There's a nearly unbearable poignancy to knowing the fact that the desperate desire that drives Jonathan Larsonís heavily autobiographical Tick Tick Boom! actually existed, but that Larson never lived to see his own success.
This chamber musical chronicles the artistic and personal crises of confidence that an aspiring theatrical composer faces as he approaches his 30th birthday and his dream to create a new kind of rock-based Broadway show. Larson did in fact achieve a Pulitze Prize-winning Broadway smash just five years later with Rent (a rock musical that, like Hair before it, caught the pulse of its generation, and is still running in New York a decade later). But, as is well known now, he unexpectedly died, just ten days short of his 36th birthday (of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm) on the eve of Rentís first downtown preview.
Tick Tick Boom!'s collection of highly personal and individual songs is his only other surviving legacy. While the show Ė first produced in New York in 2001 and now receiving its British premiere at the ever-resourceful Menier Chocolate Factory Ė is deepened by that knowledge, it is actually, in its own right, a galvanising portrait of artistic ambition and the rites-of-passage that this young man went through in pursuit of his dream.
Shows like The Producers, 42nd Street and Kiss Me Kate are musicals about musicals, too, going backstage behind the making of them. This piece goes one step earlier, to the point of conception. Larsonís idol (and mentor) Stephen Sondheim famously took the creative pulse (and personal cost) behind artistic endeavour in Sunday in the Park with George, which is directly referenced here in a rather too self-consciously knowing parody number. Larson goes further by channelling not only his own life but also the proof of his talent to tell his story.
In a series of songs that are by turns pungent, poignant and particular, he faces up to himself and his failure to, as yet, make a mark. Meanwhile, his best friend from childhood, Michael, has a thriving career in marketing; and his dancer girlfriend of two years, Susan, yearns to escape the city and make a new life on Cape Cod.
In Scott Schwartzís production thatís full of high-octane (and high-volume) energy, Neil Patrick Harris projects a sweet vulnerability and youthful optimism as Jonathan, while Cassidy Janson and Tee Jaye complement him beautifully as girlfriend and best friend as well as a dizzying array of other characterisations.
The show is another triumph for the Menier and also provides another welcome jolt of excitement to a London musical scene that has already been galvanised by such tremendous new shows as Billy Elliot and The Big Life.
- Mark Shenton