Back in college, when people learned that I was a theater major, they usually responded in one of two ways: “What is your backup plan?” or “If you can be happy doing anything other than theater, you should do that.” Although I took this well-intended if scary advice seriously, I refused to let it change my major. I felt called to the theater. As near as I could tell, theater was my vocation.
The common understanding of “profession” differs dramatically from the biblical concept of “vocation.” Professions rely on logic, careful planning, and security. (“What is your back-up plan?”) Vocations take the form of pilgrimages—risky and crazy journeys that require deep and sustained faith. (“If you can be happy doing anything else . . .”) Although the church often associates vocation with missionaries and pastors, the term also appliesto a life in the arts. As Peter observed, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.” By portraying the challenging reality of a theater life through the genre of musical theater, the new Netflix film tick, tick . . . BOOM! reminds us that authentically following God’s call often requires a determined faith and a supportive community.
But first, the meta-oddness of tick, tick . . . BOOM! warrants a brief explanation. In his feature directorial debut, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda dramatizes the real-life story of Rent creator Jonathan Larson as Larson attempts to write an early-career musical. tick, tick . . . BOOM! is the title of another Larson musical, not the one he’s writing in the film. And all of this, chronologically, came before the smash success that was Rent. Don’t worry, while watching it’s less confusing.
We first meet Larson (Andrew Garfield) as he nears his 3oth birthday. The lyric “tick, tick . . . BOOM!” expresses his anxiety that time is ticking away on his Broadway dream. As he struggles to compose the next great American musical, this not-so-young composer subsists in a squalid apartment on a low-paying job as waiter at a Manhattan eatery, one that suspiciously resembles the iconic diner from the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. In a flash of hope, a theater lab agrees to workshop Larson’s new musical, if only he can finish the final song. As he struggles to compose, Larson observes his closest friends give up on their Broadway dreams. His longtime roommate (Robin de Jesus) recently traded in his failed acting career for a well-paying gig as an advertising executive and his modern dancer girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) wants to leave Manhattan for the security of a teaching job. Undeterred but more alone than ever, Larson feverishly presses on. Handicapped by writer’s block and an agent who won’t return his calls, his romantic artist life is at best a mess.
Against all odds, Larson finally perseveres in producing an uncompromising and thrilling workshop production of his musical. In addition to powerful Broadway producers, the audience includes none other than the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford). (Spoilers ahead.) If life followed Hollywood’s plot rules, the story would end in triumph there. But despite his perseverance and artistic integrity, the Broadway producers pass. Just days after turning 30, Larson finds himself back at square one with nothing tangible to show for years of relentless struggle and sacrifice.
As near as I could tell, theater was my vocation.
Understandably dejected, Larson considers selling out. Using his friend's connections in advertising, the dejected composer discovers that his musical-theater skills translate well to the soulless work of manipulating consumers. At his low point, he shamelessly proclaims to his financially successful friend, “I want to have what you have. I want the BMW. I want the doorman. I want all of it.”
But before our hero turns to the creative dark side, he checks his answering machine. There he finds a voice recording from Sondheim, who concludes his thoughtful message with an encouraging prophecy: “It’s first-rate work and has a future and so do you.” Through this affirming and grace-filled scene, tick, tick . . . BOOM! reveals a valuable component essential to a perilous pilgrimage in the arts: vocation requires a supportive community.
The divinely inspired term “angel” is often used by fundraisers to describe people who support artists. For what it matters, and it matters, Sondheim played this encouraging role for several aspiring composers throughout his illustrious career. The point should be made that, in Larson’s case, Sondheim’s supportive words did not save the failed musical. His generous encouragement did, however, spur Larson onward to pursue his artistic path. His next musical, tick, tick . . . BOOM!, earned modest success. His musical after that, Rent, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Indeed, the posthumous success of Rent offers a poignant if not heartbreaking lesson about vocation. Larson unexpectedly passed away from a heart condition while Rent was still in previews. He never lived to see its success. But if tick, tick . . . BOOM! teaches us anything, it reveals that earthly rewards are not really the point. Gifted by a creative God with the rare gift of making beauty, artists must make their art. They make it regardless of acclaim or financial success. They make it because they are called.
One “phantastic” scene in tick, tick . . . BOOM! transported me from Netflix to a kind of theater heaven: “Sunday,” which is a playful rift on Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Set at the diner where Larson works, which is bathed in an ethereal light, the scene features customers who seemed strangely familiar. Hey, that guy at the table looks like Joel Gray . . . Lifted by Larson’s buoyant score, I soon perceived that the sublime Sunday brunchers included Broadway’s greatest luminaries. Among others, Larson’s celestial café served up Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera, André De Shields, Bebe Neuwirth, and even my freshman theater classmate, Beth Malone. (Go, Beth!)
Unlike Larson and Sondheim, who died just last month, the Broadway VIPs who appear at the Sunday brunch are all thankfully still with us. Reflecting on his career, I like to think that Larson now sits at a similar heavenly table. Perhaps he shares a piece of pie with the likes of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Sondheim. Surrounded by these giants who changed the theater world, Larson may finally relax, secure in the knowledge that he authentically followed his true calling and remained faithful to his vocation.