Last weekend, I saw the play tick tick…Boom with my family. This was another production of the teen theater company Upstage Theater, which is entirely powered by teens and donations. (And some ticket sales, but barely.) It’s an astonishing labor of love as they rehearse for weeks and weeks and then perform for just one weekend.
I’ve spent a lot of years as a theater parent, and so by now I know that when you put on a theater production with teenagers, the audience consists primarily (or entirely) of people who know and love them personally. Their friends and family come, sometimes teachers (always voice teachers), or family friends, and there’s an admiration and recognition of the work that they put in. It’s a celebration of their achievements, and that’s right and proper.
But it’s also a little bit of a shame because live theater has a lot more to offer than the achievements of its actors. I guess there’s a lot to say about what makes really great acting, including entire schools which train those actors, and I suppose a lot of people believe that “life experience” is one of the main requirements for a good actor, and that most teens can’t hack it.
I don’t know, really, whether that’s true or not, but I will say that teens have really big feelings, bigger and more unregulated than most adults that I know. Consequently, what they can bring to the stage is nothing to sneeze at. Disappointment, fear, embarrassment, unbridled desire— these are the workaday experiences of adolescence. Unlike little-kid productions, by the time you get to a late-high school cast, those kids have something tremendous to offer.
In this case, the musical they took on was a telling of Jonathan Larsen’s experience of turning 30. Jonathan Larsen’s name might ring a bell, and if it does, it’s probably as the composer and writer of the hit musical Rent. Rent took Broadway by storm in the mid-90’s, telling a story about a group of artists living with AIDS in NYC, loosely based on the 1896 opera La Boheme. I saw it on Broadway around the time it opened, and it was electric in its energy and felt unlike anything else I had every seen. Vital in its urgent contemporary storytelling, the story brought me deeply into an urban world where the cast of characters grappled with loss and heartbreak.
I thought that tick tick… Boom might be in some ways a telling of the writing of Rent, a little bit of how Shakespeare in Love took on the creation of Romeo and Juliet, or for that matter, the way that Something Rotten does the same. Those stories are in some ways love letters to their subject matter, nodding and winking to the audience all along, a sort of spin out, not quite of fan fiction, but of a dramatization that led to this love.
But it isn’t that.
tick tick… Boom is a telling of Larson’s experience of turning 30 and his grave disappointment and confusion about what his life is and isn’t. In the opening scene, he disparagingly refers to himself as a “promising young composer” whose promise maybe is all promised-out. He knows that he is incredibly talented, he just can’t explain why he hasn’t been even a little bit successful. Mostly, the audience seems him as someone waiting for something to happen, even as he desperately tries to make it happen.
It made me think about how very few stories take on this moment of being in your late 20’s in a way that isn’t fully focused on romance. I mean, there are lots and lots of movies, tv shows, and probably even plays which take on the dating world, almost always portraying their protagonists as early career. The life work of that time period is, I suppose, to become partnered and then move on with life.
tick tick…Boom, true to the autobiography of Larson, has him with a girlfriend even while his angst isn’t around his romantic future, it’s about his art. There is one line that sums up this angst more beautifully than the rest. When discussing some work by other artists that already had made its way to Broadway, Larson describes his feelings about that other artist’s success as a mixture of “envy and contempt.” That line, that combination, felt jaw-droppingly precise to me. Larsen condemns every artistic move towards “selling out” alongside his own very fervent wish that he could do the same. I have felt that same ambivalence, but it it isn’t really a mixture, not really. It is complete and total full-on envy, alongside complete and total full-on contempt.
Larsen compared himself to the success stories, and felt he measured up poorly. He wanted to follow in their footsteps, but maybe not as much as he felt he deserved to be leading the way. The play makes clear his disappointment, his earnest efforts, his eagerness to make something of his life, his tangled humility and bravado.
And so to watch teens perform this, teens who are ten years away from these feelings, but on their way, felt somehow so fitting. They’re close to this striving— closer than I am. And they did it with great aplomb. Bravo to Upstage Theater, and to teen actors, and a virtual toast also to Jonathan Larsen who achieved some great life’s work after all, squeaking in a great artistic victory before succumbing to an early death. I’m so glad I got to see it.
Ariella Radwin is a writer and theater enthusiast who has spent decades of her life watching her children and their friends perform. She will never tire of applauding for young people who put their hearts and souls and entire selves into small and intimate performances.