In case you hadn’t already heard, Broadway is back, baby, and on Monday it was abuzz, not with the opening of a new show, but with a celebration of the legacy of one of musical theatre’s most beloved artists, taken far too soon, Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning Rent creator Jonathan Larson. The event at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on 46th Street, in a full house of vaccinated, masked, and Covid-tested theatre-lovers and Broadway legends, was the premiere of a new Netflix film based on the writer and composer’s powerful autobiographical tick, tick…BOOM! The screen adaptation marks the feature directorial debut of Larson’s fellow Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winner, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. It stars Oscar-nominee, BAFTA, and Tony winner Andrew Garfield as the soon-to-turn-30 Larson as he struggles with the pressure of being a yet-to-be-discovered artist scraping by in downtown Manhattan in 1990, trying to balance his creative passion with the day-to-day realities of city life, sustaining his relationships, and paying the bills, all while witnessing his friends suffer in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
At the New York premiere, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had the opportunity to speak with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film’s Tony Award winning screenwriter Steven Levenson, and cast members including Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp who plays Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan, three-time Tony-nominee Robin de Jesús who portrays Jonathan’s best friend Michael, and GLAAD honoree and Tony winner Judith Light, who was the recipient of the 2019 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for Advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“It is a love letter to theatre”, Lin-Manuel Miranda told The Queer Review about his film, which launches globally on Netflix on Friday November 19th. “Jonathan Larson is the composer who made me want to write. I was 10 when he was 30 and I remember New York in 1990. I remember the AIDS crisis and having my AIDS education class in 1992. My teacher was an incredible AIDS activist, Perry Halkitis, who happened to be my sixth grade teacher. In retrospect, I am so lucky because that’s the person who I called when I was making this movie to give me details. You see quite the Jesse Helms shout out in this movie and that’s because I called him and said, ‘Who impeded progress in 1990?’ Because I wanted to get that era right. We lost a generation of artists, we lost a generation of folks. Howard Ashman should be on this press line telling you about his next musical, but we lost him to HIV/AIDS. So it was very important to tell that story because that was something that Jonathan was concerned with telling.”
“Looking through Jonathan’s archive, through his letters, everything he wrote and talked about, the AIDS crisis was up close and personal for him”, adds screenwriter Steven Levenson. “He lost several friends. It was something that was constantly on his mind, this feeling of powerlessness and that the world is burning and questioning ‘What am I doing about it? It’s not enough, nobody’s doing enough’. Our guiding principle was to get that frustration and that anger and that rage that he felt. It’s also an anger and rage that so many of us feel about so many things today, that feeling of the world is on fire and ‘What am I doing?’ That feels like a question that’s very personal to me, certainly, but I think to everyone living today and wondering, ‘What is my part? How can I help?'”
As Judith Light, who portrays Jonathan’s straight talking agent Rosa in tick, tick…BOOM!, puts it, “In this film he reminds us that AIDS is not over, it’s important to remember that. The films reminds us what the gay community was going through at the time, without being didactic or pedantic or hitting anybody over the head with it, it’s just what we lived through. It’s important, it’s essential, and it’s almost as though Jonathan has come to us bringing us messages to remind us also to connect and to hold our artistry close and then give it away.”
At the heart of the film is touching platonic friendship between Jonathan, who is straight, and his best friend Michael, who is gay. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about that in itself, but seeing it in the film it struck me how rarely I’ve seen that dynamic portrayed with such tenderness and love, and in the hands of two such talented and emotional actors as Andrew Garfield and Robin de Jesús it becomes a thing of real beauty. “It’s the central love story of the film” agrees Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It’s important to know that in his initial writing of tick, tick…BOOM! Jonathan dedicated it to his best friend, Matt O’Grady, who is the basis for Michael in the film. So it’s actually in the DNA of it, that love story with his friend Matt, and you’ll see that dedication in the closing credits of our film as well.”
Robin de Jesús concurs, “I remember one day in the first week of rehearsals sitting down doing book work with Lin and Andrew—and it was already cool because Andrew and I were learning each other and we were vibing and we’re both students of the theatre so we were loving the process—and as the day ends, Andrew goes, ‘Here’s a love story’. That changed so much for the both of us. It’s so cool now watching the movie and knowing kids will get to have a model for that, because they haven’t seen that relationship, that dynamic before. But it was also amazing for me and Andrew to experience it in real time shooting the movie, just that comfort of being able to hold his face and have these intimate moments and have it not be sexual, but to know and understand that it was just love, especially as we were taking in and downloading these other characters. It became our love for one another as well and it’s still there, we have our little Michael/Jonathan moments throughout this whole press junket season.”
“I screen tested with Robin”, recalls Andrew Garfield, “and as soon as he came in, I was like, ‘I love him and I want to see him have a great life’. It was like, ‘done, let’s do this’. It was really that simple. He’s hilarious and he’s so talented, so witty, he’s so deep, so soulful. So there was no acting required on my part, I just love the hell out of him and that was pretty much the big drive. It’s tragic that that kind of relationship isn’t often depicted in such a seamless and uncommented upon, physically intimate, affectionate, loving way, where it’s just a platonic love story between a gay man and a straight man. I’ve joked with certain friends of mine who are gay, and been like, ‘maybe we could just get married, have kids, and just take lovers elsewhere!’ It kind of makes sense, there’s a sweetness there. I just feel so grateful that it was Robin, because I think otherwise it would have been a different dynamic, and this is something special.”
Robin de Jesús won his first Tony appearing opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway run of In The Heights. “I still call him my cousin, even though he’s not technically my cousin, because he played my cousin Sonny in In The Heights for a year” shares Miranda. “Before that he was already a queer icon in Camp as an out teenager. What has been one of the great joys of my life has been watching him mature into the incredible actor he’s become. That guy gets a Tony nomination every time he gets a job on Broadway. His recognition is so long overdue. His chemistry with Andrew was so instant in that audition. It was so exciting to see my friend get this job and then knock it out of the park.”
For de Jesús working with Miranda on tick, tick…BOOM! felt particularly meaningful. “It was special and healing and necessary for my sustainability to be honest. I needed this moment, I needed a role that was this good and that he was the person who was finally willing to give it to me is not a coincidence obviously. I discovered so much of my neuroses working with Lin on In The Heights, not because of Lin, but because that was the first time I tasted success. As I got older that neuroses grew and it began to attack me, it became debilitating. During this movie, I had actual panic attacks, mini ones, because I’d focus on insecurity. The beautiful thing about Lin was that he never affirmed or confirmed any of those things that I was feeling. There was a lot of questioning that happened in the pandemic and prior to that which made me clock that my ego was in conflict with my creativity. So how was I to heal that? It’s a lot longer story, but I was able to get there and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I got there with my friend. He is a source of such joy and of such a presence and I think there’s something about those two medicines that help aid silencing the ego.”
When it comes to his own relationship with Jonathan Larson’s work, Robin de Jesús feels immensely grateful to the late writer. “Jonathan gave me my Broadway debut in Rent. Jonathan allowed me to inhabit the character of Angel, which was so much fun, and the Squeegee Man, and so many other other amazing characters. He gave me health insurance, he let me pay my rent. I say that because Jonathan was such a good ally. He wrote such great roles for Black and brown and queer folks and those jobs have an economic ripple effect. Black and brown and queer folks were able to buy houses and to have babies because of that. He keeps giving.”
When it comes to Jonathan Larson’s legacy and what he stood for, Andrew Garfield adds, “We all are artists, whether we are practicing or not, it’s inside of us and I think what Jon was a champion of is the soul of art, he was a warrior for art and the healing power of art, community, waking up a generation and awareness that life is short and asking ‘what are we going to do with that time?’ Let’s get in touch with that deeper part and bring that deeper part to a world that’s in desperate need of all of our gifts. I think that’s what Jonathan would feel.”
“In the beginning, we wanted this film to be a love letter to the crazy, quixotic, hopeless task that it is to make a new musical, or to make anything new really” offers Steven Levenson.”We wanted it to speak specifically to this community and to this world because I think if it doesn’t feel true to the world that it comes from it’s not going to feel true to anyone. We wanted it to be specific enough and rich enough that the whole world could see something in it and especially people that make things and people that create things, because Jonathan’s story from the beginning has been that, it’s been about the joy and the heartbreak and the agony of trying to build something out of nothing.”
That was an aspect of tick, tick…BOOM! that resonated with Alexandra Shipp, who shares, “I dove deep into my research about how Jonathan Larson really opened up and showcased his rawest part which is himself as a struggling artist, not just telling his friends’ stories like he did in Rent. I was drawn to that. I resonated with Susan so much because she was an artist working through her own stuff. Granted I didn’t have an injury, but there’s also a mental thing that comes with it, there is this imposter syndrome that you experience as an artist, thinking ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’ or ‘it’s not good enough’, and what was beautiful about this movie is that it shows a lot of different versions of that, of struggling artists, and how people can flourish within that.”
Although tick, tick…BOOM! is filled with the faces of Broadway royalty, for Lin-Manuel Miranda they’re simply part of the fabric of the film. “Some of the folks people consider to be cameos are not cameos to me. I just like working with the best actors and I think that more often than not they come from the theatre. So when some of these folks are like, ‘Oh my God, I saw this person or that person’, I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, they’re amazing and I cast them in my movie!’ In the Sunday sequence, Jonathan wrote the most lovely and hilarious odes to his hero Stephen Sondheim, but he always sang it at a piano—it was always a one man band, he never heard it sung by a choir—and I wanted to give him the choir of his dreams. So that was my entire thesis with that sequence.”
By James Kleinmann
tick, tick…BOOM! is playing in select theaters now and launches on Netflix on Friday November 19th 2021.
Watch our full exclusive red carpet interviews and the trailer below: