A Portrait of the Artist: Jonathan Larson Rocks On

The great thing about Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent , is that this tragic man was a true artist. All artists believe that about themselves, but some are truer to themselves than others. Larson was crazed on music, uncompromised, passionate, idealistic, naïve–a downtown bohemian in an age when the word “bohemian” seems quaint. His tragic fate was to die before any of his music was known to most of us.

He died in 1996 at 35, just two weeks before Rent opened. (The cause was an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.) At the same time as he was a struggling unknown creating Rent , he was working on another show that was to become Tick, Tick … Boom! , which has now been thrillingly staged at the Jane Street Theatre in the West Village.

We might call this expertly performed musical autobiography Portrait of the Artist as a Very Anxious Young Man . It was originally a rock monologue piece performed with mixed, manic results by Larson himself and entitled 30/90. He was turning 30 in 1990 and felt as if he were running out of time, a failure destined to be forever stuck in the no man’s land of the eternally promising composer. Five years of work had gone into writing his futuristic rock musical, Superbia, but he failed to attract any backers. “I’ve been ‘promising’ for so long,” goes the frustrated line in Tick, Tick … Boom! , “I’m afraid I’ve started to break the fucking promise.”

The man who would reinvent the American musical for a new generation makes turning 30 sound like a death knell. Tick, tick, boom is the sound of one man’s mounting anxiety in the punishing world of musical theater. But there’s also the terrible implication of Larson’s ultimate fate, for his terror of growing older met with his early, pointless death.

To our relief, the show’s clear-eyed director, Scott Schwartz, and script consultant David Auburn (the Pulitzer-winning dramatist of Proof ) haven’t milked the obvious, though there’s no denying the bitter irony of Larson’s test of time. But Tick, Tick … Boom! is a rock performance piece–a launching pad to the big-scale Rent –that’s bursting with talent. Mr. Auburn has adapted Larson’s original solo material into a piece for three characters, and the three-member cast couldn’t be better. Raul Esparza–evil Riff Raff, no less, in The Rocky Horror Show –plays Larson’s alter ego with effortless charm in a terrific performance. He makes you glad to know him. Amy Spanger, whom I last saw all but stopping the show in Kiss Me, Kate , is Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan, and she brings us to the emotional boiling point here with her big song, “Come to Your Senses.” I would have liked Ms. Spanger and Jerry Dixon, who plays Jonathan’s best friend Michael, to have been used more, though more or less everything is seen through the hero’s eyes–wide, troubled eyes.

Larson was a young 30. (Which is preferable to being an old 30, or an old 20, or an old anything.) Fear was part of his psychology, not jadedness and cynicism. For one surprising thing, he was half in love with the romance of Broadway–and who under 30 is today? Tick, Tick … Boom! is essentially good-natured that way. It romanticizes Broadway and bohemia, as Rent on Broadway does. “It’s hard for people born after 1960 to be idealistic or original,” says Jonathan (who was nevertheless exactly that). “We know what happens to ideals. They’re assassinated or corrupted …. “

The story’s a familiar one. Young composer in search of a break waits on tables, is tempted to sell out; trouble with beautiful girlfriend, a dancer; his best friend, former actor, now a big shot in market research dying of AIDS; composer writes show about the life and longing of a composer. It’s the story because it’s the only story–until, with luck, the artist succeeds. It’s why the show dips occasionally into political earnestness or a facile satire of corporate types. If only dramatist Auburn had been a little less respectful to the original material! But no matter. Better respect than the wrecker’s ball.

Tick, Tick … Boom! is a celebration of Jonathan Larson’s music, which poured out of him in irresistibly euphoric highs as he dreamed of writing the score that would change the world. The tight band and the musical supervision of Stephen Oremus, who’s also the orchestrator and arranger, rocks. Larson’s hero was Stephen Sondheim, who is hero to too many (and who has never rocked). Mr. Sondheim’s name is so hallowed, it can only be whispered–amusingly–during the show as if genuflecting before a deity. Yet Larson was far from being a slavish Sondheimean. He was an emotional, sentimental, melodic rocker who could write a love song to a sexy green dress as well as to the addictive sugar highs of Twinkies. The verbal wit of a number as good as “Therapy” is a deft tribute to Mr. Sondheim.

You feel bad about

Me feeling bad about

You feeling bad about

What I said about

What you said about

Me not being able to share a feeling.

The desperate closing song, “Louder Than Words,” is pure, passionate Larson, a call to arms from a generous heart.

Cages or wings?

Which do you prefer?

Ask the birds

Fear or love, baby?

Don’t say the answer

Actions speak louder than words.

He wanted to make us fly and does. He wanted to wake up a generation and did. He just never knew it. It’s hard not to get emotional about Jonathan Larson. He dreamed innocent, fantastic dreams. God love him.