By David Rosenberg
Read the program. An audience’s enjoyment of “tick, tick…BOOM,” the tuneful, 90-minute but over-extended autobiographical musical at Westport Country Playhouse, requires knowing about the short life of Jonathan Larson. Although the composer/lyricist/librettist would gain fame, a Pulitzer Prize and a 12-year run with his “Rent,” he never knew it.
On dress rehearsal night, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. He was 35. So the irony of “tick,” a musical about a writer’s turning age 30 with questionable prospects of success, quite overshadows the material itself.
True, as the program points out, many successful works have come out of a writer’s struggles: Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” But those works have something going for them that Larson’s musical, at least in its present shape, lacks.
Where those works are filled with incidents that deepen the protagonist, “tick” spotlights the artistic process more than the artist. Here, Larson’s life gets in the way and is not put into a larger context, which is what “Rent” accomplished. Using Puccini’s “La Bohème” as touchstone, “Rent” illuminated life in New York’s SoHo district through a kaleidoscope of colorful characters.
Actually, “tick” pre-dates “Rent,” having begun as a one-man exploration, a sort of diary. It was produced after Larson’s death when playwright David Auburn and director Scott Schwartz transfigured it to include characters originally just talked about.
Without knowing the musical’s genesis, a viewer would be hard-pressed to know why attention should be paid, except as a curiosity and a strong indication of Larson’s unrealized talents. But those talents are considerable: his ballads are beautiful, his grasp of angst-ridden youngsters trying to survive, much less succeed in New York is heartfelt.
We first see the protagonist, Jon, seated at a synthesizer, beset by traffic noises and a ticking clock, as he composes “30/90,” the musical’s original title, referring to his age (30) and the year (1990). “I’m a composer,” he tells us, “a promising young composer” who needs “time to re-focus.”
Acting as sounding boards are Susan, an aspiring dancer who wants out of the city, and Michael, a gay, one-time actor who now works on Madison Avenue, drives a BMW – and is HIV positive. Puzzled, frustrated, Jon looks to the revered Stephen Sondheim for inspiration, sparking the evening’s most amusing interlude, an homage to Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Obsessed with his career, Jon has little time for anything else. When he does get out of his solipsistic funk, as in a scene where Michael tries to get him a copywriting job, the show connects with viewers. Even more pointed is Jon’s discovery of Michael’s illness, prompting the gorgeous “Why,” a hymn to time’s winged chariot that, in light of Larson’s early death, is eerily prescient:
”With only so much time to spend
Don't wanna waste the time I'm given.
I make a vow - right here and now -
I'm gonna spend my time this way
I'm gonna spend my time this way.”
Colin Hanson is an energetic Jon, Pearl Sun an intense Susan and Wilson
Cruz a big-hearted Michael. Yet, even under Scott Schwartz’s frisky direction, they can’t do too much with paper-thin characters. The fine three-piece band is a blessing since music is what makes the evening tick.
At one point, Jon says he wants to write “a show for our generation, the ‘Hair’ of the 90s.” And so he did. Its name is “Rent” and “Rentheads” are the target audience for “tick, tick…BOOM” as well.
This review first appeared in The Hour, 7.2.09