tick…tick… BOOM! – it’s a universal condition

Milestone birthdays often give rise to existential crises. In 1990, Jonathan Larson was staring down the barrel of his thirtieth birthday and faced a dilemma: whether to continue pursuing his dreams of making it big in theatreland, or abandon them to pursue a more conventional path.  His musical, Superbia, had few prospects. He’s waiting tables, but also waiting to ‘make it’. The clock is ticking. After all, his idol, Stephen Sondheim, had achieved success by the age of 27. And girlfriend Susan is keen to move out of the city, while best friend Michael has quit acing in favour of a corporate role on Madison Avenue. The universe seems to be sending him a message.

The angst associated with this predicament are plaintive in lyrics at the start of tick, tick, BOOM!, which commences a run at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on 1 February 2023:

Turn thirty. 1990,

Bang, you’re dead.

What do you do?

What do you do?

What do you do?

The drama is a rock musical that tells the real-life story of Larson’s quest to achieve career success while navigating personal pressures. The story is made poignant, of course, by the fact that Larson died suddenly from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 – the night before the off-Broadway premiere of Rent, his creation that went on to enjoy massive success.

In personal papers that survive Larson, his mental and emotional indecision are made clear. In a questionnaire he produced, he asked the question: ‘What are (or were) your preconceived ideas about turning 30?’ Larson filled one in himself, stating that he hoped to ‘be married with kids – be successful in [his] career’. This seems to suggest that Larson’s dream was to have it all – but here he was, potentially faced with having to choose.  Again, this is evidenced from his own words: ‘tick = compromise; boom = perseverance’. Compromise or persevere? That is the question. While Larson’s untimely death, and the subsequent success of his work (Rent saw him posthumously receiving three Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize) make his situation seem singular, the truth is this: every day, the world over, ordinary people find themselves at a crossroads in life. Their stage is smaller. Their experience is quiet. It goes unnoticed. But their life choices are huge – for the individuals involved.

So, does tick, tick … BOOM! inspire to hold on to our dreams for dear life, or to accept reality and take a more sensible route? The answer to that is not definitive. However, there may help at hand for those who are struggling with their direction in life. The pandemic saw a massive resurgence of interest in ancient philosophy; following the lead of the Stoics became particularly popular. For example, sales of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic increased by 42 per cent, and e-book sales enjoyed an eye-watering 356 per cent increase. Naturally, in times of anxiety, sources of inspiration become more appealing. For the Stoics, they believed that you should do more of what you love. They also emphasised that any path taken will be strewn with obstacles – struggle and endurance are inevitable. But, they teach, it is the difficulties that make us stronger and help us become who we want to be. Compromise and perseverance are not mutually exclusive. Tick and boom coexist for all of us.

Jonathan Larson followed his path: he did what he loved, and faced down the obstacles – such as the pressure of time ticking by – at personal cost. He achieved his dreams, albeit posthumously. He has a legacy. But the Stoics are right: make a decision and commit to it. Either way, you’ll encounter stumbling blocks. The prize, if nothing else, is strength of character.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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