Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Macintosh in Tick, Tick…Boom!

In the first couple of minutes of the film, the character of famous theatre writer, Jonathan Larson, introduces us to the year (a pan shot of a Calvin and Hobbes calendar that reveals it is January 1990) and a lot of his stuff. He tells us about his two keyboards, his music collection and his Macintosh computer. My brain did a little record scratch of “Huh?” at this but I had a movie to watch so I watched it, occasionally squinting my eyes at his machine when he’d type a single word on that computer, throughout the film. Then I went to bed. And I started thinking about the Macintosh computer. I thought about how odd it was for a struggling musical theatre writer to own a computer at all in 1990 and how extra odd it would be if he had one that was new like that. I mean, I didn’t know the exact dates, but I knew most people didn’t start really getting these things for another couple of years.

So this computer in his apartment in 1990 could only mean two things. One – Jonathan Larson was also a computer nerd, in addition to being a musical theatre nerd. And in 1990, this was just highly unlikely. Like, it’s like a computer nerd and musical theatre nerd could not have been the same person. They might meet at a party and make out but those two circles of being were probably closed at that time. I knew both of those types of people then and they were not the same. You could find one now, no problem. But in 1990? No way. So – given that this musical theatre nerd was not likely to also be a computer nerd, the only other reason a man who cannot afford to pay his electric bill would have a fancy new computer was that his parents bought it for him. This would mean that his parents had some cash to burn and the other evidence for the privilege his family must have returned to me as I went over some facts I learned from the film. His family lived in White Plains (a wealthy suburb of NYC) and they have a summer place on Rhode Island. This would mean that this composer cannot pay his electric bill, not because he has no access to money but because, very likely, mostly others had taken care of those things for him before. (Again, there is evidence for this in the film when it is suggested that his friend and former roommate, who had only recently moved out, used to take care of these things.) Suddenly a story about a struggling artist becomes the story of a man with a certain amount of privilege, carelessness and entitlement. I have a feeling this is not the myth the filmmakers wanted to make.

Anyway – the next morning I looked up when the Mac Classic came out because the (two second long) shots of it made me think it was like the computer in the 90s I knew best. I wanted to find out how weird a choice it would be for a musical theatre guy to get a Mac and when I saw that the Mac Classic came out in October of 1990, when the movie takes place in January of 1990, well, now I had a THIRD explanation for how Jonathan Larson, a musical theatre writer, had a Macintosh computer in his struggling artist apartment so many months before they came out. He’s a time traveler. He went to the future, not super far, just far enough to pick up one of the first Macs and brought it back to his present moment in January 1990. I’m sure he could have probably done some more useful stuff than picking up a computer a year before other people got them – but that’s like, a whole other movie.

I sort of liked this explanation best, fantasist that I am, but then I looked at the film again to grab a little screen shot of the computer and it turns out the model in the film is NOT the Mac Classic but the earlier, more expensive model, the Macintosh Plus. So at least it’s clear that this character is not a time traveler. (Alas!) But now I know that someone spent $2,599 on this computer in 1990 or before. And that’s almost six grand in today dollars. This becomes an even more unlikely item for a struggling composer to have in his apartment.

What is he using it for? Ain’t no internet on that thing. He’s not emailing his agent from it. He COULD be using FINALE, the music software, which was invented in 1988, but if so, he’s a really early adopter. Like – is a waiter at a diner likely to be using cutting edge software to write his rock musical? In 1990? I’m gonna guess no.

I know what those 90s Macs were like. It’s not a thing you want to write a song on. Not in the early 90s anyway. I can say that as a person who was starting to write songs at about the same time as I got my hands on a Mac. You can check my floppy discs; I didn’t do my songwriting on the Mac.

Based on the screens on the Mac in the film, he’s not using any kind of music software. He’s using that Mac as a word processor. Just like I did at the time. He’s using it to type “Your” and “You’re.” This movie did not need a computer of any kind. Pen and paper would have done the same job.

I’m trying like hell to understand why this Mac is in this movie. Like, was this in Larson’s original show? Did HE want us to know he had a Macintosh in 1990? If so, why? Well, I looked at the script for the 2001 version of this thing (This is the version that’s available to the public. It’s adapted by another playwright.) and there’s no mention of the Macintosh. It’s possible that in earlier editions that the screenwriter had access to, Larson mentioned his computer but I think it’s most likely that the screenwriter made this call. The screenwriter (Steven Levenson, writer of Dear Evan Hanson) was born the same year as the Macintosh, 1984. He has never known a Mac-less world. Perhaps he cannot imagine a world where someone could write a musical without one. So maybe he’s added this Macintosh without realizing. It’s understandable. It’s just a mistake then. That gave me a kind of peace.

I thought I’d hit the bottom of this rabbit hole and just found a mistake but then I happened to see some production research for Larson’s apartment and there is a photo of Larson’s actual desk from the 90s. There IS a computer on that desk. It’s not a Macintosh Plus, though. It’s not even clear that it’s a Mac. But the actual person had a computer. It was not just added by a young contemporary screenwriter who hadn’t done historical research.

Screenshot of the Macintosh Plus which occupied my thoughts more than, perhaps, it should.

Emily, you seem really worked up about this tiny detail in a sweet little movie about a fellow struggling artist theatre guy. What’s your problem? Are you trying to get a job as an historian for films or something?

Meanwhile, I know there are several among you who would like to know my thoughts about this film. I would like to know my thoughts about this film but all I can focus on is that Macintosh and why they thought they needed it. Did Lin Manuel Miranda get a Mac as a young theatre dude and he wrote his stuff on it, so it’s like, meaningful for him in tying his own legacy to the legacy of Jonathan Larson? I’m making stuff up here because that little Mac is just sitting in the middle of this whole experience for me.

Did this movie give me some feelings I might be just funneling into this silly prop and I’m making a big deal of nothing? Possibly. Maybe I’m just reeling from some nostalgia for the period? Could be. But I also think that details like this ARE important because of all the side stories they tell that we, as storytellers, might not be aware that we are telling. Others might have seen a loving tribute of a bio pic musical. I saw a confusing movie about a Macintosh.

Oh why do I care about this? I guess I know something about being a struggling theatre artist. I’ve done it a long ass time. The lesson he learns in the movie is that he should write what he knows and the stuff he knows, I know, too. Having watched the rise and fall of many struggling theatre artists, my eye is pretty finely focused for spotting the secret advantage someone has. The reality is that this guy is not doing nearly as badly as this movie would like us to believe. Sure, he forgets to pay his electric bill but he clearly has a financial safety net, he has the phone numbers for fancy famous people and they take his calls. He has an agent, two keyboards, a mixer, a microphone and, I’m sure you haven’t forgotten, a Macintosh computer. The actual person has, at the point that this play takes place, won an extremely prestigious award, though the film NEVER mentions it. For a 29 year old, he’s actually doing amazing. Like, really super well. The film wants to make us think it’s a super sad struggling difficult life and from this struggling artist’s perspective, his “terrible life” is actually as good as it gets for some folks. To see a film romanticizing the struggle, made by a bunch of guys who are multi-millionaires, is just a little hard to swallow when their vision of the hard life is way better than my actual life.

I mean, sure, I currently have a Macintosh computer, too. It’s nicer than any computer Larson ever had his hands on – but that’s because technology gets cheaper and better as time goes by. A Macintosh in 2022 means something very different than it did in 1990.

We now live in a world where a computer is a necessity to do most any job but particularly any job in freelancing arts. In Larson’s time, it was still a rarity. You might find one in a family’s house, with parents trying to give their kids a leg up in the coming computer age. But struggling artists would mostly have had other priorities then.

I’m still confused by the discrepancy in the computer from the research photo and the set they came up with. I watched a video interview with the set design team and I gotta tell you, these folks cared about the details. They got the sag in the bookshelf. They searched for just the right model of Yamaha keyboard. Why would the computer be any different? I mean – these people got their hands on Larson’s cassette tapes and they didn’t put the actual tapes on the set, no, they scanned the covers so they wouldn’t lose, or damage, his originals. They cared about getting his exact copy of Led Zeppelin IV.

And maybe this is part of what gets under my skin about all this. Like, we all had that Led Zeppelin tape in 1990. I’m pretty sure I still have mine in a box in my mom’s house somewhere. To watch a dude, who is basically like a lot of people I know, get canonized like this is super disconcerting. I have known many musical theatre writers more skilled than this guy who will never have their tapes lovingly scanned by a set decoration team. Nor would they like to, really – they’d just like to have gotten even a hint of some of the opportunities that Larson got, or to have started out with some of his privileges. Obviously, this Macintosh in the movie is standing in for more than just a computer. I know it. You know it. But I really do want to know what it’s doing there.

I was sent the booklet with this page in it. Little did I know, this piece about the production design would lead me further down the Mac rabbit hole. I mean, look at that research photo. If it’s a Mac, it’s one of the few models that didn’t look like a Mac.

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