`BOOM!' never bombed, but it took time to become a hit

Larson's life tale fell to wayside as `Rent' became a hit

March 04, 2003|By Michelle Jabes | Michelle Jabes,SUN STAFF

Before Broadway musical writer Jonathan Larson had turned all his creative energies toward a little show called Rent, he was making a time bomb.

It was, in fact, an autobiographical musical that he came to call 30/90. Larson turned 30 years old in 1990, he had yet to achieve his dream of writing the new Great American Musical, and he felt that his time was running out. The one-man show expressed all the fear, doubt and hope that was surging through Larson at this crossroads in his life. Between 1990 and 1993, he performed the show at three New York theaters and gave it a new name: tick, tick ... BOOM!

The show fell to the wayside when Larson diverted his attention to Rent, but its five unfinished scripts lay in the shadows, waiting for their time. After Larson's death in 1996 - the night before Rent had its first preview - the scripts might have been forgotten, but the overwhelming success of Rent eventually called attention to his other works.

The BOOM! came in 2001 - after Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn (Proof) melded Larson's five scripts into one 90-minute rock musical with three characters: Jonathan, his best friend and his girlfriend. The show premiered off-Broadway.

A mere two years later, tick, tick ... BOOM! is on a national tour starring Christian Campbell, Nicole Ruth Snelson and Wilson Cruz. Directed by Scott Schwartz (Bat Boy: The Musical), the production comes to Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre tonight.

For Campbell, who plays Jonathan, doing a show like tick, tick ... BOOM! is a new experience. The last time he played a musical theater writer was in the romantic comedy Trick, an indie film about two gay men trying to find a place to be alone in the wilds of Manhattan. The last time he sang in a musical was in the 1999 off-Broadway and Los Angeles productions of Reefer Madness, where he picked up a L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for his performance as Jimmy. But for Campbell, who says he's "not really into musicals," playing out Larson's own personal struggles is a bird of a very different color.

Though Campbell makes it clear that he's not trying to imitate Larson exactly, he confesses that, "these are all his words, his life. ... I can't help but be him." He describes Jonathan as "very neurotic, very driven," a man who must decide whether to get a "real" job and settle down, or continue to chase his dreams. "We all face these avenues in our lives," says Campbell, the brother of actress Neve Campbell.

Unlike Rent, which was told entirely in song, tick, tick ... BOOM! contains 14 musical numbers along with spoken dialogue, and Campbell sings in almost all of them. "I'm doing singing scales, having to drink tea, not smoke ... I feel like a musical theater queen," Campbell says. After a moment, he adds, chuckling, " ... which I'm not!" He expresses a strong admiration for fellow cast members Snelson (Show Boat, Hello, Dolly!) and Cruz (My So-Called Life, Rent). "We're a very tight-knit family. ... It's continually a learning experience for me."

Like his character, Campbell turns 30 years old this year. As a young artist facing many of the same decisions as his character, the role strikes a very personal chord.

"I've come to these very same choices several times in my life. ... I wonder if I should just go get a `real' job and actually have health insurance," Campbell says. Regardless of these doubts, Campbell hopes to pursue the theater life for as long as he can. "I've made 20 times more money in Hollywood, but following my dreams gives me 20 times more satisfaction in life," he says.

By taking on the role of Jonathan Larson, a budding genius who stuck with his dream, Campbell says he gains a lot of strength and "a little therapy." "Follow the bliss," he says, "that's what I keep telling myself."

Theater

What: tick, tick ... BOOM!

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

Tickets: $12.50-$55

Call: 410-481-SEAT or www.themechanic.org.

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