Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo photos by Joan
Once upon a time in New York, a talented composer who
wanted to use music to tell stories had a fair chance of making it happen.
Once, because stable neighborhoods are healthy neighborhoods, rents were
regulated to discourage speculators. Once, on the principle that new ideas need
old buildings, Soho was rezoned as an artists' enclave.
It was lovely while it lasted.
Jonathan Larson, born in 1960, arrived just in time to
see it all crumble. The golden age of the American musical ended in 1980 with
the shocking death of Gower Champion, followed a year later by the collapse of
the seemingly invincible partnership of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince. By
the time 1990 rolled around, the aspiring composer's path that would begin with
writing specialty material for basement revues, and end with your name in
lights on the Great White Way, had been dynamited, bulldozed, and buried under
acres of fifty-story luxury condominiums, financed with money looted from the
Savings and Loan Associations.
Thus it was that in 1990 Larson, on the cusp of thirty,
felt himself becalmed. The small theaters, proving grounds for finding your
voice, were disappearing along with the affordable housing, and more and more an
artist's only choices were Broadway or the highway. Larson, with few prospects
after years of waiting tables at the Moondance Diner, watched friends giving up
on their artistic aspirations and wondered if he was wasting his time.
But he didn't give up; he made his crisis into art, a
one-man rock song cycle called Boho Days. Opening at Second Stage in
1990, he revised it for further runs at the Village Gate and New York Theater
Workshop, eventually retitling it Tick, Tick...Boom! While he revised,
he worked on what would become his masterpiece, Rent, which opened in
1996 and has likely been playing somewhere on Earth ever since.
Tragically, Larson died just before Rent went
into previews. One effect of its great success was to create interest in
salvaging his earlier work. So Tick, Tick...Boom! was refashioned by
playwright David Auburn (best known for Proof) into a three-person show,
opening Off-Broadway in June 2001 with Raul Esparza in the lead. Reviews were
good, but times were bad, and the show shuttered in January 2002.
Encores! has made a great choice here, because it's wonderful
to see the themes of Rent in embryo and there's no place in town where the
show could have a commercial run these days. Jon (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a few
days shy of his thirtieth birthday. He feels like he's going nowhere and it's
only a matter of time before he gives up. ("Giving up" is the
"Boom!" of the title.) His girlfriend Susan (Karen Olivo) is a
frustrated dancer, and pressures him to move to Cape Cod, or maybe Northampton. His best friend Michael (Leslie Odom Jr) is an actor turned corporate drone,
and he wants Jon to take a job at his ad agency.
Jon's job at the diner is numbing, his relationship
with Susan is deteriorating, his guest appearance at a corporate brainstorming
session is a disaster, but does have a one-time workshop of a piece coming up (Larson's
own Superbia). He flirts with an actress from the cast, Karessa (also
Olivo), who sings a knockout number in the workshop. Alas, nobody wants to take
the show forward, but there is an unexpected and perfectly set up happy ending,
which we won't give away.
That ending is deeply moving, and there are enough
excellent moments along the way to keep our attention, but it needs to be said
that this is no masterpiece. There's a fair amount of self-pity in the first
twenty minutes or so, and none of the songs have both great words and great
music. The high-energy rock which Jon talks about bringing to musical theater
(and which Larson found for Rent) doesn't show up until the fifth song
("No More"), which is mostly about wanting a nice apartment.
"Sunday" is an amazing and brilliant parody of the lyrics to the Act
1 finale of Sunday in the Park with George, but Larson doesn't know what
to do about the music and so merely and awkwardly simplifies it. "Come to
Your Senses," sung by Karessa, is a terrific belting showstopper, but runs
out of things to say long before the song is over. Both "Sugar" and
"Therapy" are one-joke comic numbers, though the music to "Therapy"
builds to a nice finish.
Then there's the problem of the women. Susan seems cold
and angry, even envious of Jon's aspirations, so we don't care if she leaves him.
The actress he flirts with--"Karessa Johnson," get the pun?--is
hardly a character at all, even though she gets the 11 o'clock number. These
shortcomings are probably artifacts of the adaptation process, but still.
JOAN MARCUS From left, Leslie Odom Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Karen Olivo in
“Tick, Tick ... Boom!”
Encores! enables dream casting, and here delivers:
Miranda, Olivo, and Odom are all ideal. Odom has a fine voice, and Olivo's
great talent is well-known. Miranda and Olivo's real-life friendship (they were
co-stars in In the Heights) worked to advantage here. As a composer
himself, Miranda has lived many of Jon's (and Larson's) experiences, and in the
scene before the workshop the boundary between actor and character simply
Unfortunately Miranda has some vocal problems. He was
not in good voice on Thursday, often distressingly flat. He improved in later
performances, but this style of music needs him to open the back of his throat
(what singers call "raising the soft palate"). Without that,
sustained tones sound restricted, lyrics are harder to understand, and the
singing generally less expressive.
The staging was excellent. Oliver Butler's direction
and Donyale Werle's set were subtle and sophisticated, yet gave the illusion of
complete simplicity. The band at Encores! is often (perhaps always) the main
attraction, and music director Chris Fenwick did not disappoint.
by City Center Encores!
55th St, Manhattan
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes, no intermission.