Jonathan Larson was the boy wonder of musical theater in the early 1990s. His unprecedentedly flamboyant, life-affirming rock opera RENT played for 12 years on Broadway and is one of the most iconic, recognisable musicals ever. However Larson's story is one that ended in tragedy. In the early hours of the morning, on January 26, 1996, on the day of RENT's first public performance, Larson suddenly died of an aortic dissection, most likely caused by undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome. RENT would go on to change our perception of what musicals could be, but Larson never saw the impact his work had on the world.
Before RENT, Larson wrote Tick, tick… BOOM!, a musical mirroring his own life and struggles. Originally a one-man show performed by Larson himself, before being produced as a small production with a cast of just 3, Tick, tick…BOOM! has now been brought to screens big and small by modern musical legend Lin-Manuel Miranda in his directorial debut. Miranda is best known for creating one of the biggest musicals of the decade, Hamilton. Tapping into the zeitgeist, the smash hit musical has been performed to sold out crowds across the globe, and its themes of inclusion, diversity, loss and sacrifice continue to resonate with audiences.
“I can tell you that everything that's good in Hamilton was inspired in part because I saw RENT on my 17th birthday”, Miranda muses during one of the bunch of roundtable interviews Filmhounds attends virtually the day after the film's world premiere at AFI Film Festival. “It was the first truly contemporary musical I remember seeing and it was the first musical that made me feel like I could write a musical because it felt as personal as the great works of art in song and movies that I'd seen. And so, it really sent me careening in that direction.”
In other words, we all have Jonathan Larson to thank for Hamilton. Like Miranda, most of the cast of Tick, Tick… BOOM! have fond memories of RENT, the story of a group of friends living in New York and batling things like addiction, depression, capitalism and AIDS.
Robin De Jesús, who plays Jon's best friend Michael in the film, says he had never seen black and brown faces on the cover of a Broadway cast recording, and he was instantly won over. “One Song Glory came on, and there was something about that song that I just surrendered to it” De Jesús says when he is asked of his relationship to RENT during the interview.
Alexandra Shipp plays Jon's girlfriend Susan, and her gateway drug to all things RENT was Chris Columbus' feature film RENT (2005), which brought back a lot of the original Broadway cast such as Anthony Rapp and Idina Menzel. “I just remember being like, ‘What is this?' This is not your mama's musical theater, this is something that's different. These are brown people. These are queer people, and they're living and struggling and working class and surviving and loving each other.”
For Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Karissa in Tick, Tick… BOOM!, RENT and Jonathan Larson have been a huge part of her life. “I'm so humbled and so grateful to be a part of his legacy because it's one that I truly admire. He was like a seeker of truth and just fought for and stood by things that he knew were right” says the actress who has performed in RENT twice.
It seems that the entire cast has a personal, close connection to the works of Jonathan Larson. Miranda says he wasn't even aware of how personal Tick, Tick…BOOM! would turn out to be until a friend pointed out that Miranda had recreated his own bedroom from his early 20s as Jon's in the film, a comment which made Miranda burst into tears.
“When you're a director, you have to answer more questions than you know the answers to at any given time, whether it's the colour of the table, or where we're putting the cameras or how we're spending this day. And because you're calling on yourself to answer those questions with your incredibly creative team, unconscious decisions do pile up.”
When Larson struggled with the idea of turning 30 and making a name for himself as a writer in 1990, Miranda was but a 10-year-old boy. Larson's work was heavily influenced by the raging AIDS epidemic in the States and Miranda remembers being urgently aware of it, even as a child. “I remember playing in the anterooms of funeral homes while my mother went to funerals of friends that she and my father lost to the AIDS virus.”
Miranda's career also shares a lot of DNA with Larson's, who worked at the Moondance diner while attempting to write the next, great piece of musical theatre. “One of the reasons I wanted to be the one to make this film was, I do know what it is like to be a struggling songwriter in your 20s. I worked as a teacher and a substitute teacher at my old high school, I danced at Bar Mitzvahs, I sang backup in children's choirs. I did whatever jobs required the least amount of time so that I could have the most time to write. And I share that with Jonathan.”
Andrew Garfield also understands the desire and pressure to create and express yourself through art. Garfield plays Jon, AKA Larson himself. Jon struggles with finishing his musical Superbia, which is having its first public workshop in mere days, not to mention a big birthday looms equally close. Jon is so consumed by his artistic, creative desires, his personal relationships are suffering, but he's just too busy, too anxious to create something meaningful while the existential clock ticks on in the back of his head. A voiceover at the beginning says “Everything you are about to see is true… except for the parts Jonathan made up.” This is playful, honest, raw and at times a little unpleasant in its treatment of an artistic genius.
Audiences have been stunned how talented a singer Garfield has turned out to be, something that wasn't publicly known before. “It wasn't privately known either. It was a voyage of discovery, that really, Lin began. I really owe it to Lin for having the foolishness maybe or the foresight to think that I could reach where I needed to reach in order to honour Jon.”
Miranda met with Garfield for lunch and Garfield was keen on the project. When asked if he could sing by Miranda, Garfield simply asked when he was making the movie, but Miranda was at least a year out at the time and the actor promised that by then, he could sing. Garfield worked with voice coach Liz Kaplan as well as the film's music producers Alex Lacamoire and Kurt Crowley on his voice and according to Miranda, Garfield was “dying to sing” at the first workshop.
Shipp and De Jesús both remember the first time they heard Garfield sing. “We were the first people who had ever heard Andrew sing, heard him go, What can you do? and he held that big note. Everyone was like, OK, we were sleeping on you” De Jesús says of the film's early days.
Garfield feels like a natural fit for the role of Larson. Both are tall, lanky with seemingly untameable hair and a distinct desire and natural talent to create. “Jonathan feels like the closest fit character I've ever played to myself, strangely, and there are a multitude of differences between us. When Lin introduced me to Jon and his work, I felt like I was being reintroduced to a long lost brother that I didn't know existed and an older brother that I wanted to live up to and to honour and there was a real simpatico connection that I felt with Jon and still do” Garfield, who wasn't as familiar with Larson's work before this project as the rest of the cast, says of the role.
“It has to be a personal revelation, otherwise it's actually not acting to me for whatever reason. I think some people mis-regard acting as not being yourself and playing something else or pretending. There is an element of that, but for me, it's more about finding the most truthful version of where you and the character meet.”
The film handles a subject we've all struggled and grappled with, success. Jon is desperate to not only make it in the musical theatre industry, but to thrive in it. For Miranda, success was measured by a simple cab ride where he didn't have to calculate whether he could afford the trip, and for Garfield, it was booking a Spanish Doritos commercial, which he notes can be found somewhere in the depths of YouTube. “That was the moment, genuinely. I just got paid two grand for pissing around for two days.”
Success is measured by a tricky balance for Joshua Henry, who worked with Miranda on Hamilton and here plays Jon's friend Roger. “Success for me now means being able to spend a day with my family and living fully in that time and knowing that I'm not missing out on anything else artistically and then spending a portion of the day working on my art and not feeling like I'm missing my family.”
“I feel like so many, so much of the time artists get stuck on the idea of success and lose themselves as you kind of see happen to Jonathan and his personal life is unraveling because there is such a streamlined focus on just the work. And your work cannot be your identity” says Hudgens. “At the end of the day, your family and your friends are genuinely the things that matter most. Those are the people who are going to pick you up when you fail. To me, having a community of people who support you and love you and to feel uninhibited in your work is success.”
For Shipp success goes back to the lyrics found in RENT. “I think that this idea that we've achieved something by 30 is a false narrative. It rarely happens. It doesn't need to happen and it is incredible when it does happen. I think that Jonathan Larson put it so beautifully in RENT when he wrote Seasons of Love; measure your life in love. And when I think of the ways in which I've been successful, I'm looking at the love that I have expressed, that I have shared, that I've been able to receive.”
All the cast speak highly of Miranda as a director. Many of them had worked with Miranda before, and Henry describes him as a “musical theater god”, which sounds about right as Miranda's musicals In The Heights and Hamilton share 15 Tony awards, on top of the ridiculous amount of money they made and continue to make.
“Lin-Manuel puts his heart and soul in everything that he does. There were challenges, like COVID. But despite everything, he just led us to be our full selves and encouraged us to go as far as we can go” Henry says. Similarly, De Jesús praises Miranda and his natural gift at directing. “I think sometimes we get so fearful of trying to do something out of the box in this business. And to see someone who's done so much, just leap.” Shipp adds: “He just is so welcoming and warm and kind and feels like home in a lot of ways”
Miranda, without a doubt, has made a lasting mark on musical theatre history. Whatever you might think of Miranda's body of work, it's impossible to deny the huge impact it has had on this generation and popular culture. “One of the main takeaways and themes in Hamilton is you don't get a say. All you get to do is make what you make, and the world will do with it what it does, and the legacy will be that. I don't know what the new generations will do with the ball. But I'm thrilled that I even got the ball for a minute.”