Lin-Manuel Miranda has earned many prestigious awards; Tonys, Grammys, Emmys and a Pulitzer Prize, while changing the Broadway scene forever with his hit “Hamilton.” Now, Miranda is making his directorial debut with Netflix’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” a beautifully crafted adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s “rock monologue” of the same name, that premiered off-Broadway.
This was Larson’s semi-autobiographical piece that came just before his massive ‘90s hit “Rent” — Larson tragically died at 35 of an aortic failure, hours before the off-Broadway debut of “Rent.”
“Tick, Tick… Boom!” followed his struggle to make a name for himself and find success as an aspiring New York theatre composer as he fretted about turning 30. It was as if he sensed he had limited time. Among the many whom Larson influenced was Miranda, who also hustled in his 20s as a struggling theatre songwriter.
It was watching “Rent” and then “Tick, Tick… Boom!” that spoke to the New York-born actor, singer and songwriter. There were life lessons that were instilled in him about following your passion despite naysayers and despite feeling left behind.
“I was 17 years old when I saw the original cast of ‘Rent’ from the back row of the mezzanine of the Nederlander Theatre,” said Miranda. “I had never heard a score that contemporary before, I had never seen a cast that diverse in a Broadway show; it looked as diverse as the city I truly lived in … I’d never seen anything that present and it was about the things I was worried about. It was about being an artist and living and dying and making it in this city, when the odds seem so impossible,” he said in an interview.
“It was the first time I felt like I knew the person who was writing this, like I got a glimpse of the soul of the person writing. And then of course, it’s monstrously unfair that he never lived to see the success of that show.”
Miranda, 41, reflected on how watching the musical helped him follow his dreams. “Cut to me at 21 years old and I see ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ … and I’m a senior in college, I’m about to move to New York to try to do the impossible thing Jonathan gave me permission to do. It was like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be harder than you think and your more talented friends are going to get real jobs that give them health insurance’ and ‘That really pretty girl sitting next to you is not going to be your girlfriend anymore because you’re going to prioritize your work.’
“It was like a sneak preview of my 20s and, yet, it was also incredibly clarifying. Because it was like, ‘If you love to do this, it can’t be about success and it can’t be about the world liking your stuff.’ That to me is really the lesson of ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ It’s a self-portrait of Jonathan Larson as a young man, failing, getting back up and starting again.”
Miranda explained why it feels like a full circle moment for him. “The themes that Jonathan was wrestling with have seeped into my own work. It’s a direct line between Jonathan writing about his New York community facing gentrification downtown and me writing about my New York community all the way uptown facing gentrification. He brought in the music he loved, rock and pop … I brought in hip hop and Latin music, what I had grown up with and what I wanted to bring to theatre. Jonathan’s fictional version of himself, obsessed with a ticking clock and running out of time, there’s a direct line between that and Alexander Hamilton and his writing like he’s running out of time.”
Andrew Garfield is tasked with capturing the legacy of Larson with his tenacity and grit. “I knew he was my Jonathan Larson when I saw him in ‘Angels in America,’ which is a six hour, two-part play,” Miranda said. “It’s your whole day to go see that show. And he has to be onstage for almost all of it. He was so open and fearless. I remember watching thinking, ‘How does he do this eight times a week?’
“I’ve done some tough shows … but nothing compared to what Andrew was doing up on that stage with intensity and an open-heartedness. It wasn’t a matter of whether he could sing or not. I just thought that he can do anything.”
In the film, Larson’s character is given the cliché advice to “write what you know.” But Miranda has his own take. “The caveat I always add to ‘write what you know’ is write what’s missing. I wanted a life in this business and I didn’t see any roles for Latinos, the only roles we had were ‘West Side Story’ and a couple of parts in ‘A Chorus Line.’ That impulse came from a place of wanting a life in this business and not seeing anyone else doing it.
“It takes a long time to find the thing that you know you can contribute that isn’t in anyone else’s head or heart but yours,” he added. “But write what you know is not a literal thing. I did not write a show about being a substitute teacher at my old high school who lived in my old neighbourhood. I wrote a show about my neighbourhood … to write what’s missing is to give us new stories and that’s what we need more than ever.”
Miranda worked on the off-Broadway version of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and adapted the story for the movie version. “I thought the film was an opportunity to go even deeper… the backdrop of New York in 1990 amidst the AIDS crisis, the backdrop of Jonathan in the Village that is gentrifying and getting harder to live in and afford. I wanted it to be not a faithful recreation of the off-Broadway version, but a contextual expansion of that piece.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION