I have a small rotation of friends whom I take with me to see plays. My “theatre buddies” are generally either knowledgeable about the theatre, or insightful about the arts, or both. Tonight, however, by sheer circumstance, I found myself taking my sister – who is neither knowledgeable nor insightful about these things – to opening night of the musical Tick, Tick… BOOM! at Toronto Centre for the Arts. And, lo and behold, she was the perfect audience.
Everything you read about Tick, Tick… BOOM! will find some awkward way of telling you that it was written and composed by the creator of RENT, Jonathan Larson. This speaks to an inferiority complex about the show that is entirely unjusitifed: even in a RENT-less world, Tick, Tick… BOOM! has value. As my sister noted, it is the kind of show that even people who don’t like musicals could like.
This has a lot to do with the style of the music itself. As the show’s protagonist, an aspiring composer-lyricist (the play is heavily auto-biographical) notes, the musical styles on Broadway are about forty years behind the rest of the country. This is not the case in Tick, Tick… BOOM!, which wears the title “rock musical” with pride and honesty. The music is punchy and contemporary (or at least was in 1990, which is still much closer to today’s tastes than the trombone section of yesteryear). Because of the play’s popular music style, it is accessible to people for whom “Hammersteinesque” is interchangeable with “Lloyd Webberian.” Likewise, the plot of the show is neither irrelevant nor exotic; it follows a man in the weeks before his thirtieth birthday as he tries to find meaning in life and relationships. Three performers make up the cast of over a dozen, and they are exactly as versatile as they need to be. However, director Tim French’s background in choreography is awkwardly visible between the songs, when too-wide facial expressions and too-obvious hand gestures err more on the side of pantomime than acting.
Although it does appeal to a wide audience, Tick, Tick… BOOM! also makes several esoteric allusions. By far the most common subject of these references is Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, who serves not only as a small point in the plot but also as a major artistic influence. This did not mesh well with the general accessibility of the show: one number is a sustained allusion to a song from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a piece that is considered obscure even in the world of musical theatre. About halfway through that song I realized that only one in every handful of people in the theatre understood the reference; this was evidenced by the bored expressions on everyone else.
One number aside, Tick, Tick… BOOM! will resonate with almost everyone, from the die-hard theatre maven to the reluctant teenager dragged by their parents to the out-of-place sister insistent on joining her blogging brother. If there is such thing as a “starter musical,” this is it. Musical theatre fans: this is your chance to recruit some devotees.
Tick, Tick… BOOM!
September 21 – October 6, 2013
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
David Auburn, Script Consultant
Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Stephen Oremus
tick, tick…BOOM! was originally produced off-Broadway in June, 2001 by Victoria Leacock, Robyn Goodman
Dede Harris, Lorie Cowen Levy, Beth Smith
Directed by Tim French
Music Directed by Anthony Bastianon
Starring Ken Chamberland, Parris Greaves, and Laura Mae Nason