Following last week’s The Last 5 Years, the Notes From New York season at the Duchess theatre continues with the late American composer Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical.
Larson was only 35 when he died of heart problems in 1996 on the eve of the off-Broadway opening night of the work that was to make his name as a musical theatre composer, Rent.
What happened to Larson gives an added poignancy to Tick…Tick…Boom!, his autobiographical musical which preceded Rent by five years, in which he charts his struggles to achieve success as a composer, while living in an attic flat in New York and making ends meet by working as a waiter.
In this simply-staged production at the Duchess theatre, Paul Keating plays the composer wrestling with feelings of self-worth and underachievement on the eve of his 30th birthday. A young, idealistic and focused man, he is determined not to sell out and take a job in his flatmate’s advertising agency, despite the depressing alternative of continuing to wait tables. With his birthday looming, he pins all his hopes on a workshop of Superbia, a futuristic rock musical he has been working on for years, but in doing so his relationships with his dancer girlfriend – Julie Atherton’s Susan – and flatmate and best friend Michael (Leon Lopez) become strained.
The music of Tick…Tick…Boom! indicates a composer still finding his voice, encompassing, as it does, a mix of musical styles. One scene between Susan and John has the pair arguing to a quick country and western tempo, as though line dancing with their words. Another number pays affectionate homage to Larson’s idol, Stephen Sondheim, mimicking his Sunday In The Park With Georges but setting the scene in the diner where Larson works.
The piece also reveals some of the influences that led Larson to write Rent. It is the beginning of the 1990s and Larson embodies a generation struggling to find its voice, while the threat of AIDS looms large, decimating a community yet still considered an unspeakable taboo. Indeed when Michael reveals to John that he is dying, the word AIDS is not uttered, even between friends.
While the focus of the piece is on Keating’s performance, Atherton and Lopez give strong support in their roles, as well as taking on various minor characters, including Larson’s fag-smoking agent Rosa, and his father, whose well meaning yet awkward phone calls only serve to remind Larson of what he hasn’t yet achieved.
As the title suggests, there is a strong sense of time in this piece, pressurising Larson to make something of his life, to fulfil his long-held ambitions. Hindsight tells us that tragically, this self-imposed deadline was even more pressing than he could have predicted.