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tick, tick ... Boom!

An Earnest Pre-Rent Show

By Fred Choi

Staff Writer

Ever since Rent burst onto the Broadway stage five years ago, fans of Jonathan Larson’s Rent have been clamoring for more. The hip, colorful retelling of Puccini’s La BohÈme was notable for being one of only a few musicals to bring the world of the musical theater to a younger generation; thanks to its catchy, rock-influenced score and its contemporary issues of AIDS and the values of friendship and love in a hectic, isolating modern world. Larson’s death prior to the opening of Rent on Broadway left audiences eager for any scrap of Larson material, such as cut songs and works from earlier shows. Larson’s friends and family have responded with tick, tick ... Boom!, a show Larson wrote and performed around the early 1990s.

The show was originally entitled 30/90, and was born from Larson’s frustration at trying to succeed as a writer of musicals. The show was conceived as a one-man show, and Larson performed the work in various small venues in New York before abandoning it to work on what eventually became Rent. David Auburn (author of the acclaimed Proof) worked with the producers of tick to adapt the multiple versions that Larson had left into a coherent whole for three performers, representing Jonathan, the protagonist; Michael, his best friend; and Susan, his girlfriend.

It is inevitable that tick, tick ... Boom! will suffer in any comparison to Rent, but the work is certainly more interesting than just as a baby picture. It is fascinating to spot the similarities between tick and Rent, such as the obvious music and lyric parallels between the duets “No More” from tick and Rent’s title song, in which two friends sing about their squalid living conditions. It is also interesting to see how Larson grew as a songwriter. It is certain that some songs from tick would have been cut or thoroughly revised by an older, post-Rent Larson. Some flaws include the awkward word-settings in “Sugar” and “Louder Than Words,” the forced rhymes in “Green Dress” (“The green green dress, 20 buttons and a strip, the green green dress, oh what a pleasure to unwrap”), and the cloying quaintness of “Sunday,” a parody of the song by the same name by Stephen Sondheim.

Despite these imperfections, tick has enough strengths to make it more than just an academic curiosity. The show is under the direction of Scott Schwartz (Bat Boy, Jane Eyre) and musical director Stephen Oremus. Raul Esparza as Jonathan combines the romantic side of Rent’s Roger with the slight cynicism of Rent’s Mark, and reflects both characters in vocals reminiscent of the original cast recording of Rent. Jerry Dixon brings a warm tone to Michael, while Amy Spanger is generally a strong supporting character in the role of Susan, although she can be slightly strident at times.

The recording reveals Larson’s gift of melody, particularly in ballads such as the folky “See Her Smile” and the power ballad “Come to Your Senses” (originally from Superbia, another project of Larson’s). There are also moments of purely Larsonian humour, as in “No More” (“Hello to shiny new parquet wood floors, as waxed as a wealthy girl’s legs”) and the wonderfully manic “Therapy,” a pastiche hoe-down tune which works surprisingly well. The song is a tongue-tripping conversation between Jonathan and Susan as they attempt to resolve an argument, with lines such as “I feel bad that/you feel bad about/me feeling bad about/what i said about/what you said about/me not being able to share a feeling.”

tick, tick ... Boom! is a little too earnest and treads the line between straightforward honesty and over-sentimentality. But at its best tick, tick ... Boom! is an entertaining and melodic show. The recording leaves us mourning once again over the early death of Jonathan Larson and thankful for the work that he did produce.

The original cast recording of tick, tick ... Boom! is available on RCA/Victor. The show is currently playing at the Jane Street Theatre (113 Jane St., between Washington and West St.) in New York City, Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. Tickets available online through Telecharge <> or call at: 212-239-6200. Rush seats are available for $20 each two hours prior to the start of every show at the Jane Street Theatre box office.