CW: Death, AIDS, cancer, terminal illness

“Lately, I’ve been hearing this…sound. Everywhere I go. Like a…tick. Tick. Tick.”

Thus opens the recent Netflix film adaptation of tick, tick… BOOM!, the autobiographical musical by writer and composer Jonathan Larson. The show documents Larson’s life in New York in the early 1990s as he struggled to get his musical theatre writing produced. Larson is now better known for RENT, the smash-hit show about a queer frienship group during the AIDS crisis. What primarily connects the two shows is their tragic real life context: Larson, so obsessed with running out of time that he wrote a whole musical about it, died of an undiagnosed aortic dissection the night before RENT opened Off-Broadway. His time really did run out, and he never got to see the success he had spent his life striving for: it’s a tragedy that’s been on my mind a lot lately. 

The first song in tick, tick…BOOM!, ‘30/90’, deals with Larson’s panic about turning 30: about not having achieved as much as he would have liked, or as much as some of his perceived peers and rivals. It’s a song that I found myself listening to on the morning of my twentieth birthday a week ago. Granted, 20 and 30 are very different ages, but lyrics like “Stop the clock, take time out” and “Feel like you’re treading water” rang true for me. Tick, tick…BOOM! is a show that’s meant a lot to me ever since I stumbled across it on YouTube a few years ago. I see a lot of myself in Larson – at least the fictionalised version of him presented in this musical and film. Larson was a writer, a creative, a massive musical theatre nerd; an ambitious person, a stressed person, a chaotic person. But more than this, what makes tick, tick… BOOM! so important to me is its central idea of running out of time. Jonathan Larson had a deep-set panic that he only had so long to achieve his goals, to reach his markers of success.

I think I have a similar feeling: there’s a constant anxiety, always there, under the surface, that I need to be doing more, and quicker. I’m someone who has always been very good at convincing myself I’m terminally ill, and someone who grew up with a lot of cancer in my family. I find it hard to trust my body, to relax and believe that I have as much time as I’d like to do all the things I’d like to do. For these reasons, tick, tick… BOOM! Is both immensely reassuring, and completely the opposite. Larson’s tragic death, confirming his worst fear, is something that’s difficult to conceptualise. At the same time, it’s comforting to see that these feelings are common, and the fact that RENT was met with such global success shows that all Larson’s years of hard work did in fact pay off… even if he wasn’t there to see it. 

I imagine these feelings of pressure are something familiar to a lot of Oxford students: being surrounded by intensely ambitious people all the time, some of whom have achieved incredible things at a very young age, can make it very hard to put things in perspective. This is especially true in the arts, where the likes of music prodigies and child actors can make it feel like you’re behind before you’ve even really started. Of course, this time is often out of our control: in the arts, so much is reliant on family connections and educational background, as well as other factors like race, sexuality, and gender. According to statistics published by the Sutton Trust in 2016, 67% of British winners of the Oscars for Best Actor, Actress or Director attended a private school. It’s difficult to reckon with the idea that no matter how much time you spend working, other people will always be further forward. How do we best use the time we have when others already have such a head start?

Not only is time running out, but the goalposts for success are always moving. At the start of tick, tick… BOOM!, Larson measures his own perceived lack of success with several examples of what people had achieved by the age of 30: Stephen Sondheim had had his first Broadway show, and Larson’s parents already had two children, a mortgage, and steady careers. The Sondheim example, in particular, illustrates how difficult it is to ever be satisfied with one’s achievements; it’s so easy to feel like someone is always one step ahead. The mention of Larson’s parents, on a different path, also strikes me as interesting: our generation are navigating a new kind of twenties, where settling down is less of a priority. The percentage of people having children before the age of thirty is constantly decreasing. There are so many different conceptions of success now that it adds a pressure to choose a definition; to choose a path. Success is undeniably subjective, and the number of different versions of it only makes it feel all the more unobtainable.

Needless to say, the pandemic has only worsened my feelings of running out of time: I’ve gone from being 18 to turning 20, without the usual life experiences one would expect at such an important, tumultuous period. Time has felt difficult to pin down, slowing down and speeding up across long winter lockdowns and busy summers. What this has gone some way to teach me, however, is that we are fundamentally not in control. Much like Jonathan Larson, we have no way of knowing how much time we have, or what might happen during it. It seems to me, then, that we may as well seek out what makes us feel most in our element – feel most alive – while we’re here. And hope the ticking quietens down. 

Image Credit: Netflix

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