Tick, Tick... Boom!: Inside Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Homage to Rent Legend Jonathan Larson
With the mainstream success of many Broadway-to-screen productions over the years, there’s no denying that the musical theater audience is bigger now than it ever was before. Not everyone can afford costly Broadway tickets, and especially not the hassle of flying all the way out to the Big Apple. Curiously enough, it was quarantine that proved that access to theater or film adaptations doesn’t have to be costly after all.
Sreaming services like Netflix helped films find a global audiences who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to watch live shows on Broadway. With the help of Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s no wonder that Netflix took a shot (see what we did there?) at producing Rent legend Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical one-man show titled Tick, Tick… Boom!
In an exclusive roundtable interview, we sat down with Lin-Manuel Miranda as he delved deep into the exploratory creative process of producing his directorial debut, Tick, Tick… Boom! Miranda is no stranger to the stage. He already has a Pulitzer, two Laurence Olivier Awards, and three Tonys, and he’s written songs for huge films like Moana and Mary Poppins Returns. But Tick, Tick… Boom! is actually his first time calling the shots on the set of a movie. And let’s just say, it was quite the experience for Miranda–from writing the script and dealing with COVID-19 protocols, to casting Andrew Garfield and the entire novel experience of it all.
Set in 1990 New York, Tick, Tick… Boom! is about young theater composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) who waits tables at the historic Moondance diner while writing what he hopes will be the next great American Musical titled, “Superbia.” Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance, Jon feels pressure everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York; from his friend Michael, who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; and an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have?
In a nutshell, the movie is a musical about Larson writing a musical (Superbia) which later inspired him to write the one-man musical he’s performing in the film (Tick, Tick… Boom!) before coming up with his most popular musical (Rent) that he never got to see and ended up becoming famous for. Don’t worry… our heads hurt, too.
But you’re probably wondering: “If Jonathan Larson’s best work is Rent, why not make a movie about that instead of Tick, Tick… Boom! aka the musical that never made it to Broadway?”
Well, Miranda, who just so happens to have played Jon in a TTB revival in 2016, has an answer that makes perfect sense:
“The thing that was most affecting to me was leaving backstage and going upstairs to the opening night reception and meeting all the real people in Jonathan’s life… Any time Tick, Tick… Boom! is performed, Jonathan is alive again. Rent is his masterpiece in many ways, but Tick, Tick… Boom! is his self-portrait. And I knew that if I was going to be entrusted with the awesome responsibility of bringing that to the screen, it needed to have that spirit.”
Miranda referred to Larson’s loved ones as a resource to give justice to Jonathan’s character in the movie.
“I want to know the good stories, the bad stories, when he was at his best, when he pissed you off, and all of that informed the [version of] Jonathan that Andrew so brilliantly portrayed on-screen.”
Garfield is perhaps best known for his role as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Peter Parker, in The Amazing Spider-Man movie franchise. After his career as a superhero, Garfield started performing theater again as a featured actor in Death of a Salesman and as lead actor in Angels in America–both of which earned him Tony Awards. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Garfield talked about the heartbreaks of performing in big-budget films.
"Comic-Con in San Diego is full of grown men and women still in touch with that pure thing the character meant to them. [But] you add in market forces and test groups and suddenly the focus is less on the soul of it and more on ensuring we make as much money as possible,” said Garfield of the experience. “And I found that—find that—heartbreaking in all matters of the culture. Money is the thing that has corrupted all of us and led to the terrible ecological collapse that we are all about to die under.”
Now, as he plays the lead role of Larson, the actor brings his theater prowess to the screen as he showcases his emotional range and singing chops in Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom! But here’s the catch: before approaching Garfield, Miranda had never heard him sing. Surprisingly enough, he was his first and only choice.
“There was never anyone else. I knew I had this gig of directing Tick, Tick… Boom! and shortly thereafter, I had the fortune of seeing Andrew Garfield in Angels in America in London,” Miranda said.
“Andrew Garfield was absolutely brilliant and heart-shattering in it, open and vulnerable, and I just left feeling, ‘that guy can do anything.’ And so, there was never anyone else once I saw him, I never went to a formal casting process, my plan was to ask him to be in it, and if he didn’t say yes… I didn’t have a plan B—so he had to say yes. And here we are.”
What's funnier? Andrew Garfield later reveals in a hilarious interview with Stephen Colbert that prior to being cast as Jon in Tick, Tick... Boom!, he's never actually sung professionally before. Ever. But hey, necessity is the mother of employment.
The movie started filming in March 2020. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team had to pause production and briefly resumed filming back in September 2020, when the deadly virus’ vaccine was still non-existent.
“The pandemic poses unique challenges to a musical,” Miranda joked. “You know, COVID is transmitted via saliva—and we’re singing at each other at point-blank range. So, we had to rethink a lot of our numbers, and not so much rethink, but find ways to do them safely.”
To ensure everyone’s safety on set, the TTB crew took COVID-19 protocols seriously every time they were filming. Miranda was proud to report that no one got sick in the production.
“We were really trusting each other with our lives,” he shared.
Aside from being quarantined together, any time the ensemble members had to sing live, the cameramen had to put on raincoats and face shields while standing a certain distance away from the cast, consequently affecting the cinematography and shots. Though filming took longer than usual, the crew never re-assessed. Instead, they found creative ways to make the production a joyous and live process as if it were any other musical shot at any other time.
As a first-time film director, what’s extraordinary is that Miranda didn’t initiate the project. Rather, it was film producer Julie Sujin Oh who did most of the legwork in gaining the rights to Tick, Tick… Boom! In 2014, Oh saw the Encores! production of Tick, Tick… Boom! at City Center starring Miranda himself as Jon, Karen Olivo as Jon’s girlfriend Susan, and Leslie Odom, Jr. as Jon’s best friend Michael. With the support of the Larson estate and Jonathan’s sister Julie, Oh later approached Miranda to ask if he could direct the film. They pitched it to Netflix, and the rest is history.
“I never responded to an email so fast in my life. I said, ‘I’m the only person who could direct this movie,’” a grateful Miranda said.
If you’ve watched Miranda’s musicals, there’s a recurring theme of legacies and “running out of time.” Miranda mentions that Larson’s passing affected him so profoundly that it bled into his work in Hamilton.
“I was just a naturally morbid emo child. And so that seeps into my work from the first musical I ever wrote when I was 16 onward. It’s just a recurring theme, and I think it was amplified by the fact that my musical hero, Jonathan Larson, tragically passed away before he could see the mark his work would make on the world,” shared Miranda.
“I felt empowered by the fact that Jonathan was a hero of mine and I’ve studied his work and his life, but also I knew something about what it is to be a songwriter, and the incredible pressure of having a whole ass musical in your head that no one can see yet because of the many obstacles that life provides: lack of resources, lack of collaborators, a world that is telling you ‘no.’”
Speaking of other musical heroes, theater fans are indeed in for a treat.
“There are artists from musicals [in the film] that exist in the present, artists that really feel like they owe a debt to Jonathan Larson. There are even artists in later works of Jonathan Larson who show up,” Miranda said.
He adds, “It’s like Jonathan dreaming outside of space and time, and creating this moment, and it was so much fun to film. We were pinching ourselves every day, and I think it shows on screen. I think it really shows how much everyone was there [with a] desire to create the sound of Jonathan’s dreams–the sound he never got to hear when he was around–and sing it so loud that he could hear it wherever he is.”
Tick, Tick… Boom! was released in select theaters last November 12 and will start streaming on Netflix on November 19, 4:00 p.m Philippine standard time. You can also listen to the Musical cast recording of the Tick, Tick... Boom! soundtrack on multiple streaming platforms.