The path to becoming a Broadway composer, lyricist, or bookwriter isn’t well-defined or easy; it takes a tremendous amount of talent, hard work, and luck. For RENT author Jonathan Larson, who wrote all three components of his musicals himself, landing his work on Broadway also meant living in a tiny West Village apartment with no heat and immersing himself in his scenes and songs. Larson probably needed all the encouragement he could get to keep going through every frustration. And there is no greater source of encouragement for a writer of musical theatre than the fabled Stephen Sondheim, whom Larson idolized.
Larson’s letters asking Sondheim for feedback led to the theatre legend’s becoming Larson’s mentor. While their work may appear to be miles apart in subject matter, style, and tone, Sondheim’s influence is very much evident in Larson’s work, particularly in TICK, TICK…BOOM! The most direct nod to Sondheim in TICK, TICK…BOOM! is the song “Sunday.” Aside from sharing a title, Larson’s “Sunday” is a clear parody of Sondheim’s.
But Larson’s “Sunday” is more than just a student paying homage to his teacher. “Sunday” in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is a gorgeous release at the end of the first act where George’s masterpiece – “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” – finally comes together. “Order,” George invokes as the characters stop squabbling and arrange themselves into the painting. “Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony.” Those words summon the controlled, beautiful painting George has worked so hard on for the entirety of the first act. The song “Sunday,” sung by the cast as a whole, shows the audience what George has sacrificed so much for.
“Sunday” in TICK, TICK…BOOM! does the inverse. Instead of being a testament to the power of art, “Sunday” airs Jon’s frustrations at working at the diner. Using the same lyric and chord structure, this “Sunday” doesn’t paint a picture of beauty, but of impatience and condescension. “I SAID I wanted an omelet with no yolks! That’s why you’re just a waiter!” snaps a customer immediately before the song. The colors listed in Sondheim’s “Sunday,” which referred to the colors in George’s painting, refer to the colors of the diner in Larson’s.
As a result, Larson’s “Sunday” shows the reality of a working artist in New York of the 1990s, contrasting nicely with Sondheim’s celebration of an 1883 painting.
TICK, TICK…BOOM! also shows Larson’s inspiration from Sondheim in the basic plot of the show. Like in the Sondheim/George Furth show COMPANY, TICK, TICK…BOOM! centers on a birthday. In COMPANY, it’s Bobby’s 35th; in TICK, TICK…BOOM!, it’s Jon’s 30th. Both birthdays are also deadlines. Turning 35 forces Bobby to thoroughly examine his enduring bachelorhood and inability to fully connect with another person. Turning 30 terrifies Jon, forcing him to confront the possibility that he’ll never make it as a writer. Both COMPANY and TICK, TICK…BOOM! also deal with the idea of growing up; there are many references in COMPANY to Bobby’s not being a kid anymore, and Jon admits that he doesn’t “want to play Happy Birthday because I don’t want to – Oh God – grow up.”
But just as Bobby comes to terms with blowing out the candles on his birthday cake at the end of COMPANY, so too does Jon at the end of TICK, TICK…BOOM! It’s not clear if Bobby will fully be alive, or if Jon will go on to the theatrical success he’s always dreamed of (although, of course, the audience knows that RENT is a few years away). But both shows end with an overwhelming optimism for these characters.
In TICK, TICK…BOOM!, Jon calls Sondheim “my idol, a composer-lyricist so legendary his name may not be uttered aloud by me.” But despite such reverence, Jonathan Larson was able to pay respect to the work of Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators, while nurturing Larson’s own, unique voice.