tick, tick… BOOM! and Running Out of Time

Jonathan Larson. His story carries an unfortunate familiarity; mirrored in every young writer, actor, and singer. He’s the starving artist. He’s committed to his craft, determined to share his talents with the world. His story is of the desperation of creating art under the vice of capitalism. Of the helplessness that comes with feeling like you’re running out of time. But in Larson’s story, is that desolate feeling actually a luxury?

tick, tick… BOOM! is a musical based on an original autobiographical one-man show written by Jonathan Larson. It begins a week before Larson’s 30th birthday — a point in his life at which he thinks that he should have more than a job at the Moondance Diner and an unproduced sci-fi musical script. His chance for a big break — a workshop for his sci-fi musical, Superbia — is in less than a week, and the script is unfinished. His girlfriend is considering moving for a job in the Berkshires; she’s given him an ultimatum, and he has 3 days to decide. He’s struggling financially, he can’t pay his bills on time, his electricity is cut. He’s overwhelmed. He’s acutely aware of what it is to run out of time.

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in “tick, tick… BOOM!” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Jonathan Larson tries to do the impossible, to escape the inescapable passage of time. He’s a young man, only 29 years old, but compares himself to musical idols who had accomplished more by his age: “Older than Stephen Sondheim when he had his first Broadway show… older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon.” Larson’s ambition—and corresponding desperation — are palpable from the opening scene, and remain so through the film. For him, it seems that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of his career; a twisted form of capitalist realism.

In the middle of the third act of the film, Jon Larson is given advice from his agent, following the rejection of his dystopian sci-fi musical Superbia for Broadway and Off-Broadway consideration. “On the next one… maybe try writing about what you know.” He complies. Jonathan Larson dedicated the next five years of his life to writing a musical that would revolutionize the musical theatre industry: Rent. Rent chronicles the lives of impoverished young artists in Lower Manhattan’s East Village, under the shadow of AIDS. Rent had a twelve-year run on Broadway and toured around the world, with Larson winning three Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. Posthumously.

Jonathan Larson, pictured shortly before the opening of Rent. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jonathan Larson never got to witness his own success. He passed away the morning of Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview performance from an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome. New York State medical investigators concluded that if the aortic dissection had been properly diagnosed and treated, Larson may have lived. He was just 35 years old. So he did. Run out of time, that is. But not before creating one of the most impactful musicals of the last half-century. He found success, albeit after his death, but so did many of the greats: Keats, Van Gogh, Dickinson, Plath, Monet, and Kafka, to name a few. The unfortunate truth? Art thrives in memoriam.

Both the film and Larson’s stage play are set in 1990, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and both feature Michael, a character based on Jon Larson’s friend Matt O’Grady, an HIV-positive gay man. The film, however, incorporates more biographical detail, such as a voiceover revealing Larson’s early death, and places further emphasis on Larson’s friendships with HIV-positive gay men, including a coworker, Freddy, in the hospital with HIV. “I think of our friends. So many. I think of their funerals. I think of their parents, not even fifty, saying the Kaddish over their children.”

Jon Larson and Matt O’Grady, who serves as inspiration for the character of Michael in the film and play.

These additions were made by director Lin-Manuel Miranda in an attempt to contextualize Larson’s story and to create dramatic irony regarding Larson’s feeling that he was running out of time. However, in doing so, he manipulated the bleak backdrop of the AIDs epidemic to underscore Larson’s confrontation of mortality, more so than the original play did. The alterations only serve to juxtapose Larson’s death against that of the millions of gay people facing their own. The choice also ignored the systemic failures that caused this scarcity of time: the Reagan administration’s ignorance of AIDs and lack of support for LGBTQ+ rights, which exacerbated the epidemic, as well as the crushing pressure of hyper-capitalism that forced Larson into such a dually ambitious and desperate mindset at such a young age.

Desperately seeking to be seen and heard before time runs out is universal. John Keats said it best: When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain. However, the issue comes with depicting that desperation in a heterosexual white man against a backdrop of violence against the marginalized. When the credits rolled, I was left with unanswered questions and a bitter taste in my mouth. What happened to Larson’s friends with AIDs, on whom so much emphasis was placed, yet so little resolution? What about Michael, who was judged for trying to live his life better while he could? What about Freddy, who was last seen in the hospital? The ultimate question is this: is it a luxury to feel like you’re running out of time? When the alternative is a literal, rather than an imagined, ticking clock, then the answer must be yes.

The link to the tick, tick… BOOM! (2021) film screenplay can be found here. The link to Jon Larson’s original 1990 stage play can be found here.



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