The set design for Outre Theatre Company's forthcoming production of tick tick... Boom! begins at the foot of the stage with a white picket fence enclosing the action. But it's not just any fence. It's also designed to resemble a piano, complete with painted-on black keys and decorated with faint multicolored spray paint.
The double meaning inherent in this wooden structure — actually triple meanings, as set designer Nori Tecosky also wanted to suggest the look of a city space, with tall skyscrapers inching over smaller buildings — is also the central conflict in tick tick... Boom!: Show business versus suburbia. Opening nights versus Netflix nights. A life in musical theater versus a life behind the fence.
Conceived in 1990 as a one-man musical by the late Rent composer Jonathan Larsen and later expanded to a three-actor piece, tick tick... Boom! never received a professional debut until five years after Larsen's passing. Twelve years after its off-Broadway premiere, it's still an underproduced gem; most audiences know Larsen for Rent and Rent only. Its relative obscurity made Boom! an appealing choice to conclude the debut season for Outre, which seeks to explore shows that are outside the norm.
"And honestly, this is a better show [than Rent]," says Skye Whitcomb, who is directing the production for Outre. "It's better written, the characters are more well-developed, the story arcs are better, and it's a more moving show, simply because it speaks to not just artists but anybody who has some sort of passion they've had to put by the wayside."
Based on Larsen's own experiences as a struggling composer/actor in New York City, tick tick... Boom! centers on Jon (Mike Westrich), an aspiring SoHo composer whose career is at a stalemate on the cusp of his 30th birthday. He surrounds himself with friends who desire different things in life; his girlfriend, Susan (Sabrina Gore), is a dancer who is considering leaving the big city to raise a family elsewhere, and his best pal, Michael (Jerel Brown), a former actor, escaped showbiz to pursue a comfortable corporate job.
Jon's life becomes a conflicting push and pull of his own hopes and desires against the roles society would rather proscribe, and it's embodied in a number of the show's song titles: "Come to Your Senses," "Real Life," and especially "Johnny Can't Decide." For a show that seems to reflect the experiences of so many musical-theater aspirants, it's no surprise that Outre's cast found much to relate to in Larsen's narrative.
"There are many times in the show that I do feel like I'm playing myself," Westrich says. "This is the one role that I've connected to more than any I've played before, because it hits so close to home. I can't even come up with a specific instance, because every day of my life is that battle. You want to do what you love, but there are so many things that work against you."
"All of us have undergone the struggle that Johnny goes through," Whitcomb adds. "Do you go for the middle-class lifestyle or take the chance that you'll be eating ramen for the next 20 years and pursue what your passion is?"
The characters will have 15 songs to help them decide, in an eclectic selection of music ranging from traditional Broadway to pop, bluegrass, and Latin. But mostly, tick tick... Boom! is a rock musical, a concept that was well ahead of its time when Larsen developed the show in the early '90s.
"In the text, Johnny says, 'I write musicals with rock music, and that's a contradiction in terms,' " Whitcomb says. "I do think that when tick tick... Boom! was written, it was too early. Rent was that breakthrough. It was the one that everybody was ready for."
Outre's production will feature four band members at center stage, with the three actors performing around — and interacting with — them. Whitcomb says to expect a Brechtian production, where audiences will always know they're watching a show. In addition to their main roles as Michael and Susan, Brown and Gore play a number of ancillary characters, sometimes switching identities at a moment's notice.
"It's a good workout," Gore says. "It is a mental and physical workout, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. At one point, I play three different characters in the space of one page, and there's no time to think about it."
"Since it's such an intimate setting with only three of us, you really have no one to hide behind," adds Brown. "You really have to make it clear that I am no longer that role. You have to see me as this role and don't think that just two seconds ago I was a father or something. So it is challenging, but at the same time, it's fun."
Tick tick... Boom! has attained cult status as a paean to theatrical self-reflection — it's theater for theater people. But if it's done well, attendees from most any profession will be able to spot their emotional selves onstage, relating to one archetype or another.
"The only obstacle you have standing in your way in life is yourself," Westrich says. "You can navigate through any situation, but if you hold yourself back, you'll never come out on the other end. I think that what's interesting about this show is that each separate character has that battle with themselves in one shape or form. There is something for every person to identify with, no matter what they do."