On the edge of 30, lyricist-composer-librettist Jonathan Larson wrote about a songwriter named Jonathan at the edge of 30, at the crossroads: His girl wants to marry, his pal is a successful businessman, and "Jonathan" wants nothing less than to be a big noise in American musical theatre.
This is the stuff of Larson's seminal tick, tick...BOOM!, his unproduced intimate show that first emerged in 1990. It finally gets its world premiere June 13 at the Jane Street Theatre, five years after the unexpected death of 35-year-old Larson, who did indeed make his mark on musical theatre with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent.
Raúl Esparza (The Rocky Horror Show) plays the songwriter, who is writing but also waiting tables. Amy Spanger (Kiss Me, Kate) is his girlfriend (and other characters) and Jerry Dixon is his friend (and others) in the Off Broadway debut of the semi-autobiographical rock-and-pop-driven musical, which began performances May 23 in Manhattan. The show is said to be a quirky take on Larson's life rather than strict autobiography.
* tick, tick first emerged in 1990, but never got fully produced. Larson did, of course, eventually cause shock waves in theatre, in 1996, when his rock opera Rent won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He died of an undiagnosed heart ailment prior to the show's Off Broadway debut. It moved to Broadway after its sold-out run at New York Theatre Workshop. Rent celebrated its fifth anniversary April 29.
Rent fans are expected to be especially interested in the "new" show. Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Auburn is script consultant for the show, which had been seen in various stages in readings or workshops starring Larson.
The show was first performed by Larson under the title Boho Days (billed as a "rock monologue with band") Sept. 6-9, 1990, in a workshop at Second Stage. He revised the developing piece following Second Stage, and the title was changed to tick, tick...BOOM! and presented with Larson as performer in 1991 at the Village Gate (with college pal Victoria Leacock producing), and then later in 1992 and 1993 in the "O Solo Mio" fests at New York Theatre Workshop. The Off-Broadway script is an adaptation by playwright Auburn (Proof), drawing on Larson's various drafts.
Boho Days was aspiring commercial producer Jeffrey Seller's introduction to Larson. Theatrical booking agent Seller would go on to produce Larson's Rent.
The rock 'n' roll narrative of tick, tick... was written to be performed by one man and a trio of musicians: 12 monologues and 12 songs. There were several versions of the show over the years, producer Robyn Goodman said, and the number of songs in each version varied. Musical numbers over the years included "Theatre Is Dead," "Louder Than Words," "Why" and "Sunday," among others. The Playbill lists 13 songs: "30/90," "Green Green Dress," "Johnny Can't Decide," "Sunday," "No More," "Therapy," "Play Game," "Real Life," "Sugar," "See Her Smile," "Come to Your Senses," "Why" and "Louder Than Words."
Amy Asch, an archivist for the Larson papers (and Playbill On-Line employee), told PBOL Larson had the style of monologists Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray in mind when he was creating the unique musical.
Spanger played frisky Lois Lane/Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate for more than a year after that revival opened in late 1999, and Esparza rocked as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show at Circle-in the Square Theatre this season. Dixon appeared in Once on This Island, Five Guys Named Moe, Bright Lights, Big City and more.
Goodman is partnering with producers Victoria Leacock, Dede Harris, Lorie Cowen Levy and Beth Smith.
Leacock and Goodman were both involved in the early workshops of tick, tick...BOOM! at Second Stage and encouraged Larson to continue developing the show. Around the same time, he was writing Rent.
"It's like getting to revisit an old friend," Leacock previously told Playbill On-Line. "It's totally a snapshot of his life and time and my life and time. I'm so psyched it's at the Jane Street Theatre. It's an old funky, arty theatre space with high ceilings; it used to be a seaman's meeting room." Larson, she said, would have loved the 274-seat venue.
The little-known tick, tick...BOOM! is "a precursor to Rent," Goodman said. "The character's name is Jonathan and it's all about him being a composer and changing the face of musical theatre, which is what Jon was. It's a little story about a crisis in his life. It has a little more of musical theatre feel than Rent."
"Victoria and I have a talked about [producing the show before], but the wound has been so fresh that it didn't seem the time to do it," Goodman said. "But it's part of his canon, and there's so little of it. I am so proud to do these songs."
The musical is set in 1990 and "has somewhat of a late '80s feel," musically, Goodman said. She called it a "rock play" that is very character-specific. The message, however, is universal: "The show is about the courage it takes to follow your dream."
Tickets are $20-$50. Jane Street Theatre is at 113 Jane Street (between West and Washington streets) in Manhattan. For ticket information, call (212) 239-6200.
— By Kenneth Jones