“In eight days, my youth will be over.
And what exactly do I have to show for myself?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut tick, tick… BOOM! is an adaptation of a one-man show written by Jonathan Larson, also known for writing the hit Broadway show Rent. After Larson’s early death at age 35 the night before previews of Rent began Off Broadway, tick, tick… BOOM! was rewritten into a play for three actors that premiered in 2001, where it met its larger audience. The film riffs off of the original show that Larson performed in the early ‘90s, weaving theatrical monologue/piano performances with more cinematic scenes.
The story is about Larson and the week or so leading up to his 30th birthday. The musical he’s spent nearly a decade working on, Superbia, is about to be workshopped at Playwrights Horizon, and it’s still missing a crucial song—which he’s struggling to write. The movie follows Larson as he pushes everything to the side, wondering if he’s wasted the last decade of his life on an artistic project that might not see the light of day, and prepares for this workshop that he hopes will change his life and finally give him a taste of sweet success.
Though I was a huge fan of Rent since I saw it on Broadway at age nine, I didn’t discover tick, tick… BOOM! until I was in college. As an undergrad with hazy dreams of writing professionally, I particularly enjoyed the idea of wandering around and debating what I should spend my life doing. It felt heroic and noble when Larson decides to dedicate his life to his art. But I didn’t really understand the frantic distress that Larson spends most of the show feeling, not until this year.
I used to chuckle at friends going through their pre-30 jitters. Now, I’m starting to feel like it actually might be some sort of biological thing, some sort of inner instinctive fear that you just can’t ignore. I’m 28, only a year’s difference from Larson at the beginning of the film. The first song of the film is “30/90,” which is not only about being afraid of turning 30, but also about being afraid of what it means to be 30 as a struggling artist, what your aging means in the terms of your career, and what it means to start getting tired.
When chatting with friends at his weekend diner job, Jonathan points out, “You reach a certain age and you stop being a writer who waits tables, and you become a waiter with a hobby.” Crushing words. Especially when you’re also reaching that stage in your life and are wondering what you’ve really accomplished in this time—whether or not it measures up to what your friends have done.
Throughout the film, there’s a push and pull between choosing art and “selling out,” as Jonathan’s best friend Michael has quit his acting career for a well-paid marketing job. As Michael moves out of his and Jonathan’s terrible walk-up apartment and into a high-rise on the East Side, the pair sing praises to the beauty of modern conveniences like dishwashers and floors without holes in them. In another song that playfully disparages the accouterments of Larson’s bohemian life called “Boho Days,” Larson runs about his apartment mid-party, pattering about the 14 roommates he’s had in four years and the fact that his toilet is located in the closet. The song showcases love alongside depreciation, which is why the turn at the end—when Andrew Garfield and Joshua Henry cheerfully sing “The ship is sort of sinking, so let’s start drinking before we start thinking is this a life?”—feels just a bit frantic and charged.
There are a lot of frustrations in a writing career. And while I think I’m a bit more practical (but to be fair, also many miles less talented) than Larson, the constant rejection, the amount of effort that goes into projects that go nowhere, has started to feel strangely crushing. I say strange, because while I am no stranger to spiraling, I am a stranger to uncertainty when it comes to what I want to do with my life and what I want my work to be. I’ve always felt confident in the work, at least. But as I tick closer and closer to 30, I’m feeling less and less sure of myself. Then, of course, there’s the question of whether or not writing is the best way to spend my time, especially in times like these.
Creation is a selfish act. It’s an egotistical act. You have to believe that what you’re doing is good enough to replace the benefits of anything else you might be doing. This disparity is heightened during moments of trauma and unrest. One particular parallel that I wasn’t quite expecting out of tick, tick… BOOM! is what it means to create art during a worldwide pandemic. AIDS is never far in the background of Larson’s world, as he bikes past a row of “Silence = Death” Act Up posters and his friend is abruptly rushed to the hospital, even though his doctor had recently told him that his T cell count was looking good.
While Jonathan visits his friend in the hospital, he thinks (in voiceover/theatrical monologue):
“Nobody’s doing enough. I’m not doing enough. There’s not enough time, or maybe I’m just wasting my time. And what about Susan’s time? When am I going to talk to Susan? What am I going to say? I don’t know what to say. So Susan waits, and the time keeps ticking. Tick, tick, tick. And I have three days left until the workshop, three days left to write this song. And if the song doesn’t work, the show doesn’t work, and then it’s all been a waste of time. Who gives a shit about a song?”
Who gives a shit about a song?
How self-centered do you have to be to care about something as small and insignificant as a song when real people are dying all around you? But that’s the thing. Art isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, but it also is. Jane Campion’s collected works aren’t going to help you if your house is burning down, but that doesn’t mean they don’t mean anything. And while art is not everything, art can be many things—useful things, too. It can teach empathy, life skills. It can make you laugh. It can stimulate your imagination. It can remind you of a different time or show you something you’ve never seen before.
In that way, creating art can be a selfless act too. My life was changed because I was introduced to Jonathan Larson’s work at an early age. Rent was the first time I heard the word “bisexual.” It was likely my first introduction to any form of queerness in any way, and it was a positive one. It gave me the confidence of knowing that there was nothing wrong with queerness, even as I attended a very conservative Christian school throughout my childhood. There’s a good argument to be made that Rent saved my life, not because I was obsessed with it (though I was), but simply because it existed when I went to New York for the first time at nine.
So let’s pick up the argument that art is a noble thing, and that it is a wonderful craft to dedicate your life to perfecting. The day to day of it is still grueling, and the constant rejection and lack of career progress leads Jonathan to nearly giving up. And it’s led me to nearly giving up too. Funnily enough, the mini breakdown Larson has towards the end of the film is nearly identical to a conversation I had just had a few months ago. I guess none of us are special.
After Larson’s successful workshop leads to no producer bites, Larson bursts into Michael’s office to rant: “I can’t do it again, Mike. I can’t stomach five more years of waiting tables, five more years of writing things that no one will ever see.” He complains about getting old, about running out of time. So much of writing or making any kind of art (especially art that must be produced like theater or film) is just working and waiting and hoping that someone somewhere will like your stuff enough to give you money to complete it. It takes an incredible amount of faith and stubbornness, when every instinct, every sign, every experience is telling you that your work is a waste of time. And you already feel like you’re running out of time.
Michael replies to Jonathan that he isn’t running out of time. Michael is. He’s HIV positive, and he hasn’t felt able to tell Jonathan until now because Jonathan’s been so tied up with the workshop. After they part, Larson begins running through Central Park, only to stop at the Delacorte when he comes across a piano covered in a dust cloth. He sweeps the dust cloth off and sits down.
But this time, he’s no longer searching for a new song. He sits down at the piano, not because he has a deadline or because his project is missing something or because someone tells him to, but because sitting down at a piano is what he does. He begins to sing about growing up with Michael and the first time he ever performed. He sings about talent shows and landing a role in West Side Story at school. He sings about the magic of it all, almost like a lullaby. He sings, “Hey, what a way to spend a day” and how he made a vow after his first performance that, “I’m going to spend my time this way.” This song, the song at the heart of the film, changes the conversation that Larson has been having throughout the story, and in doing so, it changes the meaning of Larson’s art.
It’s so easy to hate writing. Fighting deadlines, working long hours for little pay, feeling frustrated at the type of writing that makes money and the type of writing that doesn’t. But this is when tick, tick… BOOM! and Larson stumble across the truth of the matter: Making art can feel like a chore, but it isn’t a chore. It only becomes a chore when you’ve forgotten what you’re doing.
I’m not saying making art is easy (it’s not) or sustainable (even less so now than during Larson’s time when you could apparently pay New York City rent on a weekend waiter job) or that persistence or quality will always win out (it won’t). External validation, support—money—are all real things and often very necessary things that can keep people from pursuing writing, especially people who are marginalized and historically underrepresented in these fields. There are still injustices to fight against. Unfairness, illness and exploitation. But the exterior product, the fame, the Broadway marquee are not why Jonathan writes music.
Throughout the film, creation is treated like a curse. Jonathan has been harried and rushed to write a song that just isn’t coming. His obsession with the idea that this workshop will launch his career keeps him from dealing with a very real problem with his girlfriend. It keeps him from visiting his friend in the hospital. It keeps him from being there for Michael. But when Larson sings “Why,” he doesn’t sing about dreams of success. He doesn’t even really sing about his work or what he’s trying to say with it. Instead, he sings a love song, about a deep love, about the feeling that comes with the craft.
The question is not about whether or not Larson is wasting the time that he has by putting years into projects that don’t get produced. Returning to the piano on his own, he remembers that it’s not about putting on a show, about outward success. It’s about the wonder, the realization that the time, the ability, the life that it takes to create something is a privilege, and that it should be treated that way.
It can be easy to romanticize this story of Larson choosing to create, knowing that he will create something wonderful. And yes, there is definitely added weight, knowing, as we do, that Larson dies at such a young age. But it’s important, when watching this film, to keep in mind that Larson didn’t know that he was going to die so young, and he didn’t know that he was going to make a hit. But he did recognize the weight of time. He did recognize that he was alive when others were not, and he recognized that making art, that taking the time to write something over and over again until it worked, could be worth it, in itself.
Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art.