This newsletter is dedicated to Mr. Stephen Sondheim.
I can’t resist a timely post, especially where musicals are involved. In my introduction to this newsletter, I described how the musical Pippin helped shape my understanding of the quarter life crisis. And, in no surprise to anyone who knows me, I’ve got another musical to talk about this week: Tick, Tick…Boom!, Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical work that was adapted into a film by Lin-Manuel Miranda and released on Netflix recently.
As its title suggests, this is a (very meta-) musical all about time and impending doom and/or deadlines (honestly, what’s the difference?), as Larson approaches 30 with his struggling musical theatre career, his friends moving on to more stable jobs, and the AIDS epidemic ushering some of his friends to an early death. The show, originally a one- to three-person stripped-down stage show featuring Larson, predates his success with Rent,1 a musical that itself is inevitably tied to his own tragic early death at 35 from an aortic aneurysm before its first off-Broadway preview. Tick, Tick…Boom!, re-staged in 2001 (featuring Raúl Esparza), has always been performed to a wider audience within the post-Rent, post-death context. The film addresses this context explicitly with an additional frame story. It’s cheesy in some places, but necessary.
Tick, Tick…Boom! might leave its titular ticking as a vague existential fear, but its plot counts down to Jonathan’s 30th birthday, the culmination of the workshop of the musical he’s been working on all his 20s, and an imminent break-up. His crisis is not just about the art—it’s also about no longer drawing attention for being a young composer, and the anxious anticipation of finally reaching a new stage of his life. (Slight spoiler alert: the workshop doesn’t land any producers, so out of frustration he writes the original version of Tick, Tick…Boom! I told you this show was meta.)
Recently there was a very popular Tweet making the rounds about how, especially as an artist, you don’t need to accomplish your best work before you’re 30. This is a myth-ridden anxiety that has persisted just about as much as the mad artist martyr who is brilliant and tragic with their untreated mental illness and/or addiction. (The irony, of course, is that Larson became one of those mythic figures himself after passing away at 35 before Rent’s debut.) Even if you’re not a writer, many of us feel this impending countdown to the societally-scripted settling down: landing that dream job and getting married and having kids.
The time is flying
And everything is dying
I thought by now
I'd have a dog, a kid, and wife
—Jonathan in “Boho Days”
Turning 30 is one of the anxieties I believe fuels the quarter-life crisis—especially those who are floundering in an artistic career and/or family-oriented. Honestly, the brilliant young but mad artist myth I mentioned earlier is sort of a chicken and egg situation: hasn’t the attention from that early well-received work made it harder to continue to produce? This is especially true now with social media creating an increased sense of attention. People are watching you.
Interestingly, this is an anxiety we saw earlier (at least semi-ironically) this year on Netflix in a song in Bo Burnham’s special Inside, which also featured 1990, except in that it was the year he was born. (So, Larson would be 30 years older than Burnham…and meanwhile, Stephen Sondheim was2 30 years older than Larson and three times as old as Burnham last year…but I digress.)
They're singing, "Happy Birthday"
You just wish you could run away
Who cares about a birthday?
But 30/90, hey!
Can you be optimistic?
You're no longer the ingenue
Turn 30, 1990
Boom! You're passé
What can you do?
—Jonathan and Michael in “30/90”
For our purposes, there are two particular moments in the film where Jonathan hears the titular ticking, and he spirals.
The first is the “Sunday” sequence: Jonathan has to write this song for the upcoming workshop, but as I know well, creativity does not happen under pressure. He’s trying to work Sunday brunch at the diner, which of course is just added stress. And what better time to think about what you really want to work on artistically when you’re stuck at your day job? (Okay, maybe that’s just me projecting.)
So, he re-imagines Sunday brunch as an homage to the Act 1 finale of Sunday in the Park with George, a Sondheim musical about the artist’s plight. The anxiety melts away, the diner wall falls so he can arrange his scene just like George. Bernadette Peters appears, as does André De Shields, two Schuyler Sisters, three original cast members from Rent, and other icons.
It’s a dream, a fantasy. Everything he wants is still hoped for, all in his head, while in reality he is a struggling waiter and composer waiting and waiting for someone to produce him. He lacks the control he imagines.
The second moment is when he is participating in a two-hour advertising focus group at Michael’s company, purely to make $75 (honestly, pretty good deal, can I do that sometimes?). He initially shines with his poetic outlook and contemplates how he could do it for an easier living…but then the claustrophobia sets in as he realizes just how pointless (and possibly dangerous) the product is. “This could be the rest of my life," he says, eyes widening. Tick, tick, tick.
These moments come from the tension between money-making jobs and time for creativity and artistry. As many of us have experienced, the two often do not go well together, and it causes this existential “what am I doing with my life??” crisis. When you’ve got something you need to write, sitting through a job to make money is incredibly difficult—and even restricting of creativity. You want more time to work on your art, but then you also need to make money. It’s hard. It makes work-life balance a work-create-life balance even harder to manage. And it’s basically where my head is at least half the work week—and I have a job that’s at least getting me writing experience!
After no producer commissions Larson, his agent—who is a bit shady and clearly lying about inviting Hal Prince, at the very least—offers some advice I needed to hear. “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey,” she says. “You just keep throwing them at the wall and hoping against hope that eventually something sticks.”
So I spent some time writing poetry after I finished the film. I’m writing this essay. I’m slowly crafting a personal essay—really, the fifth or so draft of it—that’s important and healing to me, which likely will be in my MFA application. I don’t have as much time as I want, but I know worrying about it will only waste the time I have.
Why should we blaze a trail
When the well worn path seems safe and
How, as we travel, can we
See the dismay
And keep from fighting?
—“Louder Than Words”
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I have loads to say about Rent and its relationship to this, as well as how it was so important to me when I was 19 and just discovering my community…but this newsletter isn’t the place for that.
Sondheim died when I was writing this—the “Sunday” paragraph no less—and I’m still processing. I’m struck by yet another reminder of mortality. Sondheim even offered a rewrite on this film and leant his voice to it.