Sydney Lyric Theatre, April 21


Most people just see the stars, not the dark sky behind. They see the artists who become famous and wealthy beyond belief, feted and adored with sold-out tours, hit films and best-selling books, and think it must all be quite a lark. You get to sleep in, do what you love and make a motza. How good is that?

What this show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, knew first-hand was that for every hit-maker there are thousands of others doing comparable work who struggle to pay the rent. They might wait tables or drive taxis to eat, but they can’t turn off the tap of the art that pours out of them.

Hugh Sheridan watches Elenoa Rokobaro. Photos: Jeff Busby.

Larson, best known for writing the musical Rent, was dead at 35 before he knew he’d finally penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit. Prior to Rent he’d written tick, tick… BOOM!, which is about the process of writing an earlier show, the sci-fi-based Superbia. It’s also about the conundrum that most artists face every day: being driven to do the work, while simultaneously being wracked by self-doubt about its quality. The protagonist is himself, Jon (Hugh Sheridan), who’s trying to maintain a loving relationship with Susan (Elenoa Rokobaro) and a long-term friendship with Mike (Finn Alexander), while writing and surviving by playing waiter in a busy diner.

Tick, Tick… BOOM!, finished in 1991 and set in 1990, was well overdue for an Australian production because it’s actually a much finer piece of art than Rent. It is unique in the musical theatre canon in that it’s a rock musical that’s lean rather than overblown. The awful opening Thirty/Ninety apart, the songs are notable for their ability to live within a rock idiom, yet be intimate and contain a commendable clarity and concision of thought and emotion in the lyrics.

Finn Alexander and Sheridan. Photos: Jeff Busby.

The character of Jon might have been insufferably self-pitying were he not blessed with humour and some degree of self-awareness, but he still requires crucial help from the actor to make the show function as it should. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s admirable movie version, Andrew Garfield provides that help, and in this production, expertly directed by Tyran Parke, Sheridan supplies all the warmth and daggy charm needed for us to invest our sympathies in Jon, forgive him his sins, and hope he might find fulfilment, if not success. It’s a fabulous role created by a genuine playwright, and Sheridan makes it his own.

Even the fact that his voice is adequate rather than sensational suits the character, and, besides, for the most part, the songs are more subtle and sophisticated than that. When some vocal thrust is required, as on Come to Your Senses, the unstoppable Rokobaro is there to provide it, with Alexander also more than able, and Sheridan Adams and Hamish Johnston covering a swag of minor roles.

It is a measure of the show that the emotional climax comes with a song called Why?, sung by Sheridan against just the piano of musical director Kohan van Sambeeck, where most rock musicals would have such a climax shrieked against wailing guitars. Parke’s production is attuned to the need to downplay drama at every turn, a perspective supported by Christina Smith’s set and the rest of the design team. If ultimately it doesn’t scale the heights of Sondheim, Miranda or Kander and Ebb, it certainly sees off most other rock musicals, while giving us a glimpse of the darkness behind the stars.

Until April 26.