tick, tick…Boom!, the new Netflix film and directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s small musical-slash-one-man show of the same name. Miranda, of course, is known as the man behind the Broadway success Hamilton and Larson, a prodigy in his own right, is known for writing another Broadway smash hit: Rent. I enjoyed the film, overall: Andrew Garfield embodies Larson perfectly and the ensemble cast does a wonderful job bringing the music (and 1980s bohemian New York) to life.
Unlike Miranda, Larson never saw the success of his Broadway show. He died unexpectedly the night before the first cast reading of an undiagnosed aneurysm at 35. tick, tick…Boom! is a decidedly smaller production than the other work both Miranda and Larson are known for. “tick, tick…Boom!” is an autobiographical show about a character also named Jonathan, who, about to turn thirty, wonders if he’ll ever make it as an artist and musician. The plot follows Jonathan as he tries to stage a complicated and confusing sci-fi musical before entering his new decade, while balancing his work as a waiter at a New York diner. Miranda smartly bounces back and forth between a faux-stage production of the show and scripted interludes that flesh out Larson’s life and process. It’s fast moving, anchored by Larson’s catchy show tunes, while also being intimate and personal, staging one artist’s life against a backdrop of 1980s New York and the AIDS crisis.
Miranda is well documented in his admiration for Larson and for Rent and tick, tick…Boom!is a show that makes sense for Miranda to choose as his directorial debut: it’s a niche Broadway show and Miranda is a product of Broadway. It’s a semi-autobiographic musical and Miranda made a name for himself first with his own semi-autobiographical, In The Heights. It’s a story about art and life, ambition and failure, legacy and death. In other words, it’s what all of Miranda’s work is about.
I’ve always found Miranda’s interested in legacy fascinating. His stories are about people (usually men) with big ambitions and big dreams. (There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.) They want to be remembered by history. (They’ll tell the story of tonight.) Hamilton is often talked about as a story of America’s founding but I’ve always been drawn to the personal story embedded inside it: the story of an ambitious writer trying to balance work with his young family, of wanting to be remembered in history, sometimes at expense of the present.
The core of Hamilton, in my view, is this verse from Eliza, his new wife, after she tells Alexander that she is pregnant:
We don’t need a legacy
We don’t need money
If I could grant you peace of mind
If you could let me inside your heart…
Oh, let me be a part of the narrative
In the story they will write someday
Let this moment be the first chapter:
Where you decide to stay
And I could be enough
And we could be enough
That would be enough
This is Hamilton’s core tension and these lines would fit right at home inside tick, tick…Boom! as well. Miranda expands the love story in the film with Susan, Larson’s girlfriend, who gets a job upstate (Another parallel: Hamilton moves uptown!) and wants Jonathan to come with her. He keeps putting off the conversation, putting the work ahead, trying to stage his show. The opening lines of tick, tick…boom! are about the dread of turning thirty while still unable to create art of value: Stop the clock / Take time out / Time to regroup / Before you lose the bout. I’m again reminded of a Hamilton line: Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Miranda’s characters are ambitious, hard-working, creative, and sometimes myopic and Miranda, too, is clearly ambitious. And his work is laced with this rush to produce. His first show, In the Heights, debuted when he was only 27. His output has only increased since Hamilton, writing songs for Disney movies, producing and acting, and other film and music work. Perhaps Miranda is thinking about his legacy too. It’s a narrative I know all too well and is, perhaps, the reason I find Miranda’s body of work so compelling.
“It seems to be that shared sense of determination between Miranda and Larson that makes Miranda’s Tick, Tick…Boom! feel so tender, so affectionate: You’re able to empathize utterly with Larson’s fears of running out of time because Miranda understands them so well,” writes Constance Grady in Vox. “Under Miranda’s direction, the film becomes a tribute to ambition itself, to the panic of being young and talented and striving but not quite getting there yet.”
I was thinking about all of this a few weekends ago while I was hanging up Christmas lights around our garage when my partner came running outside to tell me that Virgil Abloh died. Abloh, the polymathic designer, died at 41 after a two-year, private battle with cancer.
Abloh’s death, perhaps felt more intense after thinking about Jonathan Larson, reminded me of two other public figures whose death’s recked me: Steven Jobs and Anthony Bourdain. Though Jobs’s death was a bit more expected than the other two, all three felt like they were at the height of their creativity; like there was so much more left in them that we’ll now never get to see. Again, I could get that Hamilton line out of me head — why do you write like you’re running out of time? — and was amazed at how apt it felt for all three of them, but especially for Virgil. A relentless workaholic, with his hand in seemingly every area of the design field, I can’t help but wonder if part of this was a fight against the clock.
Abloh’s work across fashion, graphic design, art, furniture, and products was an influence on me and I admired both the ease with which he moved across disciplines and the generosity he seemed to have in sharing this knowledge with others. Above all, I think, Abloh was a teacher. He open-sourced his process, worked in public, and gave lectures around the world to open doors for others and make room for the next generation to pick up and move further. This spirit, I hope, we can continue. Rest in Power, VA.
A Western ideal of dominance neatly grafts onto Abloh’s remarkable life, if you need it to. The pop-culture-obsessive son of Ghanaian immigrants in Rockford, Illinois, slashed an unprecedented path through streetwear to one of the highest mantles in fashion—artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton—and brought all his boys with him. In the wake of his death, his major identifier is that he was only the third Black man to lead a major French fashion house. But his ascendance was meaningful partly because he dispensed with the fixedness of “ascendance.” L.V.M.H. saw him as the skeleton-key ambassador to a clientele it had previously shunned and now desired, but Abloh saw himself as a big-kid enthusiast, a rewriter of our notions of luxury, a true believer in the dreams of the youth. The zeal he brought to finessing a glittery harness or punctuating a puffy silhouette with the bluntness of a pair of sneakers was equal to the zeal he brought to an impromptu d.j. night in Paris or New York or Chicago. His presence caused, or forced, the fashion industry to accept the values it had dismissed as unserious: earnestness, excitement, credulity, love. What could be more serious than love?
Another death this month was the great poet, philosopher, and painter Etel Adnan. I adore her paintings and have been spending time with them again lately. If you’re looking for an introduction to her work, here’s a nice profile in Frieze and here’s a great interview in Beshara magazine.
George Saunders (!!) started a Substack to talk about writing, reading, and short stories. Instant-subscribe for me.
I just finished the new Dave Eggers novel, The Every, a follow-up/sequel of sorts to The Circle — a satirical, biting, and funny critique of Silicon Valley. The book, in the end, felt less tight than The Circle but the when it shines, it really shines. The last quarter was fantastic.
Be sure to read this Jeremy Strong profile in The New Yorker. If you love Succession as much as I do, you’ll very much enjoy getting a peak inside the development of Kendall.
Or if Succession isn’t your thing, this profile of Hayao Miyazaki in T is fantastic and prompted a rewatch of many Studio Ghibli films!
How roundabouts help lower carbon emissions. There’s a handful of roundabouts in Raleigh that I’ve grown to love so I very much enjoyed reading this. (As another transit piece, here’s Jay Caspian Kang on e-bikes. I’m a fan!)
I’m very excited to see Cyrano, not least of which because The National wrote the soundtrack. Here’s one of the songs which has been on repeat the last few days.