Lin Manuel Miranda is having himself a year. Now, that statement would be true in almost any year since he burst onto Broadway with In the Heights back in 2008, but it is especially so now. Just in 2021 alone Miranda has: produced a big screen adaptation of In the Heights, starred as a musically inclined kinkajou in Vivo, written original music for Disney’s Encanto and, most impressively of all, released one of the best movies of the year with tick... tick… BOOM, his directorial debut.
tick… tick… BOOM is itself an adapted stage musical, making Miranda a natural choice to helm the project. The first Broadway show by Rent playwright Jonathan Larson, the musical, and film, follow the lightly fictionalized Jon Larson (Andrew Garfield) battling to get his first show produced. On the verge of his 30th birthday, Jon is fighting not just for the attention of the industry but rather against time and the slipping away of his youth. Steven Sondheim had his first show on Broadway by 27 so what hope does Jon have if he can’t even get his agent to call him back at 30?
Miranda adapts Larson’s material capably, if unevenly. Some numbers get big cinematic set pieces with sweeping camera angles and elaborate props, others take a more minimalistic approach, while still others tear things all the way down to an imitation of the original stage production with just Garfield behind a piano. Each of those stagings is interesting and well enough composed on their own, but the overall lack of cohesion is apparent.
Despite some quibbles, tick… tick… BOOM is still, in this critic’s estimation, the finest work Miranda has produced to date. Hamilton and In the Heights are well made, engaging pieces of musical theater, but even so, they aren’t Jonathan Larson. Miranda’s own lyricism is so heavily descriptive. Even his work for film often has characters belting out who they are, where they’re from and what they want rather than how they feel, something important on the stage but redundant on the screen. Conversely, the music of tick… tick… BOOM is electric, tapping into the feeling that time and potential is just slipping away.
Garfield’s performance, in song especially, taps into a manic energy that captures an essence you can see from the real Larson in recordings. Inspired casting to put a performer who can sort of sing in the role rather than a singer who can act. His pairing with Vanessa Hudgens — a much better technical singer, but a top notch performer as well — on stage creates some truly magical sequences.
Larson’s play, and subsequent adaptation gets so much right about being young and a singleminded drive to succeed. So concerned with his youth escaping him like sands through an hourglass, Larson overlooks his AIDS stricken friends for whom the clock is actually ticking. He’s got the wherewithal to understand that he isn’t the hero in his own story. Part of growing up is realizing that you don’t get to set the timer for your own success.
Ironically, the timer really was counting down for Jonathan Larson — he would die of an aortic dissection at the age of 35 — history would add another cruel layer to his breakout play. Lin Manuel Miranda clearly holds the utmost respect for the playwright that in many ways paved the path for something like In the Heights and that respect shines throughout his adaptation of tick… tick… BOOM. His film highlights not just the talent that was lost with Larson’s sudden passing, but all the talent taken too soon by a mishandled HIV crisis.
tick… tick… BOOM is perhaps the surprise of the year. Simultaneously a high point for Lin Manuel Miranda’s work in film — as a songwriter, actor or now director — and the best musical of the year, this is certainly not one to miss. 9/10