Jonathan Larson created the musical “tick, tick…BOOM!” five years before his groundbreaking musical “Rent” premiered — and five years before he unexpectedly died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35.
Larson, who was Jewish, died the day before “Rent” opened off-Broadway in 1996 but was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards, including for Best Musical.
The semi-autobiographical “tick, tick…BOOM!,” which opened at the newly renovated Greer Cabaret Theater downtown last month and runs through Oct. 22, leaves its audience wondering what great art the world missed because Larson’s life was cut so short.
The three-person show, set in 1990, centers on Jonathan, an aspiring playwright and composer living on the edge of SoHo in New York, approaching his 30th birthday. His agent won’t return his calls, his girlfriend, Susan, wants to move to New England for a quieter life, and his best friend, Michael — a talented actor — has traded his artistic aspirations for a corporate job, a fancy apartment and a BMW.
As the lead explains, he constantly hears a “tick, tick” and then a distant “BOOM!” — the sound of time passing by and a bomb exploding, a sign of his “mounting anxiety.” Jonathan introduces himself as a “promising composer,” but laments that he has been “promising for so long.” He’s not sure what his next move should be, whether he should continue to pursue his passion, which may not ever lead to success, or give up the artistic life and take a job with Michael’s firm.
The show is a precursor to “Rent,” a modern retelling of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which tracks a year in the lives of a group of struggling, artistic friends in Manhattan’s East Village. Like “Rent,” “tick, tick…BOOM!” makes real the trials, frustrations, confusion and angst that can mark the lives of fledgling artists. And like “Rent,” it does not shy away from one of the most heartbreaking markers of the early ’90s, the AIDS epidemic.
Ethan Riordan, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Larson, plays Jonathan with compassion and strength. Billy Mason (Michael) and Sarah Bishop (Susan) round out the small but mighty cast, each taking on several additional smaller roles with versatility and humor.
The show is adeptly directed by Martha Banta, who was a friend and colleague of Larson’s. She was the resident director of “Rent” for New York Theatre Workshop, on Broadway, in London, for two national tours, and she directed productions in Japan and Germany.
Larson first performed “tick, tick…BOOM!” solo as a “rock monologue” called “BoHo Days” in 1990. After his death, it was revamped as a three-person show and produced off-Broadway in 2001. Lin Manuel-Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame, directed a film version, which was released by Netflix in 2021.
From 1985 to 1991, Larson worked on an elaborate, futuristic musical, “Superbia,” which never went beyond the workshop phase. In “tick, tick…BOOM,” Jonathan produces the workshop version of “Superbia,” and it is well-received by its audience — which includes industry insiders, among them a supportive Stephen Sondheim.
But when Jonathan speaks to his agent the next day, hoping someone has decided to produce the show, she tells him, “They can’t wait to see what happens next.”
“I’m still banging my head against the wall, and my head still hurts,” Jonathan tells the audience. His heart sinks, and so does ours.
Of course, what came next in real life was “Rent.” Larson never knew of its sold-out crowds, its 12-year Broadway run and its multiple touring productions in the U.S. and abroad.
In “tick, tick…BOOM!” Jonathan says that he thought by the time he was 30, he would have had a hit show. It took Larson until he was 35 to achieve that goal. Tragically, he didn’t live to know it.
The CLO’s 90-minute production is at once energizing and thought-provoking, with the intimate Greer Cabaret a perfect venue for a show so personal, yet, in some ways, universal. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.