Before there was Rent, there was Tick, Tick…Boom!
Composer Jonathan Larson first conceived the piece as a semi-autobiographical rock musical monologue about his struggles as a composer, and it went through different iterations and titles before he performed it at the Village Gate in 1991. The three-person musical now known by most audiences was adapted by playwright David Auburn after Larson’s death, and had an Off-Broadway run in 2001 at the Jane Street Theatre. In 2021 Netflix released a film adaptation by Steven Levenson based on that play and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
A new production of the musical featuring what is probably its first cast of all transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming actors opens at the Edge Theater in Chicago on Jan. 12. The show, produced by BoHo Theatre, is directed by BoHo artistic associate Bo Frazier. The idea arose, Frazier said, when BoHo was trying to come up with a small musical that had name recognition. Tick, Tick…Boom! quickly emerged as a top contender, and then Frazier added their own angle to it: an all-trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) production, a notion they said was grounded in Larson’s compassionate, nuanced portrayal of the gender nonconforming Angel in Rent.
“When I first came out as a non-binary, trans femme, I loved musicals,” Frazier said. “But I had also been so deeply harmed by musicals as a performer because of all the extremely problematic stereotypes that any sort of gender nonconforming person had to either present or play. This canon fights so hard to uphold these awful stereotypes around gender, even in cisgender roles. It’s just so extremely harmful what most of these musicals portray.”
This artistic and personal reflection led Bo to wonder: Are there any TGNC characters in musicals that are not problematic or merely the butt of jokes? Angel from Rent was the only example that came to mind. Frazier felt strongly that if the straight, cis author Jonathan Larson could create a character like Angel so thoughtfully, and in a revolutionary way for the time in which he was writing, he would have celebrated the idea of an all-TGNC Tick, Tick…Boom! Frazier then carefully reread the script to make sure their all-TGNC idea would work, and thankfully it did.
Frazier’s concept works because the characters in Tick, Tick don’t need to be cisgender for the musical to function dramaturgically; indeed, the lesson here is that with any show that can be viewed through this lens, TGNC actors should be considered for all roles. This pushes against the implicit bias of many theatremakers and audiences that any role not written or specified as transgender is by default cisgender. Frazier’s concept and execution of Tick, Tick…Boom! on some levels invites audiences to interrogate that assumption. On another level, though, it gives TGNC actors the all too rare opportunity to add layers of complexity to roles and exist in a narrative where they are not explicitly discussing their transness.
As momentum built around the production, Frazier swiftly assembled a team that was equipped both to get the word out to TGNC performers in the Chicago community and to hold space for them in the audition and rehearsal room. Casting director Catherine Miller and musical director Harper Caruso helped to support the casting process. Due to licensing, all the pronouns in the original script had to remain the same, and the casting team took great care in communicating that limitation to the pool of talent to inform them of the roles for which they submitted.
Dozens of transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming actors submitted for the initial audition call. Harper was able to transpose audition selections into different keys by using the transpose function on the keyboard in the audition room.
“This production is so special because it is bringing something new to Tick, Tick…Boom! which hasn’t been seen before,” Harper shared. “The actors being who they are and living out loud inherently brings an exciting aspect to the storytelling that is so authentic, and only contributes to the message of the show. I think this is what Jonathan Larson would have envisioned when he pictured his shows being performed across the world.”
The cast includes Alec Phan as Jonathan, Crystal Claros as Michael, and Luke Halpern as Susan. Each role has an understudy who is also transgender or gender nonconforming: Lizzie Mowry for Jonathan, Larry D. Trice II for Michael, and Nathe Rowbotham for Susan.
“It’s been really awesome having all these TGNC folks of varying experiences,” Bo said joyfully. “The kind of conversations that we’re able to have without explaining things to cisgender people has actually made a really playful and fruitful rehearsal process, because without those limitations, those hindrances, we’ve just been able to explore and play and have a lot of fun.”
Crystal Claros, who plays Michael, emphasized the uniqueness and timeliness of this production. Portraying this role has helped them feel visible within the Chicago theatre community at large.
“I think this is the peak of innovative Chicago theatre,” Claros said. “I know for myself, having come out only a year or so ago, I have had a lot of moments of discovery in my gender and expression through Michael. Being cast in my first ‘he/him’ character has been validating in my gender fluidity, and I think that deserves to be seen. To have someone watch a show like this and not only resonate with the color palette of diversity but the variety of gender brings such a sense of welcoming and humanity. I know I wish I had seen a show like this growing up!”
Bo amplified this sentiment, discussing the importance of creating the kind of show they never had when they were young.
“I always knew I was non-binary, but the word never came into my brain for a long time, and I never saw someone like me,” they said. “No one came into my life who affected me or represented that to me in that way until I was 30. I had seen these harmful stereotypes, and that actually rooted me further and further down to not realize who I am. I want the future generation not to have to deal with that. I think Gen Z is much better with this, but I want this to be the production that I never had when I was 15.”
Historically, the artistic currency of transgender representation onstage has centered disproportionately on trauma. This negative tendency can also be seen in full force in current media narratives surrounding transphobic legislation efforts at the state and national level. Bo’s vision as a director, by contrast, is grounded firmly in representing trans joy, love, and creativity onstage.
So does the casting of TGNC actors in Frazier’s production transform the characters into TGNC individuals? By embracing each actor’s gender expression, this production of Tick, Tick…Boom! intrinsically portrays a cast of transgender characters, which elevates and adds new layers to the narrative. It also serves as an instructive example for the theatre industry, as if to say: Hey, you can do this too!
Indeed, it seems that the greater Chicago area is swiftly becoming the epicenter of gender expansive theatricality: Tony winner and non-binary theatre powerhouse KO (formally credited as Karen Olivo) has recently taken over leadership of Northwestern’s Music Theatre program. KO’s visibility empowers TGNC actors to reimagine the canonical characters on their résumé: Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton, Alison in Fun Home, Vanessa in In the Heights, Anita in West Side Story, Satine in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. To bring it all full circle, KO’s professional career began as an understudy for Rent.
The closing number of Tick, Tick…Boom! is “Louder Than Words.” A lyric from that song stuck with Frazier through the entire production process:
Why do we blaze a trail
When the well worn path seems safe and
Cages or wings, cage or wings
Which do you prefer?
The image of cages speaks volumes to the experiences of many TGNC actors, who have struggled to fit into the historical theatre binary to book work. And the wings? Those would be productions like this one, which provide a platform for transgender and gender nonconforming actors to step into the fullness of themselves. They are few and far between, but they have the potential to resonate and spur positive change in both the future of musical theatre and the lives of TGNC audiences who are able to truly see themselves onstage for the first time.
BoHo Theatre’s production of Tick, Tick…Boom! runs Jan. 12-Feb. 5 at the Edge Theater. Audiences should note that there is an understudy performance on Jan. 26th. Other performances of note include open caption performances on Jan. 21 and 28, and an industry night on Jan. 30. BoHo Theatre is also offering a flat ticket rate of $12 for all TGNC audience members to increase accessibility to that community. In addition, the Center on Halsted is bringing LGBTQIA+ youth to see the show.
K. Woodzick (they/them) is a theatre artist and journalist currently residing in Northern Wisconsin on Anishinabek land. They hold an MFA in contemporary performance from Naropa University, and their writing has appeared in Theatre Topics and HowlRound. They are the founder of The Non-Binary Monologues Project and host of the Theatrical Mustang podcast, which will return in April of 2022 (watch this space). More at www.woodzick.com.
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