“Compromise or Persevere?” Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!

Lin-Manuel Miranda is releasing a film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” this month. In the Muse is publishing a series of four blog posts that connect readers with archival material from the Music Division’s Jonathan Larson Papers. We hope that the sketches, notes, drafts, and other materials we highlight in these blog posts enhance your understanding of Larson the creator.

 

If musical theater fans know any material by Jonathan Larson apart from his magnum opus, RENT, it’s likely his musical tick, tick…Boom! – and if they don’t know it already, their understanding of Larson is about to expand when the film adaptation hits Netflix on November 19th. Largely autobiographical, the musical centers on Jon, a struggling musical theater composer who is feeling pressure as his 30th birthday approaches to choose between a life dedicated to the theater, or a traditional family life with financial stability. Should Jon take an interview with the market research firm where his friend Michael works? Should he marry his girlfriend Susan and start a family? Is time being wasted on his original rock musical? How will he know if it’s worth so much sacrifice?

Sheet of loose leaf paper with Jonathan Larson's handwritten notes about character motivation and the theme of compromise vs. perseverance.

Larson’s notes about character motivation and themes in tick, tick…BOOM!. Box 33/Folder 5, Jonathan Larson Papers. Library of Congress Music Division.

Across all of his projects, Larson’s handwritten research notes, lyric sheets, and concept sketches are copious; it’s difficult for me to resist the urge to read every page when I open a folder. Nevertheless, certain pages do make me stop in my tracks to really contemplate what Larson is trying to express in his work, and one sheet in particular recently captured my attention. The loose leaf paper appears to map out big-picture themes for the musical as well as personal drives for the three characters. Beneath the character descriptions, Larson writes:

“Tick = Compromise
Boom = Perseverance.”

The tension between these two concepts (compromise and perseverance) is present not only in the title but throughout the work. Jon directly stresses over whether to “compromise or persevere” in the lyrics to the song “Johnny Can’t Decide.” On the same sheet of paper, Larson includes “perseverance” again in a map of themes under the word “Dream.” However, he crosses out “Dream” and replaces it with “Diner,” with a circle around it. True to the autobiographical nature of the musical, the main character Jon works in a Manhattan diner, just as Larson worked at the popular Moondance diner. While some might think of the diner job as a compromise required to support himself in pursuit of his theatrical endeavors, Larson’s notes suggest that the diner signifies the perseverance required to pursue his dream. It is the market research job that represents compromise, tearing Michael away from the theater. Even Susan’s “purity” (as noted on the page) is a force pulling Jon away from devotion to his own drive. Larson writes “Jonny” and “Me,” with an arrow pointing up the center of this map between “Perseverance” and “Compromise,” illustrating that the impending 30th birthday demands a decision between succumbing to a life of compromises and holding fast to his own passion and perseverance in the face of uncertainty.

Questionnaire about life and turning 30 in 1990, filled out by Jonathan Larson.

Questionnaire filled out by Larson. Box 33/Folder 6, Jonathan Larson Papers. Library of Congress Music Division.

Apart from extensive lyric and concept sketches, the Larson Papers’ tick, tick…BOOM! materials include a questionnaire administered in 1990, in part centered on what the person expected out of life by age 30 and the vision they had for 30-year-olds in the year 2000. The Larson Papers include 27 completed questionnaires; whether these were formally collected as research for the show or simply collected as an interesting exercise at a workshop performance, is unclear (though the questionnaire concludes with the message “THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP,” suggesting that the questionnaires were created to help Larson in some fashion). Whatever the intention, we are lucky to have a copy of the questionnaire that Larson filled out himself. When asked “What are (or were) your preconceived ideas about turning age 30?” Larson wrote, “I’d hoped to be married w/ kids – successful in my career.” Seeing that marriage and kids seemingly weighed equally with his professional goals struck me, and adds deeper complexity to my own understanding of Jon’s inner conflict in tick, tick…BOOM! The conflict is not necessarily limited to the pressure of societal norms as he ages, but is also rooted in potentially missing out on his own dreams from an earlier age.

Among his many pages of notes and sketches, there is one where Larson writes out a series of questions under the words “Choices” and “Compromise,” both underlined:

Loose leaf paper with notes and questions in Larson's hand.

Notes and questions in Larson’s hand. Box 33/Folder 5, Jonathan Larson Papers. Library of Congress Music Division.

Start a family –
Do artists ever marry?
Do artists have children?
Are artists cursed to always – see –
Artists can’t take a vacation…If only these ears didn’t hear”

To read his papers is to know Jonathan Larson in a deeper way, particularly when it comes to his notes regarding existential questions that connect us all. I encourage you to read Larson’s entire questionnaire to get a short but wonderful glimpse into his world – what he ate, what he cared about, and even what person dead or living he’d most like to meet. Then, for fun, I hope that some of you might answer the questionnaire for yourselves. What does turning 30 mean in the year 2021? How do the “social ills” that Larson identified in 1990 compare to your assessment of such issues today? What has been the most important event in your life, and why? We all will get to know Jonathan Larson a little bit better with the release of tick, tick…BOOM!, and, hopefully, the film will spark self-reflection regarding how we live our own lives. And if you’re left wanting to learn more about Larson, remember that researchers will always be able to unlock his process and personality in the notes, sketches, drafts, correspondence, and many other papers preserved in the Jonathan Larson Papers.

To learn more about Jonathan Larson, the Larson Papers, and tick, tick…BOOM!, please read the other posts in this series:

2 Comments

  1. Michael Mooney
    November 12, 2021 at 7:59 pm

    Looks to me like Jonathan spelled his nickname “Jonny” not “Johny.”

    • Cait Miller
      November 12, 2021 at 8:33 pm

      I think you’re right! Thanks for pointing that out. In the end the song is called “Johnny Can’t Decide” – a combination of the two!

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