Keeping up with Kincaid: Why do I relate to Jonathan Larson?

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Laken Kincaid

Campus editor, Laken Kincaid, reminisces on the use of loving words in day to day language.

Laken Kincaid, Campus Editor

*WARNING- CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR TICK… TICK… BOOM!*

I first discovered musical theater in the fifth grade. I was told by a friend from Girl Scouts to listen to music from a fun and quirky show called “Wicked”; she told me the story was about “The Wizard of Oz”, just “darker.” Since Dorothy was one of the first characters I dressed up as for Halloween, I thought that the idea of learning about the tale of the Emerald City and ruby slippers would be interesting to explore. However, I was also hesitant because this friend was not allowed to watch SpongeBob as a child, so I was already questioning her taste.

I evolved from there. I whistled through my days with showtunes and treated each seemingly insurmountable problem like I was Old Deuteronomy singing “Memory.” After all, I tend to find it easier to solve issues when you can vocalize and harmonize to avoid the actual tension.

Now, as a sophomore in college, I still love musicals. I watched “Hamilton” on Disney+ the day it came out and memorized the songs by heart. Luckily, I was with a crowd that did not care how passionate or off pitch I was singing “Satisfied” at the top of my lungs. I swear, I felt Angelica’s pain and will continue to do so every time I hear the word “rewind.”

I starred as Crazy Old Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast,” as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and as Olaf in “Frozen” with other roles sprinkled throughout. I loved to tell stories through the eyes of a different character; I wanted to explore their identity under the spotlight. I am sure you have heard the phrase that “life is a stage.”

Imagine my surprise when “Tick… Tick… BOOM!” arrived on Netflix and I had no idea it was even in production let alone being directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I didn’t even know Andrew Garfield, who many people value as their favorite Spiderman and who I specifically know as Prior in “Angels in America,” was taking on the role of Jonathan Larson. I remember visiting my friends and they were watching the film when the “Come to Your Sense” number was in full force and the scales of “RENT” flooded my brain.

While I had missed their initial viewing of “Tick… Tick… BOOM!”, I ended up watching the movie three times more after my first exposure. It quickly became a source of comfort, a resource I would go to in the midst of stress. I adore “Tick… Tick… BOOM!” The film has easily crested into my top seven movies of all time, and I doubt its spot will change as time goes on. The music left me in awe and the plot hit close to home.

However, a realization (or fear) of mine is that I treasure the movie so much not because of Miranda or Garfield’s involvement, not because of its score or story, but because of how much I relate to the main character.

For those that have not seen the movie (which I highly recommend), it follows the tale of the famous composer, Jonathan Larson, through one of the most difficult trials anyone can ever face: making it in show business. Larson creates the show “Superbia” but struggles to accept when things don’t come easy to him like his talent with writing music. Whether it be acknowledging the deadly environment created by the HIV epidemic or placing his work above his relationships, he is furious with his stand still in the world. He is constantly racing against time whether it be because of his show presentation or age itself; he is always running from a ticking noise in the back of his mind.

At the end, we think Larson gets a happy ending. While his manager splinters his dreams of “Superbia’s” production by telling him to “start on the next one” after he poured his heart into the musical, he creates a rock monologue show titled, you guessed it, “Tick… Tick… BOOM!” However, we learn in the epilogue that Larson died of a brain aneurysm, most likely caused by overwhelming stress, the morning of the day his hit musical RENT premiered on Broadway. Larson never got to see his greatest and most revered creation take the stage.

Larson overstretched himself, imposed intense pressure on himself, all because he heard that recurring ticking noise. He suffered through the feeling of death breathing down his neck (although he was not even middle aged) because he feared running out of time when, if he did not worry, he would have had all the time in the world. During the opening number of “Tick… Tick… BOOM!”, he laments about turning 30 and states that he is too old to be a new director in New York. He believes that his age is a deadline for his success.

And honestly, and regretfully, I admit that I often see life this way. I ask myself the question daily, “when I turn 20, will I no longer be the ingénue?”

I think this stress comes from thoughts that I have cultivated since I was a child. I heard stories within my church about people meeting their significant other in elementary school. Naturally, when I was in sixth grade, I thought I would end up alone and without love because I did not meet the ridiculous quota I set for myself. I would see child actors on Disney channel and look up management websites and virtual audition links to try and place myself in their shoes. I began making YouTube videos as a seventh grader because I thought I was losing time to be rich and famous. I heard the ticking noise before I reached double digits; I felt my life running away from my grasp before I could understand how to tie my shoes. I thought by the time I reached high school that if the world did not know my name it never would.

I have always heard the ticking.

Yet, I think that, like Larson, this fear pushed me to greatness. You always do your best when you feel like you’re running out of time. I got a 4.8 GPA in high school, I was involved with a coding club when I had no interest in programming, I ran for prestigious leadership positions. The ticking noise was always ringing in my ear but I thought I could silence it if I proved to myself that I was achieving the success I craved. This trend carries on in college. I am taking 19 credits, I am a section editor of a newspaper as a sophomore, I own and operate a nationally recognized nonprofit. I hear the ticking noise telling me that I am running out of time in my higher education career to make a name for myself when I have been told time and time again that I have not even reached my golden years. 

Perhaps that is why I am so negative about my self-perception. Oscar Wilde states that we kill the thing we love, maybe this is because we always look for the negative in the imperative. It is much easier to worry than to feel content. In the things we care about we seek perfection and scrutinize it when it does not meet the highest standards.

And the ticking doesn’t stop.

Yet, I ask myself if I even want to free myself from this worry. After all, I am who I am because of it. However, it seems all the praise I receive will never be louder than the ticking. I can never silence it and it will continue to drive me crazy.

For Larson and for myself, I think this apprehension is rooted in juxtaposition. In the movie, he compares himself to the equally famous composer Stephen Sondheim saying that he had his first musical premiere on Broadway when he was 27. At a young age, I compared myself to Disney stars and child actors. We both find the ultimate exception, the outlier to the norm and measure ourselves by those standards. Maybe this is natural for everyone, one that Larson and I take to the extreme; perhaps it is a chemical imbalance we have in common. Throughout both of our lives, comparison has been the thief of joy.

We can never be proud of ourselves because there will always be a Sondheim. When there is a Sondheim, we see what we could be instead of what we are. We overshadow our own accomplishments with doubt from the accomplishments of geniuses and moguls.

Honestly though, I do not know if I will be able to stop comparing myself and I think Larson made that same realization. After all, it made us both do good things, but I can’t help but wonder if this worry and self-doubt holds me back from greatness. Then again, perhaps my work is great and I am just comparing it to others who are fantastic. The blade is sharp for both sides of the sword. Do I sacrifice critiques for the sake of self compassion?

To be fair, I do not know if I even have a say in that choice. It may be impossible to change my organic thought process and I may forever hear the end of an era, constantly trying to live up to the impossible.

So, until I can stop it,  the ticking goes on.