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‘tick, tick... BOOM!’ and Stephen Sondheim

By Austin Riffelmacher

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I sat down to watch “tick, tick... BOOM!” on Netflix.

The movie musical about “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson is absolutely thrilling, and that’s coming from someone who has a strong aversion to “Rent.”

This story of Larson isn’t about the creation of the musical that won him a Pulitzer Prize and brought up an entirely new generation of musical theater lovers.

The narrative is more or less about what events in his life made him want to write a musical that not only sounded new but had a contemporary social relevance. If you’ve seen “Team America: World Police” you know “Rent” is famously about how AIDS affects a community of Bohemians in the early 1990s.

I think why I so preferred “tick, tick... BOOM!” over “Rent” is that the bio musical does a much better job at balancing the characters flaws while still garnering sympathy.

Larson as a character is conceited, emotionally over the top, and toxic. But his intellect is so magnetic that you forget he’s kind of the worst friend by taking advantage of everyone around him.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is obsessed with reminding us we are all ticking away on a mortal time clock, also frames the film around the fact that Larson never lived to see any of his fame.

Larson died at age 35 before the first preview of “Rent” oQ-Broadway in January 1996.

Besides Andrew Garfield, who gives a career-defining performance as Larson, the other thing that made the most lasting impression on me was the representation of Broadway icon, Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim is played in the film by Bradley Whitford. I was first inspired by Stephen Sondheim when I saw him discuss “Sweeney Todd” in the PBS documentary “Broadway: The American Musical.” I was 12 years old.

So, I don’t regret saying that Whitford’s portrayal of Sondheim honestly made me uncomfortable. There was something sacrilegious about making him a “character,” because in a weird way, I feel I know who Stephen Sondheim is. Well – was.

Forty-eight hours after my viewing of the Wlm, Sondheim died at the age of 91.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics to such shows as “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” and my personal favorite “Sunday in the Park with George.” He also wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”

Because of the enormous body of work Sondheim left us with, I refused to be sad Friday night about his death.

Almost a week later, I realized that Stephen Sondheim, like he was for Jonathan Larson, was not only one of my biggest inspirations – but he was the single greatest teacher I have had in my life.

That seems absurd because I never met the man. Yet through his interviews, books, and lyrics, Sondheim taught me everything one needs to learn about writing, and frankly, just being a human being.

The thought of no longer having that from him is truly devastating for me.

But in “tick, tick... BOOM!” the maestro himself gave me one final directive.

The emotional climax of the movie is when Larson, distraught from the tepid reception of his sci-fi rock opera “Superbia” that was in development, received a call from Sondheim. Though we have seen his presence in the Wlm portrayed by an actor, the voicemail is without a doubt, the real Stephen


Miranda asked Sondheim to re-record his message to Larson. Sondheim said in the movie, “It’s first-rate work and has a future, and so do you. I’ll call you later with some thoughts, if that’s OK. Meanwhile, be proud.”

That message is what I need in my life right now. There is no great way to lose one of your heroes, but if it had to happen, “tick, tick ... BOOM!” is Sondheim’s final triumphant curtain call to us all.

There are ways in which “tick, tick... BOOM!” is a Sondheim musical.

The opening number “30/90” reminds me of the opening to “Company” where we have characters not really enjoying the idea of their birthdays coming up. “Therapy,” sung between Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens (my, she’s grown as an actress) compacts the wit and cynicism found in the lyrics to Sondheim’s “Follies” or “Night Music.”

But Sondheim’s mastery was to shift effortlessly between humor and emotional honesty without being bombastic.

Larson’s “Johnny Can’t Decide” is as concise and introspective as “Lesson #8” from “Sunday in the Park.”

The most obvious reference to “Sunday in the Park” is a funny, borderline-cringy scene in the

Moondance Diner where Larson waits tables. Larson’s “Sunday” spoofs Sondheim’s greatest act one finale by having Broadway’s most talented play obnoxious dining patrons. Bernadette Peters, the original Dot in “Sunday in the Park,” makes a cameo.

Sondheim’s musical “Passion” premiered two years before Larson’s “Rent.” “Passion” was the last original Sondheim musical to premiere on Broadway. In fact, in the 1980s Sondheim premiered three new Broadway musicals. In the 1990s, there was just one.

After “Passion” in 1994, Broadway changed. The British mega musicals were about to be brought to their knees by Disney.

“Rent” was one of the landmarks of the ’90s that began to change the face of Broadway. “Rent” is the precursor to “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Sondheim as a brand is sacred and beloved. His musicals are considered to be the highest of intellectual capabilities in musical theater.

People like to call Sondheim shows “not commercial,” but I see a clear pathway from his experiments with the form to the most lucrative productions of the past 30 years.

Without “Company” and its refusal to be linear, I don’t see how Andrew Lloyd Webber feels confident to bet on “Cats.” Without the monumental success of “Cats” and subsequent Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh shows, Disney doesn’t enter the picture with “Beauty and the Beast,” and most importantly, their fusion of experimentation and commerce with “The Lion King.” The next 20 years of musical history speak for itself.

The next 50 years of musicals – yes, I believe they will survive – will be indebted to the work of Sondheim whether their creators are conscious of it or not.

As truly heartbroken I am about his death, I must remember Sondheim saw how his influence would turn into a legacy. “tick, tick... BOOM!” shows that, and it shows he wasn’t irresponsible in his position. He paid it forward.

What distinguishes him from Larson is that he lived long enough to be able to do that. He also lived long enough to be thanked by the people who would come after him.

Miranda, who is deeply influenced by Larson and “Rent,” couldn’t thank him. By making “tick, tick... BOOM!” he does. It’s never too late to thank your hero.

I have a wall in my room that I call my “wall of legends” where I hang pictures of artists who inspire me daily to do the best work I can do. Current members include August Wilson, James Baldwin and Harold Prince.

The only rule is one must be dead to be on the wall. Now, Sondheim’s photo rightfully hangs with the rest.

So, thank you Steve for showing a simple kid from central Massachusetts, who often felt alone, what it meant to be an artist, an intellectual, and a man.

“Someone is on your side. No one is alone” – S.S


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