Jonathan Larson is someone who writes like he is running out of time. That’s the underlying message of “30/90,” the first song in his original musical Tick, Tick … Boom and an energized ballad about the theatrical composer’s worries that he hasn’t accomplished enough—at the age of 30. As he hammers away at a piano, Larson notes that his idol, the composer Stephen Sondheim, contributed to his first Broadway show at the age of 27. Meanwhile, Larson is still toiling in obscurity, living in an unheated loft in early-’90s New York and trying to break through in the world of theater.
The song, and Tick, Tick … Boom in general, is layered with retrospective irony. Larson wrote the show, which he initially performed as a sung-through monologue in 1990, as a response to his failure to produce an ambitious musical titled Superbia. Tick, Tick … Boom is an exciting, sometimes angry, but winningly self-aware examination, a cri de coeur that feels like the announcement of a thrilling new talent, even one who fears that he’s already over the hill. Larson, however, actually was running out of time, as the film adaptation, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield, notes in a touching prologue. Larson’s next big success was the rock musical Rent, a show that changed the course of Broadway, but he never got to see it: He died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35 the night before Rent’s first performance.
Miranda understands the bittersweet tinge to Larson leaving behind an autobiographical show that tracks his anxiety about growing up. Miranda is, after all, something of a Broadway prodigy himself. He produced his first musical, In the Heights, on Broadway at the age of 28 before experiencing colossal success with Hamilton, a show about a Founding Father who, according to Miranda’s lyrics, also wrote like he was running out of time. Understandably, then, in his filmmaking debut Miranda has zeroed in on another figure overflowing with ambition and creative passion. In doing so, he has turned Larson’s small-scale show into an inventive piece of cinematic biography, retaining the musical’s spirit and songs but successfully expanding the storytelling scope to fit the big screen.
It’s also the best thing Miranda’s made since Hamilton. Following that show’s runaway success, Miranda has worked on several animated movies, acted in Mary Poppins Returns, and helped shepherd a film adaptation of In the Heights. But Tick, Tick … Boom is by far the most challenging project he’s tackled, given that the material is inherently stage-bound. Larson originally performed the show by himself, sitting at a piano; after his death, it was reworked into a three-actor musical, which helped distribute the burden of his complex compositions. Miranda initially retains the theatrical setting, starting the action on a stage where the fictional Larson and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry) are performing. But he then dramatizes the songs properly, delving into Larson’s life in SoHo and his travails in friendship and romance as he struggles to get Superbia noticed by Broadway honchos.
Garfield’s performance is remarkably attuned and leans into the way Larson’s self-assured enthusiasm could overwhelm and annoy. The protagonist sometimes showers his best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesús), and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), with affection, but other times he is lost in his imagination, ignoring every responsibility as he struggles to fine-tune the musical he thinks could be his magnum opus. Miranda and the writer Steven Levenson recognize how off-putting a creative personality like Larson can be, but they also have the hindsight to know that he really was a major talent. Whereas the original 1990 production of Tick, Tick … Boom was made by someone screaming for attention, this adaptation can acknowledge the tragic reality that Larson was right to fear the ticking clock.
Miranda doesn’t let the film sink into melancholy—Larson’s songwriting is too brassy and bold for that—but he provides more than a bit of Broadway sentimentality, a nod to the place Larson now holds in the industry’s hall of fame. Bradley Whitford gives an adorably squinty performance as Sondheim, who gave Larson gruff but friendly advice throughout his career, and Miranda turns the song “Sunday,” which Larson wrote as an homage to Sondheim, into a tear-jerking celebration of musical theater, bringing in figures from the genre’s past, present, and future to tip their cap to the audience. With Tick, Tick … Boom, Miranda celebrates the power and the pressure of the world he loves most, and he’s picked a subject who encapsulates those warring dynamics perfectly.