I have little doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda relates mightily to the agonizing tale of creation related in Tick, Tick… Boom! Sure, Miranda is now an entertainment world titan with a trio of Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, and wider name recognition than anyone who forged their celebrity by composing for musicals aside from Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, but it was a arduous journey. In the Heights, his first production, took nearly a decade to get from first draft to Broadway, and the shards of Hamilton first saw daylight at a 2009 White House performance, six years before it was filled out enough to mount an off-Broadway run. Even as he’s been richly rewarded, Miranda is also intimately aware of the feeling of sitting at the keyboard, struggling to put words and music together in the service of story and emotion. He must still feel the lingering wounded throb of doubt and disappointment that is the unwanted accompaniment to the making of art, even when there is eventual triumph.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s stage work of the same name (which he also performed under the titles 30/90 and Boho Days as it took shape). Following a lengthy, fruitless attempt at crafting and securing financial backing for a science fiction–inflected musical titled Superbia, Larson made Tick, Tick… Boom! as a sort of memoir of his own challenges in breaking through in a field so highly competitive that succumbing to demoralization is the most logical response. For his feature directorial debut, Miranda takes the material and expands it into a proper tribute to Larson. It’s part biopic and part memorial. It’s an exasperated celebration of the constant heartbreak of mounting a show and a loving evocation of a certain era in New York City, before the last vestiges of nineteen-seventies hardscrabble squalor were pressure washed away. It snaps and zings and soars, doing so with such effusive spirit that every indulgence — and there are quite a few, from overly fussy visuals and editing to brashly unashamed Broadway-baby fan service — is not only forgivable but fully welcome.
In shepherding this cool, crafty rock musical to the screen, Miranda couldn’t have a better partner than Andrew Garfield. As Jonathan Larson, Garfield throws himself whole-heartedly into the proceedings. There are other strong performances among the cast, especially Judith Light as Jonathan’s agent and Vanessa Hudgens, the ace in the hole of many a modern musical, as a cast member in a staging of Superbia. They shine, but Garfield is a klieg light, matching and sometimes surpassing the dynamics of Miranda’s impressive editing. He beams and roils and aches and throws off charisma like sweat flicking off the eagerest chorus line member, the one who’s certain that any misstep will result in their ouster.
Larson’s premature demise on the cusp of the premiere of the masterful, game-changing Rent begs to be dramatized in maudlin fashion. In Miranda’s rendering, the sad turn is more bittersweet, an incredible loss and yet a fulfilled dream, a mission completed, a legacy cemented. In Tick, Tick… Boom!, Miranda makes the argument that Larson was a star. Garfield, through dazzling will, does the graceful justice of making that argument almost impossible to refute.