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After Chelsea Jo Conard studied musical theater at the Conservatory at Webster University in St. Louis, she was pursuing theater in New York City when the bubble burst – literally.
“I lived in Harlem and then I lived in Astoria in Queens in just terrible apartments,” Conard says before a rehearsal of “Tick Tick Boom,” the musical by City Repertory Theatre that opens Friday at its Palm Coast venue. The play is a last-minute addition to the City Rep season after “Dames at Sea” was dropped when its previously cast tap dancers could no longer perform in it.
Conard portrays Susan in “Tick Tick Boom,” a play by the late Jonathan Larson – yes, the guy who created the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning “Rent.”
“I lived in a sixth-floor walkup for a long time and I did the whole theater thing,” says Conard, a City Rep veteran who runs two area wellness centers when she’s not doing theater. One night in that New York apartment, she and her roommates noticed “a giant water bubble in the ceiling. We put a pan under it and popped it with a fork.”
With such leaky ceiling memories, it’s no wonder Conard relates “100 percent” to Larson’s autobiographical play.
Before “Rent” and its rock-influenced music became the 800-pound gorilla of the musical theater world, Larson was a struggling, self-doubting yet determined, wanna-be composer who admired Stephen Sondheim, waited tables when he wasn’t writing music, and lived in shitty Big Apple apartments – including one he equipped with a wood-burning stove because it didn’t have heat.
Larson began performing “Tick Tick Boom” as a solo “rock monologue” piece in 1990 in various New York venues and workshop settings. Soon after he began work on “Rent,” a rock musical loosely based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” and which, like “Boom,” told the story of starving young artists in Lower Manhattan’s East Village.
Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic dissection, apparently related to an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome, the night before “Rent” premiered Off-Broadway in January 1996. The musical moved to Broadway three months later, and Larson garnered all those awards posthumously.
After Larson’s death, “Tick Tick Boom” was revised and revamped by playwright David Auburn, he of “Proof” fame, as a three-actor piece, and the new version premiered Off-Broadway in 2001. An American national tour followed, along with Off-Broadway revivals in 2014 and 2016.
In the City Rep production, Gaston “Trey” King portrays Jon, the angst-riddled, 30-year-old musician-composer who yearns to make it big on Broadway – or at least just make a living in the performing arts.
Conard is his girlfriend Susan, a dancer who teaches ballet to young children but who has abandoned her own artistic dreams and wants to raise a family. Beau Wade plays Jon’s longtime friend Michael, who has given up acting for a lucrative job in the business world – and who keeps tempting the poverty-addled Jon with a position at his firm.
The play is fueled by that tension between the food-on-the-table demands of everyday life versus one’s artistic ambitions.
King says he relates “immensely” to Larson’s autobiographical play and its struggling main character, while Wade echoes Conard and says the play resonates “100 percent” with him.
King, a Jacksonville native who studied theater performance at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., says he has “been doing theater my entire life.” After college he moved to Los Angeles, where he had a day job but also an agent. “I was doing auditions once or twice a week,” he says. “It was awesome.”
He moved to St. Augustine a year ago to be close to his family after his father was diagnosed with small lymphocytic lymphoma.
“At first I struggled with the idea of actually going back to the arts,” says King, who works at Marineland Dolphin Adventure as the entertainment coordinator. “I was very hesitant when it came to auditioning for this.”
“Tick Tick Boom” is not only his City Rep debut – it also will be his first theatrical performance in the area.
Wade, akin to both Larson and the composer’s alter ego in the play, sandwiches theater work between his day job as a restaurant server. A City Rep and Flagler Playhouse vet, Wade has portrayed Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show” and Albert Einstein in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” and he’s played roles in “Macbeth” and more than 10 other plays.
“The character Jonathan is a starving artist who works at a restaurant, which I can relate to a lot,” Wade says. “His goal to make his life in theater is something a lot of artists are in agreement with – ‘Whatever it takes to make art my passion, my livelihood.’ His desire is to not stop even though the most important people in his life, his best friend and his girlfriend, are telling him maybe that’s not the avenue. But he’s like ‘No, I know what I want.’ ”
Jon’s dilemma recalls what the poet W.B. Yeats wrote in “Adam’s Curse”:
“A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”
Yet the City Rep cast believes “Tick Tick Boom” isn’t merely a play written by a struggling, starving artist that will appeal only to struggling, starving artists.
“It’s about settling,” Conard says. “It’s anything that you are passionate about. Does the character Jon settle and do something else? Or does he push forward and take that big risk, and possibly lose important people in his life? I think everyone can relate to that, not just from an artistic perspective, not just a composer, actor or whoever. Everyone struggles with that, making those types of choices.”
City Rep director John Sbordone says “Boom,” like its more famous cousin “Rent,” reflects “Jonathan Larson’s relationship with New York, and his struggles to make music and change the whole nature of Broadway musicals that needed changing at the time.”
Sbordone notes that “Jesus Christ Superstar” was hailed as a groundbreaking “rock opera” when it debuted on Broadway in 1971, but Larson wanted to amp up the rock vibe in musical theater.
“He was trying to use rock music for musicals, so he was a revolutionary in that regard,” Sbordone says. “The big revolution before Jonathan Larson is probably Bob Fosse and what he did for dance. Up to the 1960s, so many of the musicals are vehicles for stars, then you get ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Hair,’ and these are revolutionary for their time. Larson comes along 25 years later, and things have kind of stagnated. So, his mission was to change all of that.
“ ‘Tick Tick Boom’ is a marvelous musical that talks about those changes, and his struggles to make things work.”
Wade notes that “there’s a great line in my favorite song in the play, ‘Johnny Can’t Decide,’ which touches on those feelings of not knowing which decision to make. There’s a line where Jonathan says, ‘I want to sit down right now at my piano and I want to write music. I want to do that every day — make songs that people listen to and remember.’ While Jonathan Larson did unfortunately pass away before ‘Rent’ became a hit, he did spend the rest of his life doing that — creating music that people 25 years later are still singing, still loving, still exulting in. It is tragic, but it’s sweet — bittersweet.”
“Tick Tick Boom” is replacing “Dames at Sea” on the City Rep schedule. “Dames,” a 1966 musical that features a lot of tap dancing, was not only scheduled a year ago but also cast a year ago, Sbordone said: “At CRT we cast ahead of time, especially when you have specialty things that have to happen. You can’t do ‘Dames at Sea’ without tappers. I had enlisted tappers last May, and we were going on that premise and then circumstances changed and they couldn’t do it. Rather than do a half-baked job of a show that features tap, we decided to change it.”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
“Tick Tick Boom,” written by Jonathan Larson, directed by Jon Sbordone, starring Chelsea Jo Conard, Trey King and Beau Wade, staged by City Repertory Theatre at 7:30 p.m. April 5-6 and 12-13, and 3 p.m. April 7 and 14. Performances are at CRT’s venue in City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $25 adults, $15 students. For more information or tickets, call the CRT box office at 386-585-9415 or book online here.