Why do I do what I do

Jonathan Larson was a talented musical theatre writer who never lived to see any of his musicals take their finished form. He also didn’t live to see his 36th birthday, the victim of an aortic aneurism that had been misdiagnosed. His reputation rests primarily on Rent, the musical he was readying for an off-Broadway run when he died. Bolstered by a slew of news stories about this incredibly untimely demise, Rent went on to win every conceivable prize and get great gobs of praise for being the first (or, perhaps, last) great American rock musical. I cried when I saw it, but merely because I wished its creator had lived to do all the last-minute fixes that would’ve/could’ve/should’ve made Rent into everything practically everyone else said it was. Larson never lived to see how a repetitive ballad called Without You plays in front of an audience: it bogs down the second act, outwears its welcome – fast, and has the unintended effect of causing us to lose sympathy for the character singing. Had he seen that, he might have fixed it, and countless other problems that hamper one’s enjoyment of a piece that seemed oddly dated the day it opened.

Odom, Miranda, Olivo

A fellow Pulitzer-winning dramatist, David Auburn (Proof), was, a few years later, tasked with completing a more modest and more interesting effort, Tick Tick…Boom. During Larson’s life it was a cri de coeur about his own existence as one of a zillion undiscovered talents toiling in Manhattan. It was also a celebration of his birthday, at first called 30/90 because he turned 30 in 1990. Later, he performed it himself as a cabaret act called Boho Days. The cabaret world is filled with people talking about their own travails, so Larson’s solo piece registered not a blip on the cultural landscape. Post-tragedy, though, much of the same material could be refashioned to tell a completely different story, that of a searching and artistic soul taken from us far too soon. We hear he wants to be the voice of his generation, using real rock & roll in the theatre, and write a “Hair for the 90s.” All of that gains poignancy from our knowing that Larson achieved all those goals after his death.

The Encores summer series, led by Jeanine Tesori, will always be a square peg in a gargantuan round hole. It seeks to celebrate Off-Broadway, but can you do that, properly, in a 2,750-seat theatre? All sorts of virtues Tick Tick…Boom had in its tiny West Village house are, quite understandably, lost in the mock-Muslim temple on 55th Street. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s charisma and energy fill the place. Leslie Odom, Jr. (stuck with the weakest songs) and Karen Olivo seem on at times/off at times. But the show is asking us to consider the not-world-shattering problems of one frustrated artist: such an intimate exploration requires the focus you can only get in a small theatre.

Which makes me think of other off-Broadway musicals that, later in their lives, aren’t allowed to be small. I once saw a not-at-all-little Little Shop of Horrors and never got that creepy-funny feeling you’re supposed to get as you find the plant has grown to surround the audience on the theatre’s walls. The Fantasticks trades on the charm of being a little show. Put it in a large space, you dwarf it. Even Man of La Mancha seemed out of place in a Broadway house.

Encores’ other “Off-Center” offerings this year aren’t off-Broadway musicals at all. Pump Boys and Dinettes was a Broadway musical, eligible for Tonys, while boasting a tiny cast of acting musicians. More oddly, there’s the New York premiere of Faust, an always-intended-for-Broadway musical that closed out of town. What’s next, then, Prettybelle? (One can only hope.)

But Tick Tick…Boom successfully dramatizes what it’s like to be a musical theatre writer, and for that reason alone regular readers of this blog should get up and go. Experience the anxiety of the show that’s been worked on for five years finally getting a workshop. Watch sometimes understanding/sometimes unsupportive friends and lovers throwing an insecure creator for a loop. The agony of silence from powers-that-be and the message of encouragement that lifts you out of your funk. Friends asked me whether I saw any of my life on stage and boy, did I. Right now it feels redundant to describe to you certain highs and lows of my career because Tick Tick…Boom presents such similar stuff in such an entertaining way.

In a shear coincidence, before seeing the show, I was thinking about the time, back when I was 22, when I was informed I wouldn’t be continuing in Lehman Engel’s BMI workshop following Lehman’s death. I’d been there for four years and learned so much and of course wanted to learn more. I persevered, and went on to write five shows that got produced during my twenties. The central number of Tick Tick…Boom (and I believe it to be Larson’s best piece, ever) is a long story-song called Why. In it, Jonathan (the character? the writer?) details growing up and discovering a love of musical theatre that’s never left him. The chorus goes

I thought,
Hey, what a way to spend a day
Hey, what a way to spend a day
I make a vow, right here and now
I’m gonna spend my time this way

Tick Tick…Boom asks you to consider the fragility and brevity of life. Not a particularly fun subject for a musical, but I, for one, feel galvanized by the idea that, in the past, the present, and whatever’s left of the future, I got to spend my time this way.

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