Jonathan Larson is missing a song. There are no songs in the second half. It was 1990, and 29-year-old Larson, truly one of the few (dying) artists in New York musical theatre.
It had been working on his musical Superbia for eight years. He wrote it for a presentation that a great Broadway/Off-Broadway producer would hear in six days.
The problem was that Larson, who worked in a restaurant to pay his monthly allowance, was overworked.
He sat like that all day staring at his Macintosh computer. And the blinking cursor was the only reminder of the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years that had passed.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, with the possible presentation earning him his first salary from musical theatre. After that, he will not be a failed New York artist who is immersed in his ideals.
His “passion” would also become his work. He must be “found”. He would soon be touted by fame, money, and respect for his comrades. Everything depends on this song.
Therefore, nothing looks good enough. He wrote a word, a sentence and then erased it. Someone who makes spontaneous songs as practice can’t find a decent text/melody for the most critical bridge in their work.
Even more frightening is the fact that Larson will turn 30 the day after his appearance. Maybe a cornerstone? And what does he have to show about it? All the writers, musicians he grew up with had achieved so much more then. He still had to compose songs.
While trying to focus his skills on that one goal, he was constantly distracted.
Even besides the missing song, there are still a million things to do. Bills due lay on his kitchen table, partner Larson (Susan) was waiting for the “right time” to talk to him. About a job in another part of town.
He had a friend who could use his advice on something “important”. He needs to contact his agent, who hasn’t answered his calls in a year. He had to find the logistics of bringing his vision to life in the best possible way in front of potential participants. Even if it meant buying additional musicians by selling books and records.
Larson rushed to the track, gasping for air.
Which can be very short. His parents are still watching him expectantly to “wake up” and perhaps calm down. The friends wondering how long he will hold his hunger pangs before he turns to the “dark side”.
This was also the decade the AIDS epidemic swept across America, leaving Larson. The occasional witness to many unexpected deaths, especially among his friends. Time seemed to be running out, the fuse lit and the TNT dynamite was about to explode.
Lynn-Manuel Miranda’s film, which is an adaptation of the musical of the same name off Larson’s Broadway. It is fascinating to watch because it focuses explicitly on the fears of an artist struggling. With only two modes (or maybe moods?): Deposition and burn.
Larson’s musical in his sophomore year draws on his days on his first project. And eventually leaves behind countless illuminations like “Fear or Love?” or “When the Boss Sins Like Rain”. All of them became part of the last song, ‘Louder than words.
Miranda, who reinvented the Broadway musical with Hamilton (similar to Larson’s 1996 Rockmusical Rent), is here in familiar territory. He played Larson in the Broadway revival of Tick, Tick Tick Boom! Here he doesn’t just adapt Larson’s story into a vanilla film.
But also to extrapolate one’s journey into a lesson for artists defeated by everyday pragmatism.
Like Damien Chassell’s La La Land, Larson’s musical touches on the need. To maintain the integrity of his artistic voice and not “sell it out”.
He talks about compromise in a soft tone, almost conservative (or tense) in his view of the world. Andrew Garfield’s “John” Larson is haunted by a ticking clock, as is Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian. The latter was disillusioned by the reception of “pure” jazz, where the audience lacked the same enthusiasm.
While largely loyal to Larson’s musical, Miranda’s film adaptation adds nice touches to the original material. Such as the improvised song “Boho Days” (removed from later revisions).
Which takes place at the artists’ meeting. Andrew Garfield plays Larson in abundance, in which he lives at the speed of sound. Some might even say he lives “too much” with every passing second. He is out of breath in almost all of his scenes, as if he always has a place.
But Garfield gives Larson a human character. Even if he does some pretty embarrassing things under the guise of an “artist”. The inability to shut down and become completely obsessed is captured beautifully by Miranda.