‘Queer joy and success as revolution’Karen Tophamon January 3, 2023 at 10:08 pm

Jonathan Larson is well known as the playwright of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, but that powerful musical about struggling artists affected by the out-of-control AIDS epidemic in New York’s Alphabet City was not his only contribution to the genre. The playwright, who never even saw one of his own plays produced—he died of an aortic aneurysm before the first preview of Rent—also left us tick, tick . . . BOOM!, an angry, angsty autobiographical show about trying to write an earlier, never-produced piece called Superbia.  

Tick…tick…BOOM! enjoyed an off-Broadway run in the early aughts and has had a couple of revivals (also off-Broadway) since then, as well as a couple of London productions. But it has never found even a fraction of the incredible success of its younger sibling. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that most musical theater fans had few chances to see the show until last year’s Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed film starring Andrew Garfield. 

Locally, Pegasus Players, now called Pegasus Theatre Chicago, produced tick, tick . . . BOOM! in 2006, and there was a touring production via Broadway in Chicago in 2003. Now BoHo Theatre is about to up that total by one with its new production, to be staged at the Edge Theater beginning January 12.

tick, tick . . . BOOM!1/12-2/5: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also industry night Mon 1/30 7:30 PM; open captions Sat 1/21 and 1/28 3 PM; Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, bohotheatre.com, $35 general, $20 seniors, military, and first responders, $12 transgender and gender nonconforming people, students, and educational professionals

Directed by transgender, gender nonconforming director Bo Frazier (they/them), who themself performed in a London version a decade ago, this production may well be the only one ever to use a cast exclusively comprised of transgender and gender nonbinary and nonconforming actors. 

“I always knew I wanted to revisit [tick, tick . . . BOOM!] as a director,” says Frazier. “Back in 1993, Jonathan Larson wrote one of the only humanized gender nonconforming characters in the musical theater canon that isn’t constantly the butt of a joke [Angel in Rent], so I’d like to think he would truly champion this production.”

Casting director Catherine Miller (they/them) provided Frazier with a cast consisting of Alec Phan (he/they) as Jonathan, Crystal Claros (they/he/she) as Michael, and Luke Halpern (they/he/she) as Susan. (The understudies—Lizzie Mowry, Larry D. Trice II, and Nathe Rowbotham—are also trans gender and gender nonconforming.)

“It definitely adds an extra layer of nuance to our production,” Frazier notes. “It has been really fun to subvert gender norms with the staging of these characters.” 

Phan completely agrees. “Because we, the actors, have many layers to identities, our characters have that many more layers too.”

More than Phan’s gender identity makes them a unique Jonathan. “Jonathan Larson was a white, cishet man, and this version of him created for tick, tick . . . BOOM! has been portrayed almost exclusively by white, cishet actors. Despite his anxieties, the character knows his worth and talent—a wild, foreign concept to me!”

Phan sees “the doubt and the nay-saying Jonathan experiences” as bigger than “the tough musical theater industry. It’s white supremacy. It’s hetero- and cisnormativity. It’s East- and Southeast Asian cultural expectations. It’s all these things in combination and more!”

Frazier says that, while the focus of the show is on Larson’s attempt to break free from the predetermined structure of the Broadway musical rather than anything to do with the playwright’s or character’s identity, the notion of putting on this show with a trans and gender nonconforming cast derives from some of its lyrics. 

“The idea was birthed from lyrics in the final song [“Louder Than Words”] that I think every TGNC person can relate to: ‘Why do we blaze a trail when the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting? Cages or wings, which do you prefer?’” 

They feel that every TGNC person at some point has to “choose cages or wings: whether to live a lie and conform to societal pressure or blaze a trail and live a life of personal truth.” 

In the current political climate in which so-called conservatives have made repressive, regressive, anti-trans laws an enormous element of their “agenda,” them. writer Nico Lang says 2022 has “felt like a particularly heavy time to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community in America.” Lang quotes Sybastian Smith, an organizer for the National Center for Transgender Equality, as stating that “trans people usually choose to live their lives in silence or do not disclose their gender identity as a way to protect themselves,” choosing cages over spreading their wings.

Citing Texas governor Greg Abbott’s order to investigate parents who allow minors to socially or medically transition; the more than 124 drag shows, Drag Queen Story Hours, and Pride parades that have faced protests and even threats of violence; as well as the 300+ anti-LGBTQ+ laws that have been passed in 36 states, Lang says that the “oppressive legislation environment” has “made life particularly challenging for LGBTQ+ people but especially youth.”

Because of this, Frazier says that “it is so important to humanize the TGNC community with this production. So often we are demonized in the media and fetishized on dating apps, but I truly want to normalize our existence. We are presenting a relatable story that many audience members will be familiar with, just this time we have different identities on stage.” 

Frazier knows that it is not only LGBTQ+ people who will find empathy with the struggles Jonathan goes through in the play. “There is a universal message that every audience member can relate to in tick, tick . . . BOOM!” they say: “that feeling of being lost, your life not being what you thought it would be, and trying to find your way in the world.”

For their part, Phan notes that the theater business itself, despite its liberal reputation, has not taken any kind of leadership role in countering the problems that Lang and Frazier mentioned, and their being Asian just compounds them. 

“Roles for queer, trans brown folks are sparse unless we are creating them ourselves, and production spaces that are truly safe for us to just be in are even sparser,” they say.  Far too often, they have experienced “blatant racism” or worse.” 

However, as they explain, “More often than not, I have a bad experience because my boundaries are crossed, and I don’t have the tools or support to reinforce them. In terms of my identity, this has meant sharing parts of myself during the creative process that are then either used or discarded without my enthusiastic consent.”

Both the director and the actor feel that this production of tick, tick . . . BOOM! will provide some of the positive messaging that is too often missing from the conversation.

Frazier says that “it is incredibly important to see TGNC and queer joy, creativity, and love instead of the constant, harmful narrative of trans trauma we see in media most of the time.”

Phan believes that “the all-queer casting of this show just reinforces the themes of self-acceptance and creative trailblazing in the story” and that the overriding feeling of “queer joy and success as revolution” may well begin to shift the narrative around trans issues. 

“I hope our queer audiences leave the theater knowing their simple existence—and especially within artistic fields—is revolution: that they deserve a seat at all tables and that it is entirely possible to build our own dang tables and be successful.”

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