Tick, Tick … Boom! Adapting Jonathan Larson’s Autobiographical Show Into Musical Biopic

Adapting Jonathan Larson’s Autobiographical Show Into a Musical Biopic

Steven Levenson says he and director Lin-Manuel Miranda approached the Netflix film as if it were a work of theater: “Lin said, ‘I don’t know how to make a movie, but I do know how to make a musical.'”

While his Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera Rent has been performed on stages around the world, composer Jonathan Larson’s earlier work, Tick, Tick … Boom!, has developed a smaller cult following of musical theater obsessives. First performed by Larson in 1990 as a one-man “rock monologue,” the show gained a larger audience after Larson’s death in 1996 and Rent‘s critical and commercial success.

In 2001, Tick, Tick … Boom! — expanded by playwright David Auburn into a three-character musical — premiered off-Broadway, the first of many productions that led to Netflix’s film adaptation, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Like Miranda, who starred in an off-Broadway mounting of the musical in 2004, screenwriter Steven Levenson himself played a role in a Tick, Tick … Boom! production — albeit a very small-scale one. “It was the upstairs of what you could loosely call a black-box theater,” Levenson tells THR about appearing as Michael (played by Robin de Jesús in the film) in a student production during his junior year at Brown University. “It spoke to me [as a young person] considering a life in the arts and not knowing if it would work out.”

The play — which sees a fictionalized “Jon” anxiously finishing his first musical for a workshop reading on the eve of his 30th birthday — held a different relevance for Levenson, now 37, as he began to adapt the text for film. “I read it very differently as someone who’s no longer looking ahead to 30. It feels even deeper and more profound than when I was basically a kid.”

Levenson admits that he “put my hand up as high as I could in the air” when he first learned that Miranda was considering Tick, Tick … Boom! as his feature film directorial debut in 2017, the same year Levenson won a Tony for writing the book for Dear Evan Hansen. He adds that Miranda’s vision for the film was present in their first meeting. “His major idea, which survived all these years of development, was that this one-man show out of which Tick, Tick … Boom! emerged [should] be at the center of the film,” says Levenson, who adds that Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch were two movie-musical reference points that incorporated performances as similar framing devices.

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Larson (right) with Michael Greif, who directed Rent’s original production. SARA KRULWICH/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Miranda’s film is a biopic, with Andrew Garfield delivering an uncanny performance as Larson.

However, Levenson maintained that the fictionalized elements of the source material, the characters of Michael (Larson’s gay best friend, played by de Jesús) and Susan (Larson’s girlfriend, played by Alexandra Shipp), both are loosely based on real people.

Michael has ditched his acting dreams for corporate job in advertising; Susan is considering leaving New York for a job teaching dance upstate. Both offer Larson a grim idea of his potential future: If he cannot complete his musical — or if he wastes his time writing another — will he fail to achieve his dreams before his youth slips away and he must consider soul-deadening options?

“It is this portrait of an artist at such a specific moment in time,” says Levenson. “He didn’t know the future — we do, and we know that this was all leading toward RentTick, Tick … Boom! is actually about the making of Tick, Tick … Boom!, and that gives us a different perspective and allows the viewer to understand it as a specific part of Larson’s journey [as an artist].”

With Tick, Tick … Boom!‘s evolution from one-man show to off-Broadway musical — and now feature film — Levenson and Miranda took creative license with the structure when adapting it for the screen.

“The songs already existed, and we got to choose from this incredible buffet of pieces,” he says. “Each of these numbers had to stand on its own … and guide us, storytelling-wise.”

The selections include rock-driven songs from Larson’s concert staging, to a showstopping homage to Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George featuring cameos from Broadway veterans like Joel Grey, Bernadette Peters and Chita Rivera, with intimate, self-reflective songs in between.

“We were always going to use Jonathan’s imagination to get into the story,” says Levenson of the concert framing device. “That allowed us the freedom to make some of these numbers really big and to keep some of them very small.”

That freedom was also born out of Miranda’s approach as a first-time director, who brought his theatrical expertise to the project. “Lin said, ‘I don’t know how to make a movie, but I do know how to make a musical,’ ” says Levenson. “[In theater,] you would have workshops, you would have readings, you’d put it on its feet and try it out. And that’s exactly what we did with Tick, Tick … Boom!