“This is the life”: “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is a brilliant love letter to the theatre

tick, tick... BOOM! trailer via Netflix

Emily Wyrwa, Editor in Chief

Warning: spoilers for Netflix’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!” ahead 


I watched “Tick, Tick… Boom!” on a Sunday night.


It felt like the only appropriate thing to do. I – along with the rest of the theatre community – was mourning the passing of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim the prior Friday. I tuned into Playbill’s Instagram Live to watch Broadway performers and New Yorkers sing from his musical “Sunday in the Park with George” in his memory. 


But “Tick, Tick… Boom” features a different sort of Sunday, one heavily influenced by Sondheim’s prowess, but with its own unique flair: one written by Jonathan Larson


“Tick, Tick… Boom” is the second full-length musical Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) had written, but its autobiographical nature follows his process in workshopping his first show “Superbia,” a Sci-Fi fantasy musical meant to hold a mirror to society’s fall by way of technology. Set in 1990s New York City, it highlights the bohemian struggle: the way Larson feels his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) slipping away to take a job as a dance teacher outside of New York City; the way his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) resolves to stop acting and take a corporate marketing job to afford a less-awful apartment; the way he, nevertheless, must continue to write. 


The film is, simply put, a brutal look at the life of an artist. It doesn’t shy from addressing the realities of it – the AIDs epidemic, the power outages that result from missing bills, the focus groups Larson attends at George’s marketing firm just to get one more band member for his workshop – head-on. The pulse of the film is underscored by the constant “tick… tick…” of the clock as Larson awaits his 30th birthday, when he will become “a waiter with a hobby,” rather than “a writer who waits tables.” 


And yet, I can’t help but feel like it’s a love letter to the arts.


Yes, the film’s cameos are incredible; yes director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (my personal hero, I’ll admit) idolization of Larson cannot help but shine; yes Garfield brings Larson to life with the sort of heart one would imagine he had, but the film’s brilliance lies in its darkness. Beyond the metaphorical darkness Larson gives us with his story, Miranda’s choice to shoot much of the film in physical darkness lights the story in melody. He allows audiences a candid look at the feelings Larson had while panic-playing the piano in Central Park in the dead of night, and the friendships that waver because of his nearly-crippling dedication to his “Superbia” workshop. 


It tells Larson’s story in the most raw way possible, which I’d argue is the only way he’d want it told. 


By honoring Larson, the film, in turn, honors Sondheim: a mentor to all theatre artists in one way or another. Although Bradley Whitford’s portrayal of Sondheim beautifully captures the legend’s essence, nothing is quite so magical as when we hear Sondheim’s voicemail to Larson near the film’s conclusion. 


“It’s first-rate work and has a future, and so do you,” Sondheim said regarding “Superbia.” 


After watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of Sondheim’s famous quote, “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos,” so much so, in fact, that it now graces my Instagram bio. Watching Miranda’s love letter to Larson, two theatrical geniuses, felt like the only appropriate way to honor Sondheim and the ways he’s made us all “aware of being alive.”


So, Sunday came to a close, as did a chapter on the theatrical universe, and as the clock continues to tick… tick… it’s safe to say that “Tick, Tick… Boom!” will stand the test of time; it is a beacon of the theatrical experience encapsulated in an accessible, Netflix-able format.