Andrew Garfield soars in director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s paean to musical theater dreams
Starring Andrew Garfield
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda
In select theaters now, available on Netflix Nov. 19
Musical-theater geeks will flip over this immersive paean to one of Broadway’s fallen heroes.
Jonathan Larson, who composed the groundbreaking rock musical Rent—which ran on Broadway for 12 years—died suddenly, of a heart malady, on the very night of his production’s premiere performance in 1996. Only 35 at the time of this cosmic irony, he was awarded three posthumous Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his La Bohemè-ish tale of impoverished young artists struggling, under the grim specter of the epidemic of AIDS, to live, love and lean on each other in the Big Apple.
But this isn’t that story. Rather, it’s the story of Larson and his pre-Rent challenges in completing, and staging, a futuristic 1990 oddity called Superbia, loosely inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.
Andrew Garfield plays Larson, and the film marks the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who certainly knows a thing about Broadway, Tonys, Grammys and other trophies as the writer (and star) of his own Broadway sensation, Hamilton. Earlier this year, another of Miranda’ works, In the Heights, got the Hollywood treatment.
Garfield may be best known to the general moviegoing public for his two movie turns as The Amazing Spider-Man, but he’s turned in several impressive other “grown-up” performances—in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in The Social Network, as conscientious-objector WWII hero Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge, and just recently, as disgraced telemarking evangelist Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
And he soars to new heights of his own here, for a tricky role that required him to expand his skillset to learn to sing and play the piano. He portrays Larson as a zealous, youthful idealist, anxious to establish a toehold on Broadway, to create a buzz that will be his big break. The tick-ticking he hears in his head is the sound of his rapidly vanishing 20s, and his approaching self-imposed deadline: his upcoming 30th birthday.
Larson is a bit self-obsessed and totally driven, as he nourishes his dreams while slinging sandwiches in a busy diner. But he has a big heart for his fellow “bohemian” friends, especially his childhood pal, Michael (a terrific Robin de Jesús), who gave up his own theatrical dreams for the steady income of a Madison Avenue job. And he also loves his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Ruth Shipp, who starred in the title role in the 2014 Lifetime movie Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B), an interpretive dancer whose thoughts for a more practical future might pose a bit of a problem for their relationship.
High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens (who also starred on Broadway in Gigi and had roles in the TV musical presentations of Grease: Live and Rent: Live) and Joshua Henry—who played Aaron Burr in Hamilton—provide impressive, real-chops backupas singing characters in Larson’s show.
As he struggles with a massive, monstrous case of writer’s block, trying to find the right song to cap his musical as the days trickle down to its public-workshop debut, Larson watches his friends succumb to HIV and AIDs, putting some heavy perspective on his own deadlines and goals.
Director Manuel can certainly identify with a young composer striving to become established, because he used to be one. He knows all about the world of Jonathan Larson, because it was once his world, too. And he certainly knows how to make a musical, deftly, innovatively unfolding Larson’s story—and his existential predicament—in a mixed format of musical performances, flashy movie-musical set pieces, straightforward dramatic scenes and “fantasy” sequences that blur the lines. When Larson goes to clear his head with a swim, he marvels as markers on the bottom seem to turn into musical staffs and notes; in the rousing number “No More,” Larson and Michael contrast the young ad executive’s gleaming new valet-tended apartment high-rise with the cramped, squalid, six-floor walkup where the two friends used to be roommates—and were Larson still lives.
Fans of musicals will delight in Easter-egg cameos from a slate of stage-heeled celebs—a flock of cameo casting that was helped, no doubt, by Miranda’s superstar cachet in the theatrical community. Bradley Whitford is spot-on as theater icon Stephen Sondheim, who gives Larson some valuable advice, and Judith Light (who made her debut on Broadway before landing a starring role in 1977 on TV’s One Life to Live) plays Larson’s agent, Rosa, who tells him that the musical he should be working on is always “the next one.”
The next one, for Larson, was his autobiographical one-man-show, Tick…Tick…Boom!, which was ultimately staged posthumously as a multi-part rock musical. And then came Rent, the production that would have brought him the success, and the achievement, he so ardently sought as a younger man on the dreaded cusp of closing out his third decade.
But this impassioned, enthusiastically eclectic portrait reminds us of the boundless dream of a gifted creator taken too soon, and takes viewers into a teeming, bustling, hustling substrata world of musical theater that’s not quite Broadway…not just yet—as it suggest to all of us, whatever we do, that “the next one” could be, and might just be, the big one.