'Tick, Tick' go the years

Jayne Blanchard
October 16, 2007


In the pop-rock musical "Tick, Tick...Boom!," a 29-year-old kvetches over the passage of time and things left unachieved while teetering on the cusp of 30.

Would we care if the young man in question were not Jonathan Larson?

This breezy, sometimes introspective look at choices and choosing whether or not to grow up winningly staged at MetroStage by director Matthew Gardiner is made more poignant by the fact that its composer died at 35 of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm that occurred the morning of the scheduled opening of his big-break musical, "Rent," in 1996.

Needless to say, the show did go on, and "Rent" became a cultural phenomenon, quickly transferring from the East Village's New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway, where it has been playing to predominantly youthful packed houses (both in Times Square and on tour) for more than a decade. Mr. Larson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously, and the musical also won numerous Tonys and other awards.

"Tick, Tick...Boom!" is based on Mr. Larsen's 1990 one-man autobiographical musical, which he performed in cafes and clubs in his starving-artist phase. In 2001, the show was reworked with the addition of a book by playwright David Auburn (of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Proof") that expands the cast to three characters the aspiring musical-theater composer named Jonathan (Stephen Gregory Smith, dynamically stepping into a starring role); Jonathan's dancer girlfriend, Susan (Felicia Curry, who brings a big Broadway voice and lithe strength to the modest musical); and best friend, Michael (promising newcomer Matt Pearson).

Opening up the show dilutes some of the composer's absorbed navel-gazing, as the other characters have their own set of challenges. Susan longs to get out of the city for a quiet life in New England, and Michael grapples with yuppie guilt versus enjoying his career success and indulging in some conspicuous consumption. His urge to grab all the gusto he can becomes more urgent when he admits to Jonathan his recent AIDS diagnosis.

"Tick, Tick" is largely still a pastiche of songs arranged around a loose plot concerning Jonathan's upcoming birthday and musical workshop. The songs run toward the soaring rock anthem (think the Who, Billy Joel, Elton John, Foo Fighters) particularly the initial number, "30/90," the punk-inflected "No More" and "Real Life." "Therapy" injects a witty country twang to a duet about lovers' miscommunication; "Sugar" is a blithe bubble-gum-pop tune that could have been sung by the Archies, while "Sunday" is a clever tribute to Mr. Larson's mentor, Stephen Sondheim. The standout song of the show is "Come to Your Senses," a rock ballad that slowly builds to a shattering climax and is delivered with gospelly bravado by Miss Curry.

Health crises, lifestyle decisions, the waning days of being a boy wonder none of these seems fodder for a musical. As with "Rent," Mr. Larson was going for something more embracing and relevant. With "Tick, Tick...Boom!" he wished to reinvent the musical for Gen-Xers, and as the character Jonathan says about his work in progress: "I want to write 'Hair' for my generation." With both "Rent" and the earlier "Tick," Mr. Larson triumphed, crafting a warp-speed fusion of rock music and powerful emotion that engages the audience's senses and modern sensibilities.