Tick, Tick Boom! Director Lin-Manuel Miranda On Honoring Jonathan Larsons Legacy With Support From Stephen Sondheim

Where better than Washington Heights to meet local hero Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Manhattan neighborhood’s most vociferous supporter? How about at the United Palace Theater, an old movie palace Miranda has been supporting for years, and in whose rehearsal rooms the cast of his debut feature Tick, Tick… BOOM! assembled to read through his adaptation of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s heartfelt autobiographical musical? The story covers Larson’s life in the period immediately before he created Rent, when Broadway success felt impossible, but the drive to try would not abate. Larson died on the night of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview.

DEADLINE: Jonathan Larson’s work had a foundational impact on you. What’s your history with Rent and Tick, Tick… BOOM!?

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LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: It starts with seeing Rent on my 17th birthday with my high-school girlfriend, Meredith Sommerville, who got me tickets for my birthday. Rent was the most contemporary musical I’d ever seen. It was the most diverse musical I’d ever seen. It was the show that made me go from admiring musicals, like the way you might admire a piece of art, to thinking that I could make one. It just felt possible. It felt homemade. It felt like it was concerned with the same things I was concerned with.

So, I go to college, I major in theater and film. I realize it’s very expensive to major in film, and basically stick to theater. And then in my senior year of college, I see the off-Broadway version of Tick, Tick… BOOM! because it got turned into a three-person show from Jon’s original monologue by David Auburn and Scott Schwartz. To see that when you’re 21 and you’re trying to do what Jon was trying to do… To have this semi-autobiographical dispatch being like, “It’s harder than you think. Your friends are all going to grow up, and are you prepared to be OK with that?” It was very clarifying for me.

For a while, I wanted to do that show because it just meant so much to me, and I was lucky enough to do so in 2014. My incredible good luck is that Julie Oh, my producer, saw that production and saw what it meant to me. I think I wrote a Times piece about it, and about Jonathan’s effect on my life, around the time the production happened. So, Julie had read the article and went to see the show. Unbeknownst to me, she went and got the film rights on her own.

We had met briefly in her capacity as a young producer, while I was shopping In the Heights everywhere, but I didn’t really know her, I just had a couple of meetings. And then I went to work on Mary Poppins Returns because I wanted to watch Rob Marshall direct an original musical. I just knew I wanted to direct a musical film someday, and he’s one of the best. Towards the end of filming that, I got an email from Julie telling me she had the movie rights. I just threw everything else off my desk and said, “I’m the only person who can direct this.”

Every project I chose in the interim was about getting myself ready. Working on Fosse/Verdon wasn’t just about watching Tommy Kail wrestle with the ghost of Bob Fosse. It wasn’t only to watch Tommy and Steve Levenson make eight mini-movies. It was also to get inside the mind of the people who had made Cabaret. I think that’s the best movie musical adaptation that exists. And All That Jazz isn’t bad either, he says with an incredible dose of irony, because it’s amazing.

Of course, the senior level course was watching Jon M. Chu direct In The Heights, and getting to watch someone adapt my own work. The decisions he made, and the way he figured out which moments to cut and which to dilate up to Hollywood size, that was a masterclass.

You know, we’re about three blocks away from the pool where we shot “96,000”. This room was our holding area where we held all the actors in their swim trunks and went out to the pool. And then the park for “When You’re Home” is one block away. If we had more time, I’d take you on a tour [laughs].

DEADLINE: You had your first readthrough of In The Heights in this very room, right?

MIRANDA: Yes, in this studio, because I didn’t want the Broadway theater world to catch wind of it. When they did, it was met with the usual joy and snark that the theater world greets anything [laughs]. We’re hard people to please. They were like, “Is he going to write rap numbers for Jonathan Larson?” I want to be like, “No, he already wrote one, and we’re filming that.”

So, yeah, you’re in one of the rooms where it happened.

DEADLINE: What’s extraordinary about Tick, Tick… BOOM! is the odd prescience Jonathan Larson seems to have had to write the ultimate origin story for Rent. Anybody coming at the Jonathan Larson story without this material might have focused on the act of Rent’s creation—the success story—but it’s actually much more interesting, and more validating, to bear witness to the struggle that makes Rent’s success more meaningful. And the fact that Jon never got to enjoy it more profound.

MIRANDA: It’s crazy. And that, actually, because a very interesting challenge for us, not just because of the expectation of what a story like this would be, but in our early test screenings, we had people who knew Jonathan Larson’s story and people who had no idea who he was. We hadn’t quite nailed the right way to get both audiences on the same page from the beginning of the movie. In the original cut, we only revealed he was the creator of Rent right at the end of the movie. So, people would say, “Why wasn’t this the story of the creation of Rent?”

It was an interesting divide because the people who did know Jon’s story even a little bit, they loved the movie in that form. For the folks that didn’t, it was a film about a cis white guy complaining about turning 30 without the world discovering his genius. Fuck you.

So, it was incumbent upon us to make people understand that Jon would never reach his 40th birthday, so that they understood how prescient everything he was writing was. You needed that context.

And putting all that stuff up front had the side effect of dispatching with those clichés about biopics, and the white text on black at the end. We’ve seen those movies before. I didn’t want to play into those tropes.

Originally, the movie opened with him sitting at a piano and starting to tell his story. I screened the movie for all of my filmmaker friends, and one of them was so smart and said, “If you see someone performing on stage in a movie, they either need to be bringing the house down or eating shit. And right now, he walks out and starts talking and the audience doesn’t know how to feel about him.” There’s a divide because the movie audience is not the audience of the stage performance, so we need to know how to feel what that audience is feeling. It was such a perceptive note and not something that would ever have occurred to me.

So, the way it works now is we see him come out in some VHS/Betamax footage, which is the footage we have of the real Jonathan. We meet him just a little. And then we have Susan [Alexandra Ship] tell us who he was. Susan says, “This is Jonathan Larson’s story in his own words, in his own music. And it’s all true, except for the things Jonathan made up, which is quite a bit.” It just gives us a frame on who he was so that everyone starts on the same page.

DEADLINE: Your work has always focused on that blend of the specific and the universal—how specificity can be profoundly more universal because it feels authentic. And that’s present in this story. Jon is, as you say, a cis white guy. But it becomes very clear very early on that he sees the world in a unique way, and his drive to express it is as unrelenting as it can be. What is it that you think draws you to examining those, on the surface, contradictory notions?

MIRANDA: That specificity of experience is the whole thing. I find Tick, Tick… BOOM! more profoundly moving that I found Rent—even though Rent knocked my socks off when I was 17—because it’s even more specific. The more specific it is, the more it gets its hooks into you. I think that’s true of art in general. The great thing about art is that you can’t go backwards in life after you’ve had the feeling that you’ve actually lived in someone else’s shoes for a minute. Movies can do that and musicals can do it, and great plays can do it too. You can’t go back to the way you were before.

I was changed by seeing Tick, Tick… BOOM! when I was 21 years of age, and then I went on to live my own version of it when I was trying to get my shows mounted. Tick, Tick… BOOM!, then, was some kind of sustenance because I knew someone else had been there before me.

It’s exactly what hit me about this story and what I wanted to take about the experience I’d had with Jonathan’s work and transfer over to the audience. For me it’s like a chicken and egg scenario when it comes to my work and Jonathan’s. I was so inspired by his work in the musical theater space, and I think my work reflects that. Jonathan Larson’s ticking clock begets Alexander Hamilton’s ticking clock, absolutely. I left that fucking musical [Tick, Tick… BOOM!] thinking, How did he know? And why don’t we all know? And how can we know and stay sane? But it’s also like you have to turn the clock down so you can be a person. Wrestling with that is something that I think has really bled into the stuff I write.

DEADLINE: Have you reached any conclusions on that? In the movie, Michael is the character who expresses the alternative: giving up on a seemingly impossible dream and moving to the quote-unquote real world.

MIRANDA: Well, I think one of the things we really wanted to imbue into the film is the fact that it exists as something even Jon couldn’t do in his version of the show. For him, at the time, it was do or die. And we get to provide greater balance because we’re a little more zoomed out on the context of that man at his piano. We know that he’s following the right path because we know about the success that’s going to come. These are viable options. But Susan’s also right: you don’t have to be in New York to be an artist. And Michael’s right: you do have the right to health insurance and heating that works and the security that comes from a steady income.

I think creating those other plausible outcomes and alternative routes for Jonathan to be happy only intensifies it, because he’s doing the harder thing. He’s getting back up and he’s going to keep waiting tables. He’s going to do the job that he worked so hard at that he only worked weekend shifts at the diner so that he had the whole week to write. It’s a pretty good gig when that’s your drive. My version of that in my 20s was that I was basically a professional substitute teacher. If a teacher got sick enough, I could do five days in a month, and that was rent and utilities taken care of, and the rest of the time I could write. And it sucks to be counting on teachers getting sick, but I remember one teacher took maternity leave for three months, and that was great because it brought me three solid months of writing after that.

DEADLINE: So, even though following Jon’s path seems reckless when the entire universe is telling you, “No, it’s not going to work,” it’s also incredibly understandable because we feel the honesty with which he’s doing it.

MIRANDA: Right. It’s much more relatable to spend a good amount of your life doing something that has no particular outcome and going, “What do I do with that? I spent my 20s writing a musical nobody wants to see. The fuck do I do with that? Where do I go from here?” I think we all have a version of that. We all have dead ends and blind alleys and, “What do I have to show for everything I just spent a bunch of time doing?” I think that’s infinitely more relatable than, “I’m writing a masterpiece.” We surround Jon with all those future Rent influences, but he could not have written that without this process of picking himself back up.

DEADLINE: You also have to admire the spirit of a man who heard the world tell him his opus musical—Superbia—was deeply uncommercial and wouldn’t never reach the stage and responded by writing a one-man musical monologue about his life and struggle, and not a super accessible piece of commercial musical theater.

MIRANDA: It’s so funny what you’re saying. I think it’s a great point, but it also reminds me of something Stephen Sondheim said. Someone started to ask him, you know, “A murderous barber, trade in Japan… I know you don’t write for what will be commercial—” And he said, “I always think they’re going to be hits because they interest me.” That was his thing. He’s never trying to write a hit, but you have to write what interests you because you have to be able to sustain the flame over the years it takes to make it. What’s interesting to me about Tick, Tick… BOOM! is I think the lesson Jon took away from Superbia was, it’s too big and it’s not commercial. Well, you cannot tell me you can’t afford a one-man show.

This was around the time of Eric Bogosian’s one-man shows and Spalding Gray. John Leguizamo was having success off-Broadway with his one-man shows. So, he said, “I’ll do a one-man musical. I haven’t seen one of those.” In his head it iscommercial, because it’s going straight to the source of the thing. Steve Sondheim said this about it, too, that it was like he had to write that musical to process the loss of his 20s. It was his way of saying, “Let me not waste this in therapy. Let me use it to make something else.”

So, where it comes back to the universality of the specific is… There have been two wonderful outcomes to the release of this film. The most important one for me is that Julie Larson, Jon’s sister, and the people that knew Jon and were friends with him, they all said, “You got him. And you gave him back to us.” But the second is just how many young artists have been, like, “You fucked me up.” [Laughs] Because it fucked me up! I was at the Drama Bookshop yesterday and one of the employees came behind the counter and was just like, “It came along exactly when I needed it and when I was questioning things, and it clarified my resolve.”

I do think it’s a clarifying experience to watch this story, because whether you want to write musicals or do anything else you may want to do in life, you have to ask yourself that question: “If I knew I could spend all this time and get nowhere, would I do it anyway?”

I know there’s another timeline in which nobody produces In the Heights and I’m still a teacher at Hunter High School and I know I would be still writing songs at night because Tick, Tick… BOOM! clarified my resolve. I remember thinking, I’m OK with doing this even if nobody ever notices. You have to be, because the odds are that no one will notice. But if it’s what you need to do, if it’s how you want to spend your days, then you’re going to be alright. That sustenance is there.

DEADLINE: Perhaps it’s an unkind question after this enormous level of success you’ve achieved, but do you think it becomes foundationally about whether defining success in the ways we define it—money, popularity, etc.—is correct?

MIRANDA: Yeah, the thing about making art of any kind is that you’re making something that will outlive you, for good or ill. We all get this experience a million times over. The initial reception is only the rough draft of legacy. Salieri was the big court composer of the day, but it’s only Mozart we talk about. We only talk about Salieri at all because Peter Shaffer reclaimed him. There’s a million examples like that.

We’re all still mourning Steve Sondheim’s passing, but how many more productions of Merrily We Roll Along are we going to get? Because that’s an incredible score that didn’t get its due. We continue to find things in his work but Steve, until his final day, was like, “Well, I never wrote a hit.” That was his mindset. Never mind that his work will get produced as long as people are making musicals and his legacy is absolutely indelible.

In the rough draft of history, some of these shows didn’t get a long run, and the joy is in watching how great art gets rediscovered when it needs to. I take great solace in that. It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop, and now it gets shown every single Christmas. And I think of my friend Michael Friedman, who was an incredible composer. He wasn’t only a brilliant writer, but he wrote fast, and I do not write fast. His The Fortress of Solitude was on at the same season as Hamilton, and we lost him to AIDS very recently. I mourn the shows he didn’t get to write, because he wrote so much in his short time here, and I know that we’re going to continue to discover his work for a long time to come.

DEADLINE: I guess the classic example is Vincent Van Gogh, right, who never sold a painting in his lifetime…

MIRANDA: Yeah, his brother and his sister-in-law are the reasons we know about him because they carried that flame on. They literally told his story [laughs].

DEADLINE: I have to admit I only discovered In The Heights after Hamilton. It wasn’t unsuccessful before Hamilton, but I certainly know it reached a wider audience afterwards, because I was one of them.

MIRANDA: Right, and that’s also a consolation for me because the movie did not perform terribly well in movie theaters. It was also on HBO Max, and I know we made a great movie, so I believe that people will be there in its lifetime. The rise and fall of a movie’s life is totally out of our control. It’ll gain a life or it won’t. But I’m proud of it no matter what.

It’s a movie that is so wrapped up in my memory, and so bound to my life. I still live six blocks away, and three times a week and I go to play handball in the park where we shot “When You’re Home”. But you don’t get to control the legacy part of it. All you can control is the thing you’re making. And we knew that, in telling this story, we had an opportunity not just to widen the aperture on Tick, Tick… BOOM!, but on Jonathan’s wider works and his place in the world.

It’s all just a love letter to his legacy, because Rent wasn’t the first rock musical by a long shot, but it certainly became the definitive example, and now we live in a Broadway where the overwhelming majority of scores are rock-pop scores. Whether they’re jukebox musicals like Ain’t Too Proud or original musicals like Next to Normal or Be More Chill. We now live in Jonathan Larson’s Broadway. That’s the thing that I know he’d be grinning and doing backflips over. His work profoundly influenced a generation, myself included.

DEADLINE: We have to talk about Andrew Garfield. He told me that when you approached him and asked if he could sing he said, “Of course,” but that actually he hadn’t sung a note professionally at that point.

MIRANDA: Yeah, but I knew.

DEADLINE: You knew he could do it?

MIRANDA: I knew he’d figure it out, because I’ve seen his work. I sat at the National Theatre in London all day and I watched him crack himself open for us in Angels in America. That’s what I needed Jonathan to do. If you watch footage of Jonathan, he’s a pretty rough singer, although he’s an amazing musician. But he’s just cracked open. That’s the more important thing. I knew that Andrew would bring that intensity and never lose us. We’d still love him for all his faults. I remember reading an article on what he did for Silence and how far he went, and I was like, “He’s going to go wherever he needs to go to get where he needs to be.” So, I just wasn’t worried about it. It was just about giving him the time and resources to get there.

I also knew I’d be getting him together with Liz Caplan, who was the vocal coach, and she’s an absolute wizard. I’ve seen lots of different vocal coaches work and I can tell you when somebody comes into the room which vocal coach they’ve been working with because I’ve been doing this for a long time [laughs]. Some of the lesser ones just teach you a technique to sing, and so everyone that works with them sings with the same technique. Liz doesn’t do that. She’s like, “What’s blocking you from singing?” She’ll do whatever it takes to get that shit out of the way to open you up. She opened him up and man, we all benefitted from that.

DEADLINE: As unconcerned as you may have been, it’s also a huge achievement to start with no experience of singing professionally and then to make such a success of the huge songbook that makes up Tick, Tick… BOOM!. We all know of movie musicals that cast A-listers instead of singers and then they can’t hold the music.

MIRANDA: Right, and we’re such sophisticated listeners that we know autotune when we hear it. We can tell when someone’s being fixed. I think what was amazing about Andrew was that it wasn’t like we were making a bad singer good. He’d never done this. He had never sung for any sustained period of time. But what was great was there was nothing that needed to be undone. It wasn’t like we were undoing rock training, or whatever. We were starting from page one, together. We were starting with a blank slate.

DEADLINE: Level with me, for the sake of anyone who’s heard me do karaoke. Can anyone learn to sing with enough time, commitment, and resource?

MIRANDA: Liz Caplan will tell you yes. But there’s nature and there’s nurture. And someone—and I would like to wring their necks—told Andrew he couldn’t sing, early enough in his life. They had to have, because to have gone this long with the instrument that he has without having ever pursued it means someone closed that door off. I think that gets in your way. I also think exposure to music is a huge factor. If you grow up in a musical household, there’s no way you don’t get into it somehow. I have family who genuinely didn’t grow up listening to music in their home, and you can tell that they just don’t have the relationship to it that the rest of us do. It was just like…

DEADLINE: It was quiet uptown?

MIRANDA: Exactly [laughs]. I can’t begin to relate. I heard three songs on the radio just walking through the neighborhood just now. So, I think it’s not so much about ability versus how much it’s exposure to music as you’re moving through life. Like, I have severe math anxiety, but I know I must be good at it on some level because music is inherently mathematical. But if you ask me to calculate a tip, I’ll start sweating. It’s all about what we learn from the stories we tell ourselves.

DEADLINE: I know you’ve invested quite a lot of your time and your resource into education and encouraging young people to find music.

MIRANDA: Yeah, because it’s the reason I’m here today. I wouldn’t be here without an amazing elementary school music teacher, who I actually put in the movie, Barbara Ames. She’s the teacher who hands Michael the flowers in the flashback. Her mounting a play in sixth grade every year is the reason I’m talking to you today. I’ll never forget: she had the post for Into the Woods on the side of her upright piano in her music room. That artwork is very indelibly burned into my happiest early musical memories. That’s how far it goes back in time with me.

But exposure is the key, even as far as having friends in high school who were better musicians than me. Alex Sarland, who recently passed away, was one of my best friends in elementary school and I remember I would call him and be like, “I’m playing an F sharp, an A and a C. Did I just invent a new chord?” And he would be like, “No, that’s just an F sharp diminished, Lin, go back to it.” He would teach me chords I didn’t know. I leaned on my friends who were better musicians when I started writing. I’m incredibly grateful for a music education and an arts education that was just part of my regular education.

DEADLINE: Were you able to show this movie to Stephen Sondheim before he passed?

MIRANDA: I did. He was all-in, every step of the way. I told him the moment I started because I knew he was a character in it and I knew I needed his blessing, not only for “Sunday”, which of course he gave to Jonathan, but I knew I wanted him to do again for the movie. But also because it’s as much a love letter to him, because the original work is a love letter to him. Even the structure of it has elements of Company and elements of Sunday in the Park with George. I remember he even pitched me a lyric rewrite for “Sunday”, which I didn’t end up using because I’d resolved not to rewrite any Larson. But that was crazy.

When I showed him the movie, he wrote me. Well, he called me first and just gushed about the movie. And then he wrote me an email that said, “You have treated me very gently and royally for which I am grateful.” And he said, “But I do have a note, which is my last voicemail to Jon. You have a line like, ‘I have a feeling you’re going to have a very bright future.’ That sounds very cliché. I didn’t really say that, did I? Can I rewrite it? I’ll record it for you if you can’t get the actor back.” So, that’s Steve’s voice that you hear on the voicemail in the movie. He recorded a new voicemail for us. I had to cut a little bit of it because I told him it needed to fit the footage and I wouldn’t have time to recut the scene, but I’ll play you his recording…

Voice of Stephen Sondheim: “Jon, Steve Sondheim here. Rosa gave me this number, I hope it’s OK to call you. I didn’t get a chance to speak with you after the reading, but I just wanted to say it was really good. Congratulations. I’d love to get together and talk to you about it if you have any interest. No pressure. But I have a couple of ideas I’d like to share. The main thing, though, is that it’s first-rate work and has a future, and so do you. So, don’t let any negative reactions discourage you. We all have to go through that. I’ll call you later with some thoughts, if that’s OK. Meanwhile, be proud.”

So, that’s the uncut voicemail. The fact we get to honor both legacies—the legacy of his work through “Sunday”, but also the legacy of his mentorship, which I’m sure you’ve seen so many letters that he wrote to people throughout his career. There’s an Instagram account that’s just Sondheim letters. His replies to people. It’s amazing that he offered that.

DEADLINE: It’s the mark of a true master to appreciate the position he held.

MIRANDA: And we have Oscar Hammerstein to thank for that too, because Oscar valued teaching so much and Oscar taught him so much. I think the greatest legacy Oscar gave him was telling him, “Don’t write like me. You’re trying to write like me. Write like you. If you write like you, you’re going to be ahead of everybody else.” That’s the other lesson, is figuring out what the hell that is; what writing like you really is. That’s the charge to all of us.

DEADLINE: Having gone through the process of making this movie, has it given you the appetite to make more? Was this very much a one-and-done for you or do you think film will be a shared passion moving forward?

MIRANDA: No, it’s not. I’m glad you brought up Vincent van Gogh because to me Julian Schnabel is the model of a film director I would love to emulate. He spent his young career being a great artist, and now he makes movies about great artists. He makes movies about this world that he knows very well, whether it’s Before Night Falls, or Basquiat, or At Eternity’s Gate. I would love to make more movies, but really, I just want to make more musicals. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life learning how these work and taking that particular car apart to see all the parts. So, I would love to make some more. And I have a few ideas and I’ll see which ones raise their hands.

But I’ve done a lot of soul-searching with Steve’s passing, the way all of us have. There are two legacies that I think he charges us with continuing. One is mentorship, and making room for that in my life. I do a good deal of it, but I can always make room for more. And the other is getting back to my piano. I think of that line in Franklin Shepard, Inc., where he’s got the character who’s yelling at the Hollywood sellout and he’s like, “You find him and you tell him to get back to his piano.” I hear Steve in my head being like, “Get back to you piano.”

So, it’s going to be a question of balancing these things. The two things weighing on me in the wake of his passing. How do I get back to my piano, and how to I continue to pay it forward?

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