Tick, tick… BOOM!, the Netflix musical tells the true story of Jonathan Larson, a young theatre composer on the verge of a meltdown as he races against time to write the next great American musical as the dread of his 30th birthday looms around the corner.
Larson did eventually write his magnum opus, Rent, but he didn’t get to taste the fruits of his labours — he passed away suddenly from an aortic aneurysm, the night before Rent’s first preview in 1996. He was just 35.
Future multi-award-winning (Pulitzer, Tony, Emmy, Grammy) multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda was 17 when he first saw the musical about eight struggling artists in Manhattan’s East Village struggling with life, love and Aids (which was later parodied as Lease in Team America… anyhoo).
Even at that age, Miranda, like Larson, was worried that he hasn’t accomplished enough.
“I was always obsessed with dying before I could make anything,” Miranda, now 41, says with a laugh. “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 onwards, it’s just a recurring theme and I think it was amplified by the fact my musical hero tragically passed away before he could see the mark his music will make on the world and that affected me profoundly.”
Years later, Miranda — who had then made his name on Broadway with In the Heights and was just a year away from Hamilton —connected with the Larson-verse when he starred in a two-week staging of an early Larson-scripted musical, the autobiographical tick, tick…BOOM!
“I fell in love with the show before I lived it, and then I lived it,” Miranda once said. “The only difference between me and Jonathan in terms of that journey is that I was lucky enough to live to see my show go on.”
And now Miranda is back in the Larson-verse, this time making his directorial debut with the film adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM!
To play Jonathan Larson in his version of the musical, Miranda had only one person in mind: Andrew Garfield. He pitched the project to The Amazing Spider-Man actor after seeing his performance in Aids-era themed Angels of America at the National Theatre in London. “He was absolutely brilliant and heart-shattering in it,” Miranda recalls. “I just left [the show] feeling like that guy can do anything.”
In other words, Garfield was his first and only choice; if he said no, Miranda would have no choice but to build him (probably). “I never went through a formal casting process,” he adds. “I didn’t have a Plan B. [And] he said yes and here we are.”
Speaking to 8days.sg and journos over Zoom from LA, a day after tick, tick…BOOM!’s AFI Fest opening at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on Nov 10, Miranda is funny (have you seen him on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Saturday Night Live?) and animated and he gives insightful thoughtful answers. This isn't a guy who’s tired of speaking to the press the whole day. (He's had an eventful 2021: he also appeared in Jon M Chu's film version of In the Heights and the animated feature Vivo, as well as providing songs for the just-out Disney 'toon Encanto.) Even if he were, he does a smashing job concealing the fatigue. The only time he takes a break is when this writer’s cat — a ginger tabby named Bennu (shameless shout-out) — walks in on the interview, with nary care in the world. Cats…
It’s really embarrassing. Before signing off, I apologise profusely to Miranda for the interruption. “Thanks for the cat cameo, too,” he replies. “That was the best! I wish more cats pop up in videos!” (Netflix has kindly granted permission to share a snippet of Miranda’s audio-only reaction — cue to :20 mark)
Here, Miranda reveals a few behind-the-scenes stories from his maiden stage-to-screen crossover which has scored rave reviews (88 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), with Garfield’s astounding portrayal of a tortured artist attracting plenty of awards buzz.
On how working on Jon M Chu's movie version of In The Heights prepped his directing debut
“On a logistical level, I stole as many people as I could from In the Heights — because it was such an incredible process — beginning with their director of photography, Alice Brooks. I grabbed the music team wholesale — Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman, Steven Gizicki, Kurt Crowley. What was really inspiring about Jon’s production for me were the big swings he took — he knew instinctively with my work, which is really humbling, when to turn singing-in-a-moment [sequence] and make it very intimate. There are songs in In The Heights where it’s all one take and it’s in one apartment and that’s all it needs to be. And then there’s enormous extravaganzas where we shut down the Highbridge Park pool and there are 500 extras. I don’t have the budget he was working with but I enjoy that sense of scale of really serving the moment and serving the number, so you guys have seen the ‘Sunday’ number [in tick,tick…BOOM!] and how big that was and how much we exploded, that’s very much encouraged and inspired by watching Jon take big swings. And there are moments as intimate as ‘Man in the Piano’. So in a subconscious way, Jon really encouraged me to be brave.”
On the difference between directing a musical for stage and on film
“I would tell you the biggest surprise to me about directing a film. I’ve been lucky enough to be on film sets as the writer and as an actor but what I knew the least about was the editing process in post-production. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoy it. It’s actually almost like writing a musical score. It’s the same principles at work. It’s about tension and release: when to sit in a moment and stay in it and when to speed through to the next thing. It’s about rising and falling and finding of the internal rhythms in the story arc. That’s exactly the same thing I’m doing when I am sitting at a piano crafting a score. Now I have an editing equipment instead of a piano. And your tools are whatever you shot and so the big lesson being, if you didn’t film it, you cannot edit it. It encouraged me to be braver in terms of the amount of footage I got for my next project, which I hopefully get to do. But it was incredible to see how analogous editing is to the work I know how to do as a songwriter.”
On the “unique challenges” of shooting a musical amid a pandemic
“COVID is transmitted via saliva and we are singing at each other (laughs) at point blank range and so we had to rethink a lot of our numbers and find ways to do them safely. Remember: we went back to production in September 2020, there’s no vaccine yet and so all we had were the incredible safety protocols that Netflix put in place and our ability to buy into that and adhere to them. We were really trusting each other with our lives and so that’s all we had. And I’m proud to report that no one got sick on our production — everyone really took the protocols seriously. But our singers — if they were going to each other — had to be quarantined together. They were the only people without masks during that time and any time we had ensemble members [singing together], they would have to go into quarantine. So it required a greater sacrifice from our performers because they are the ones singing live to each other. Anytime we made the decision that Andrew had to sing live, our cameraman had to put on raincoats and face shields and be at a certain distance from him. That changes your shots. And so it just made everything take a little longer; we just had to find creative ways to make this as joyous and live as any other musical shot at any other time.”
tick, tick…BOOM! is now on Netflix. In The Heights is available on HBO Go; Hamilton streams on DIsney+.
Photos: TPG News/Click Photos, Macall Polay/Netflix