Sunday Morning Michael Dale: 30/90, 30/89 & 30/13

The universal truth of tick, tick... Boom!

By: Dec. 05, 2021

30/90, 30/89 & 30/13...

When the lights went up on Raul Esparza, the first of several times I ventured way out west to where the shores of the Hudson more or less meet the lobby of Greenwich Village's Jane Street Theater to see the 2001 Off-Broadway mounting of Jonathan Larson's tick, tick... Boom!, I immediately felt that proverbial mirror image smacking me in the face.

There was the fine, fine actor, playing Jon, the deceased author's stage image of himself, not only singing, in the musical's opening song 30/90, of the anxiety he felt turning 30 in early 1990 and wondering if he was getting too old to be a promising young musical theatre writer, not only expressing that anxiety with the sarcastic edge I used back in those days, but he was even wearing the daily uniform of baggy button shirt over t-shirt and loose-fitting trousers I used to wear as I roamed through Manhattan's Lower East Side, feeling the same anxiety while trying to make it as an actor/writer turning 30 in late 1989.

Of course, in those days I aspired to be at the level of known/unknown that Larson was. But even though I had no agent, nor influential people who admired my work, I did have an inexpensive SRO apartment and an acceptable collection of business outfits that I could wear to my $8/hour temporary receptionist gigs in the financial district.

I was presentable enough to be hired regularly by one imposing institution that, to paraphrase How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, was large enough so that nobody really knew what the other person was doing. So while fulfilling my assignments of sitting in empty lobbies, signing for the occasional packages and transferring calls from phones that rang maybe once an hour, I was afforded the luxury of sitting in front of a word processor all day to do my own writing and access to printers and Xerox machines where nobody questioned the work-related value of the copies I was making.

I stayed alert by memorizing the locations of free coffee stations and spreads of free breakfast pastries throughout the many floors, and lunch hours were spent inspecting conference rooms for uneaten sandwiches left after meetings. Even if all that remained was a handful of mustard packets, they went well with the 4-for-a-dollar boxes of spaghetti I'd pick up from the 99 cent stores.

At the end of the work day I'd change into the clothes stuffed in my backpack and either attend a rehearsal or gave a performance of one of the audience participation murder mysteries I was doing in a basement club beneath a Caribbean restaurant on Broome Street (try improvising audience participation comedy with audience members who have been consuming unlimited vodka punches all night) or, through the courtesy of papering services, would shell out $3 for a theatre ticket, frequently for obscure avant-garde pieces by artists who had also achieved Jonathan Larson's level of known/unknown.

In tick, tick... Boom! Jon is depending on a reading of his musical, Superbia, to be the turning point of his career. On a smaller level, you might say my version of that was three performances in that same Broome Street basement of a play I wrote for myself called Pardon My Self-Indulgence: a solo performance about a solo performer. I played a naïve aspiring downtown writer/actor who quoted Kerouac and created pieces imitating the prominent performance artists and downtown theatre-makers of the day without really getting their context. In today's vernacular, the satire was intended to come from his lack of understanding of his own privilege. The Village Voice critic saw it differently, and wrote that I "pander to the nervous giggles of the closed-minded", a quote I'm seriously considering for my tombstone.

Not long after that, I did make a decision Jonathan Larson never made; to accept a full-time salaried position with benefits. It was with a non-profit organization that, at least at first, supported my desire to be limited to a 40 hour work week while pursuing more creative ventures, and I'm especially proud of the work I did during that time with a theatre company giving free outdoor performances in some of New York's community gardens.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda's heart-tugging film adaptation of tick, tick... Boom!, Steven Levenson's screenplay gives additional focus to the completion of Superbia and rehearsals for its concert debut. While watching, I was strongly reminded of an emerging artist I've grown to admire, Rori Nogee (30/13).

An actress who describes her typical roles as "comedic vixen" and who proudly proclaims herself a "diehard Renthead", Nogee has spent the better part of the past ten years, in between survival gigs as a tour guide and as an in-house spokesperson for liquor brands, writing the book, music and lyrics for her rock musical, Siren's Den, which took its inspiration from both her love of Jonathan Larson's music and lyrics and what she describes as "my experiences in a very competitive groupie culture."

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: 30/90, 30/89 & 30/13
Rori Nogee and Lindsey Lake in a 2017 production
of Siren's Den (Photo: Greg Callan)

Through the past several years I've been impressed by concert performances of Siren's Den at Under St. Mark's and at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, as well as a showcase run at The Gene Frankel Theater.

"It took over a decade of festivals and staged readings and rewrites and late nights in recording studios and thousands of dollars out of my own pocket to finally land Siren's Den in my dream venue with a live band and a perfect New York City cast of characters," Nogee says of this past October's concert staging of her musical at The Cutting Room, funded by a grant awarded from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs' City Arts Corp.

Watching the film of tick, tick... Boom! two weeks later, she identified thoroughly with "the alienation of everyone and everything else, the one track focus, the bursts of inspiration for a new song that can only be described as divine intervention, the nervousness, the vulnerability of having your whole heart exposed to a room of friends and strangers alike, and above all, hope- The hope that your art will touch people, that what you have to say matters, that this will be the mark you leave on the world."

As is often the case with such projects, the high of getting Siren's Den produced on its largest scale yet was followed by the empty reality that the experience, at least for now, has not changed Nogee's career.

"Life resumed like nothing had happened."

Though she's not finished trying to get her musical in front of "the gatekeepers of musical theater," she also hears in the back of her mind the advice given to Larson at the end of the film, "Write the next one."

"While the thought of spending another ten years working on something new is daunting," she says, "I think, (quoting the musical's love song to the creative process) 'Hey, what a way to spend a day.'"

As I sit typing these words close to 2:30 a.m. on the day I turn 62/21, I know I'm not alone. I know this town is full of countless people, most of whom will never fully make a living at their art, spending these early morning hours writing, composing, rehearsing or doing any number of things to try and express themselves creatively. They are so much a part of this city and are deserving of support.

If your theater-going habits consist primarily of Broadway shows and other high end productions, consider taking in a small scale showcase or a reading once in a while. Maybe you'll see the next big Broadway game-changer. Or maybe just your presence will put a smile on the face of a struggling artist who's longing to be heard.

Temporarily closed for repairs...

As I mentioned in my last column, I'll be taking a brief hiatus while recovering from an injury. Hopefully, I'll be back in audiences sometime in January and I can't wait to once again be writing about the wealth of performances to be seen in New York. Please click the envelope icon above to be notified when new columns are posted. Thanks!

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