Molly Ringwald knew Jonathan Larson would make it as a Broadway composer. What she really valued him for, she laughs, was his stint as her one-time handyman.
"He helped me move into my New York City apartment," Ringwald relates. "The two of us put together this ridiculous closet that I had carted back from France, where I had been living. It was huge, and came with no instructions, so during the day we'd sit around my apartment, trying to set the thing up. Then we'd go to the Corner Bistro and talk about Rent, and afterwards he'd rehearse the show."
She had met the budding tunesmith earlier in the Nineties, through a mutual acquaintance, Victoria Leacock. The good times the three shared were not destined to last."When we were first introduced he was writing musicals and working at the Moondance Diner." With a catch in her throat, she adds, "Both of which he did up until the day he died."
tick, tick...BOOM!, playing at the Jane Street Theatre, reunites the trio. Co-produced by Leacock, the show, conceived before Rent, recounts Larson's struggle for success as he nears the dangerous age of 30. Among other issues, the dozen numbers performed by the three member cast tackle the composer's commitment-phobia, his fear of selling out—and his lust for Twinkies. [It is not a dirge.] Fresh from his turn as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show, Raul Esparza created the role of Jonathan, the pivot point for a succession of friends, family members, and human roadblocks, played by Jerry Dixon and Ringwald, who joined the show in September.
tick, tick...BOOM! allows the performer, whose prior stage appearances in New York include Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive and Horton Foote's Lily Dale, to resurrect an old talent."It's been years since I'd sung professionally, and it's been a little daunting to return," she says."When I was six, my dad, a jazz musician, got together some of his friends and we cut an album, "Molly Sings"—it's funny to pull it out and hear me performing old standards in my little, tiny voice. As a teenager, I gave up on the idea of singing—I had this notion that I couldn't sing and act, that I should focus only on acting. You hear that you should only do one thing: Raul, for example, is a serious, well-trained actor, who happens to have a fantastic voice, but now that he's had several singing parts people think of him as a musicals guy. Well, why can't you do both?" A refusal to be pigeonholed has helped her maintain her career. The success Larson craves in tick, tick...BOOM! came to Ringwald at half his age, complete with a Time magazine cover that anointed her the country's favorite adolescent. Her sturdy, sensitive characters in the John Hughes productions "Sixteen Candles,""The Breakfast Club," and "Pretty in Pink" influenced a generation of kids navigating teendom's treacherous shoals and remain Eighties icons. The 33-year-old actress, however, has resisted being a cultural artifact, dug up whenever the trends turn toward her lightning-in-a-bottle years as Hollywood's all-American girl. "The suburban dream child for anxious parents," as critic David Thomson called her, left the Illinois of the movies for Paris and New York when she grew up and today goes her own way when taking roles.
Most of Ringwald's stage time in tick, tick...BOOM! is spent as Susan, Jonathan's long-suffering girlfriend, who urges him to trade New York for New England and lead a saner existence. "Spending time in Paris wasn't exactly an escape, I just decided to make other things in my life a priority. I was going to come back to my career. Susan really wants to change her life, to put everything about her career as a dancer on the backburner. I relate to that on some level, but I relate more to Jonathan. Jonathan, however, never had the success in life that I had so young, and that he had only posthumously."
Ringwald realizes that the next acts of her career may not be as popularly received as her first."I don't ever see myself as doing another film that will have the same impact as the John Hughes movies, which were a phenomenon. Grand stardom is thankless anyway." She's happiest exploring, mentioning her avant-garde adventures with Jean-Luc Godard (she played Cordelia in his unclassifiable adaptation of "King Lear" in 1987), Cindy Sherman (the horror satire "Office Killer") and an upcoming Peter Greenaway film, "Tulse Luper's Suitcase." True, some of her credits—a string of films made during her Paris period, recent titles like "The Translator"—are so far off the beaten path that the all-knowing Internet Movie Database can't squeeze out much more than a rudimentary description of their contents, but other avenues have been more fruitful.
A 1992 TV movie, "Something to Live For," introduced her to Leacock, the best friend of the film's true-life subject, noted AIDS patient Alison Gertz. Ringwald and Leacock bonded during the shoot, Ringwald got to know Larson, and the outcome of the friendship is onstage. "I was a great fan and supporter of tick, tick...BOOM! from the beginning," she says. "I relate to the show's issues: Jonathan and his passion for art, trying to make room for another passion, for Susan, which is not easy. And I knew everyone in the cast, went to the opening night party—but I did not expect to be in it. That was a surprise, but once I was asked I thought, `Right on, a chance to start singing again.' I first met with the show's musical director, Stephen Oremus, for two reasons: For me to see if I could handle it, and for them to hear if I could sing. After that one meeting I felt that I could do it, though it was humbling to go back to it and realize that I didn't have the incredible range that I used to when I was young."
Her range, she says, is recovering ("I intend to keep my voice in shape for future musicals") and her enthusiasm for the stage undiminished. "Film and theatre are apples and oranges. There's a lot more adrenaline in theatre, and I like that you can continue to explore and examine a role. The choices you make in a film, you're stuck with—forever," she laughs.
Asked what she would change if she could revisit her teenage self, she responds that there are a few life choices she would adjust. "I absolutely would have learned more languages, besides French. Raul is trying to teach me Spanish, but it's hard to pick it up when you're older. I would have made myself study more. And, maybe, I might have gone to college—but I don't know about that," she says, with questioning in her voice. "I did the SATs and got accepted, then decided to move to Paris instead. It's hard to answer that; everything happens for a reason, and I think I've been destined to follow my own path."
The only misfortune regarding her path toward tick, tick...BOOM! is its timing, in the shadow of the World Trade Center catastrophe. Ringwald, who leaves the show at the end of October to work on a New York-set TV pilot with Dylan Baker and shop a book proposal, started rehearsals a week before the attack." It was definitely difficult to move forward. No one wanted to rehearse. Neither did I, but I had to go on just three days afterwards so I said, "Sorry, guys, we have to do this." Which turned out to be a good thing, as we could all stay focused on something else and force ourselves to go on."
Her friend's show, she says, fits the tenor of the times. In the aftermath of the attack, "Everything was heavier; it was not as light, particularly the song `Louder Than Words,' which has lyrics that are so poignant. But as time has gone by audiences, having faced the harsh reality, are coming back to life, and laughing again, and getting outside themselves and the tragedy. We all need to support the good things about our society, and this is a very uplifting piece."