Louder Than Words
How tick, tick…BOOM! Saved the Movie Musical in 2021
The movie musical is in danger. Much like the Western, it is a quintessential American art form. But over the years, their popularity has declined. Many who are not theatre kids consider the genre to be old-fashioned and cliched. “No one just BURSTS into song,” or “It’s so SAPPY.” But all these absurd arguments aside about the genre’s relevance, it doesn’t help that we haven’t had an out-and-out great movie musical in years.
Thankfully, it seemed like 2021 was going to save the genre from oblivion. We had not one, not two, but FIVE movie musicals acting as the last line of defense in a battle of audience’s attention and adoration. All had the potential to save the day but… the first ones up to bat fell on their faces because of mediocrity or simply being bad. Things looked grim, but then, at the last moment, a champion stepped forward.
The story of Jonathan Larson told through his autobiographical musical tick, tick…BOOM! seemed like the underdog. Being the least well-known, helmed by superstar but still first-time director Lin Manuel-Miranda, and starring an actor who had no prior musical theatre experience, the odds were not in its favor. However, tick, tick…BOOM! managed to stun, trouncing its competition and snatching the genre from complete oblivion. How did manage to do that where its cohorts failed?
Tick, tick…BOOM! saved the movie musical because it understood its audience better than anyone and leaned in on its authenticity to create a unique experience. It manages to shine thanks to its great performances, catchy and powerful songwriting, and its attitude and self-awareness. It is unapologetically itself, like theatre kids at Marie’s Crisis Café.
In the Heights and the Problem with Mass Appeal
The first musical released in 2021, In the Heights, appeared to be the savior of the movie musical. It rode high off the success and popularity of Lin Manuel Miranda thanks to Hamilton and many waited with eager anticipation for Miranda’s first breakout to hit the silver screen. So when it came out in July, it had a lot riding on it. The result was… mixed. The musical numbers directed by Jon M. Chu and the performances from its cast of (virtual) unknowns were solid. However, In the Heights lost a crucial element when it transferred from stage to screen: its focus.
In the Heights runs a steep 2 ½ hours and you can feel it. Yet somehow, even with all that time, it still feels underdeveloped. It’s understandable to an extent: cuts had to be made and songs had to be shifted around, that’s the nature of trying to make a hit show into a hit movie. But In the Heights made the mistake of cutting the right things out in favor of keeping the wrong things in. It cut down its most compelling storyline, Nina and Benny for the weakest, Usnavi and Vanessa.
Tick, tick…BOOM! on the other hand, made some specific changes, the biggest being the focus on Jonathan Larson. In the original show, Larson presents a thinly veiled portrait of himself, with the primary focus being his own head and it keeps characters like his girlfriend Susan and Michael and the reading of his musical Superbia mostly in the background. But the film managed to expand on the original musical by focusing on the autobiographical elements to make it a blend of fact and fiction akin to a millennial All That Jazz.
The easy, very Jonathan Larson answer to what In the Heights the film does wrong is simply that it sold out. It tried to be this grand scale achievement, trying to do what a lot of musical movies try to do: appeal to everyone instead of recognizing that they are a niche. That seems like being too niche would alienate viewers, but you also have to recognize the audience you do have and respect them as well.
Tick, tick…BOOM! knows exactly who its audience is. To quote probably the most oft tattooed Shakespeare quote on any theatre kid: “To thine own self be true.” Tick, tick…BOOM! is the truest of the true. It focuses on the one thing theatre kids love more than anything: other theatre kids. Larson is their patron saint and the film presents a world that was built for theatre kids. It is a glimpse into a world of very specific people, but it doesn’t hate outsiders: the door is always welcome to those who want to step through.
In the Heights was a big-budget musical that tried to save the musical by presenting itself as a mass-appealing, modern West Side Story classic that could bring musical theatre fans and laymen alike. As a result, it loses its own way, not fully succeeding as a musical or a movie in the way the original show did. It shot for the stars in an attempt to appease everyone, only to fall too short.
Annette and the Darkness of Sonic Similarity
Annette falls into a unique category of a movie musical that is not based on any stage play, but off of the work of the prolific and (despite their 50-year career) unknown to the public Sparks. Led by Leos Carax it seems to be the right combo, but ultimately Annette is the kind of musical that is hard to sit through and doesn’t exactly leave you with a good feeling in your heart.
Annette is not an example of the failure of darker musicals, having rock musicians write musicals, or musicals originating from film. Many classic musicals started on the screen: Gigi, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and yes, even Newsies. It certainly is a flawed convergence of those things and mostly fails at being almost too sonically similar and too embittered to ever come back from.
Annette’s primary problem as a musical is that it relies on a very specific sound of Sparks, who have dabbled in a variety of musical styles over the course of decades. Their catalog is immense, eclectic, and an absolute treat to dive into. However, in Annette, they produced a set of songs that all kind of sound the same. Sonic variety is something a musical really needs. Of course, many songwriters have specific styles that distinguish them from others. Style is important, but the songs within musicals provide some semblance of sonic differentiation from one another.
Tick, tick…BOOM! manages to dabble in many different songwriting conventions while still maintaining Larson’s unique style. Larson was a devotee to musical theatre and his influences are all over his early works that give tick, tick…BOOM! its distinct energy. You can hear it in the songs both “No More” and “30/90,” which erupt with the frantic rock energy that would serve Rent well, but also the songs and shows that inspired him. “Therapy” sounds very inspired by shows like Godspell and the much anticipated “Come to Your Senses” is a classic 11:00 number.
Larson brought about a very specific sound to Broadway and musical theater that no one had heard before and would reverberate to this day. Rent changed the course of musicals to come for better and for worse in some cases. But it resulted in some great musicals and sonically came from a variety of influences to make a unique blend. Annette peaks at the start, but from there it plateaus and never fully lifts off of the ground.
Dear Evan Hansen and the Problem With Reality
Dear Evan Hansen is deeply flawed as both a movie and a musical. In fact, the movie is so bad, that it completely highlights the flaws of what was an incredible success on stage. What went wrong? The abject failure of Dear Evan Hansen lies in many things, but one of the main ones is that it tried to ground something that is supposed to be ungroundable.
Dear Evan Hansen tries its best to force itself into our reality because it is a modern story and doesn’t fully own the theatricality of its own origins. It instead presents a reality in which things are going perfectly fine and then all of a sudden someone breaks out into song. As a result, it’s jarring, disjointed, and fuels the primary argument from people who hate musicals because “they’re not realistic.”
The problem with that argument is that it’s absolutely asinine. To say something in cinema is more realistic than others as a benchmark is kind of absurd considering that all of cinema is fiction. It’s just a matter of how well you represent your world and its rules and that’s when the audience can come along with you. That’s why a lot of musical movies can fall flat on their faces at times because the audience is already having trouble suspending their disbelief, so many movies try to meet audiences on their level.
tick, tick…boom! goes against that by integrating a lot of techniques from other movie musicals in terms of its sequences and rules once the musical numbers kick in. The film starts with the framework of the one-man show version of the story, shot through old camcorder footage to bring us into the world of 1990 before bringing us fully into the world, presenting what is an autobiographical mosaic of its subject. Each number has its own time to shine either as part of Larson’s one-man show juxtaposed with the real-life inspiration much like Chicago, high fantasy like in “Sunday” breaking into a big ensemble number, or “Boho Days” emerging naturally in the midst of a party.
The best musical movies are unapologetic in their theatricality. In tick, tick…BOOM!, the sequences highlight how music was such a part of Larson’s life, to the point that music and song just burst out of him. “I try to see if I can write a song out of anything,” he boasts at one point, sees notes in the pool, and turns a fight into a song while still mid-fight. Larson sees music everywhere he goes, the notes spewing from his very being. He cannot help himself and he is so connected to the rhythm of the world that he sees music everywhere and, throughout the film, and so do we.
What many movie musicals like Dear Evan Hansen fail at is trying to be something they’re not. Musicals are not real, nor are they supposed to be real. There is something to be said about presenting your world and your story with a bent style of reality and embracing that oftentimes, the more stylistic you go, the stories you tell feel more real than reality. Tick, tick…boom! understands that and as a result, knows how to be something that uses all the tricks in the theatrical movie playbook and works wonders in the way Dear Evan Hansen couldn’t.
West Side Story and the Crucial Nature of Casting
It is hard not to talk about the movie musicals that came out in 2021 and leave out the most critically lauded one. Steven Spielberg’s remake had a lot of hype to fulfill. It sought to revitalize not only one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, but one of the greatest movies of all time. Honestly though, if anyone could do it, Spielberg would be high on the list. On many fronts throughout West Side Story, he does. Except for one critical element.
Much like in any movie, it all comes down to casting. Specifically, its two leads. Though surrounded by an incredible litany of performances, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler fail to provide a strong enough center for everyone else to orbit on.
In an ideal world, actors should be triple threats. Alas, that’s just simply not how it works. The reason you rarely see a musical movie headlined by Broadway actors who know what they’re doing and instead with Hollywood celebrities is that Broadway is a fringe community. The compromise is to hire celebrities who prove to be adept at the job. West Side Story’s supporting cast is packed with incredible performers who all come from musical theatre backgrounds: Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Brian D’Arcy James, and the absolutely electric Ariana Debose. Unfortunately for us, none of those people are playing Tony or Maria.
Ansel Elgort is the biggest name in the entire cast (though let’s hope that changes) and thus is the one big name while Rachel Zegler is the much-toted discovery. A breakout performance meant to make a star and correct the original’s sin by casting someone who is actually Latina. However, both of their performances fail to fully provide the emotional punch that story requires. It’s not wholly their fault as from a script perspective, Tony and Maria are the weakest characters. But when a performance shows a lack of depth in the script, you’re in trouble.
To be fair, Tick, tick… BOOM! hinges entirely on one lead performance more than West Side Story does, but that makes picking the right person to be the centerpiece all the more important. It took a risk in casting Andrew Garfield, who we’ve never seen in a musical before, but he’s got serious theater credentials, including a much-earned Tony. Big actors can make that transition, Jake Gyllenhaal did it, and Garfield makes that transition perfectly and proved to be a calculated risk that paid off.
Tick, tick…boom! manages to cast people who are actually capable of doing the job and do a hell of a job. No one outside of 45th street knows who Joshua Henry or Robin de Jesus are, but they will now and that’s the importance of casting people who are actually a part of that community. The outside world may not fully catch everyone in the diner scene, but it is a testament to the people who are stars in a small bubble. West Side Story’s Broadway-stacked supporting cast act circles around the movie stars and demonstrates a case for just casting the Broadway kids.
The movie musical will always have its time here and there, but its hours of glory have long since passed. It’s been 20 years since a movie musical won Best Picture and it doesn’t look like the culture will be changing anytime soon. However, tick, tick…BOOM! showed that there was still a space for the genre and reminded audiences of the power of musicals as an art form.
Tick, tick…BOOM! is a love letter to many things, but it is purely a cinematic love letter to musicals and that is ultimately what makes it such a triumph. Musicals are not subtle. They’re bold, they’re loud, they’re often brimming with energy and emotion to the point that it cannot be contained. As a result, their fanbase is often the same. These frenetic, campy misfits who manage to keep a song in their hearts even as the world beats them down. Tick, tick…BOOM! speaks to something louder than words, lifting up a generation to take off and fly.