, Tick, Tick…Boom! treats many of the same themes, with characters and situations that seem like prototypes for some of those that turn up in Rent. It’s less a lost classic, in other words, than a fond tribute to a lost talent. But it’s got its charms.

Among them: the deliciously passive-aggressive “Therapy,” a catchy, constantly accelerating patter song of a lovers’ quarrel. It’s delivered at MetroStage with an appealing saltiness by Stephen Gregory Smith (as the Larson character, who’s trying to decide whether to stay with the show he’s workshopping or sell out and go to work in the corporate world with his best friend) and Felicia Curry (as his long-suffering girlfriend, a dancer who’s had enough of the Alphabet City life and thinks longingly of a life on Cape Cod). There’s that Sondheim salute, of course; sung by Smith as the composer scrapes to earn the rent with a diner job (just as Larson did), it’s a disenchanted ditty about insufferable brunchers, titled “Sunday” and built to sound a lot like the soaring chorale of the same name from the master’s own art-isn’t-easy show.

And there’s “Come to Your Senses,” an alienated-affections ballad for a character in the show the Larson character is workshopping. Insistent rhythms, ingratiating melody, sophisticated lyrics, even the odd surprise in the musical phrasing: It’s a damn fine musical-theater song, and tyro director Matt Gardiner stages it both intelligently and emotionally. The song sits perfectly on Curry’s voice, too—so it ends up being, as designed, a roaring showstopper.

Not everything’s that tight. Gardiner’s staging leaves the show’s first third feeling more like a string of uneasily joined scenelets than a clean arc of rising action. The two main supporting characters—that girlfriend and best friend—are pretty thinly drawn. (A subplot involving the latter comes out of nowhere and vanishes back in that direction pretty quickly once it’s set up a song for the hero.) Certain musical numbers (notably “Sugar,” a saccharine little plot-advancer about the composer’s Hostess Twinkie habit) feel like placeholders that might’ve been cleaned up or chucked entirely in the rewrite Larson never got to make.

Smith’s an engaging enough protagonist in this, one of his first leading roles, but curiously it’s his substantial musical-theater chops that once in a while betray him in this rock-tinged score: He’ll push and pinch his essentially sweet tenor into a reasonable approximation of a frontman’s yowl now and then, but on the whole his vocal production is still awfully correct—and he’s still suspiciously precise about his consonants. It’s akin to hearing an opera singer crooning Cole Porter at the Café Carlyle; enjoyable, sure, but not quite right. And while my seatmate and I came down differently on the question of whether Matt Pearson’s cool, contained physicality made sense for the Gucci-clad, BMW-driving, corporate-climber buddy—I’d argue that it does, at least on its own terms—we agreed that on the energy-level meter, he’s operating at least one notch down from the others.

Then, of course, there’s the story. Finalized in retrospect by Larson’s friends, it can’t escape feeling a little preordained: You know, even if the hero doesn’t, that he’ll stick with the musical-theater thing, that the friendly call from Sondheim will come, that success waits just over his horizon. It’s bittersweet to know it, to be sure, but it’s also undramatic.

Still, there are tantalizingly sharp suggestions of a budding social critic in Tick, Tick…Boom! Its hero’s vaguely political malaise, in a show set on the cusp of his 30th birthday on the eve of 1990, might have evolved into something sharper, darker, edgier had Larson had a chance to come back to the story—say, 11 years later, when another President Bush and a grim new set of circumstances had provided a different frame. If only to imagine what that musical might have looked and sounded like, it’s worth paying MetroStage a visit to hear this one.