Remembering Jonathan; or “How to Wake Up a Generation”
By Stephanie Williams, Executive Producer
Red Branch Theatre Company
As I sat watching the first costumed run-through of Red Branch’s upcoming production of Tick, tick… BOOM!, I wondered why I felt like I was on the verge of tears. This feeling crept up on me very early on in the 90-minute one act. Though the show deals with serious themes, it does so in a fast-paced and often lighthearted way. Why then was I getting chills nearly every time the character of Jon uttered a line? As I watched the conclusion of the show the answer became very clear; I know how this story ends. And Jon is never going to.
The story of the real-life Jon seems like it was ripped from the plotline of a great tragedy. Jonathan Larson died the night before the first Off-Broadway preview performance of RENT, the show that would go on to change the course of musical theatre history and become an inspiring anthem for struggling artists everywhere. The New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley would call it an “exhilarating, landmark rock opera” with a “glittering, inventive score” that “shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical.” Jon would never see his show transfer to Broadway where it would be awarded for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical at the 1996 Tony Awards, win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and run for 12 subsequent years.
Tick, tick… BOOM! offers us a rare and intimate look into Jonathan’s pre-RENT life: his creative process, struggles, disappointments, self-doubts, and ultimately, his hope. Originally written as a one-man show that Jonathan performed with a band in workshop as a “rock monologue,” it was reworked by playwright David Auburn in 2001 for 3 actors. Driven by Jon’s fears of turning 30 in 1990 and not having much to show for it, his mounting anxieties leave him questioning his chosen career path as a theatre artist. Throughout the show he navigates pressures from those in his inner circle. Should he choose to follow his best friend Michael into the corporate world for financial security? Should he choose to follow girlfriend Susan to the suburbs for a more stable, family-style existence? Should he choose to continue to follow his own dreams, however challenging the path? Thankfully for us, and the landscape of American Musical Theatre, he makes the bold and risky choice. “I want to write music. I want to sit down right now at my piano and write a song that people will listen to and remember. And I want to do the same thing, every morning, for the rest of my life.” It is precisely lines like these that make Tick, tick… BOOM! simultaneously heart-warming and heart wrenching.
Before seeing this show, I of course knew Jonathan as the composer/lyricist of my favorite musical from my late high school years; the guy who wrote the songs that I would embarrassingly belt out in the shower (and unfortunately in public) as an angsty teen in the 90’s. After seeing and hearing Jon’s words come to life in Tick, tick… BOOM!, and also being in my 30’s with a completely different perspective than my angsty teenage self, I feel as if I know and understand him much better now. I have to hope that Jon could feel where RENT was headed; that all of his past struggles and hardships were justified as he watched his show in that final week of dress rehearsal. When that tingly teary feeling creeps up on me again, I have to trust that Jonathan Larson knew that he had made an impact as an artist; that he was happy, proud, and fulfilled.
So the next time I watch the show, when Jon belts out the lyrics “What does it take to wake up a generation?” I will smile and think to myself: “You.”
Tick, tick… BOOM! opens TOMORROW – Friday, September 27th at Red Branch Theatre Company and runs weekends through October 13th. Directed by Jennifer Spieler, with music direction by Wil Lewis III. Featuring Patrick Prebula, Cory Jones, and Eben K. Logan. Red Branch Theatre Company is a professional, non-Equity theatre company in residence at Drama Learning Center in Columbia, Maryland. For more information and tickets, please visit our website
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Jonathan Larson sings “Sunday” from Tick, tick…BOOM!
The cast of Red Branch’s Tick, tick…BOOM! performs a preview of “Johnny Can’t Decide.”