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The intertwined legacies of Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Jonathan Larson did Lin-Manuel Miranda the favor of making him fall in love with musicals. With Tick, Tick … Boom!, Miranda repays his debt.

Actor Andrew Garfield and director Lin-Manuel Miranda stand on a movie set made to look like the interior of a bookstore.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, right, directs Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick … Boom!
Macall Polay/Netflix © 2021
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Before press screenings of Tick, Tick ... Boom!, the new movie based on an autobiographical musical by Rent composer Jonathan Larson, a message played. It was from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film’s director as well as the creator and star of Hamilton.

“When I was making this film,” Miranda said, “I just kept thinking, ‘What would Jonathan Larson want?’ That was my first goal.”

Miranda’s desire to stay true to Larson’s vision breathes through Tick, Tick … Boom! The film, which stars Andrew Garfield as Larson, is suffused with an affectionate protectiveness: protectiveness toward Larson, who died at age 35 in 1996, and toward Larson’s musical legacy.

Tick, Tick … Boom!, out on Netflix this Friday, tells the story of a musical theater composer named Jonathan Larson as he approaches his 30th birthday. He’s landed a workshop for the big ambitious musical he’s working on, and he’s pinned all his hopes for the future on it: After the workshop, he won’t have to work as a waiter anymore; after the workshop, he’ll be a success. Larson wrote Tick, Tick … Boom! before he actually did become a success, so he doesn’t know, as we do, that neither this show nor the show within the show will make his legacy. Rent, which won him a posthumous Pulitzer and reshaped Broadway forever, will.

This movie is not a hagiography, and it stops short of treating Larson like a genius. Miranda keeps a sort of tender distance away from Larson’s perspective, so that we have room to critique both his egotism and his music, which is juvenile, frequently mediocre, and only occasionally brilliant. What’s most compelling is not the actual music Larson is writing in this movie so much as it is his terrible, endearing commitment to his music above everything else in his life. He wants to be great, and he’s committed to putting in the work to become great, but he’s not there yet.

But Tick, Tick … Boom! does operate with the understanding that Larson was a shockingly talented young composer, and that he was maybe on the verge of becoming great just before he died. Watching it, you can’t help but mourn the loss of Jonathan Larson all over again — and think that at least he’s got an apt guardian in Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Miranda’s career has paralleled Larson’s for a long time now. Both wrote generation-defining, Pulitzer-prize winning musicals; both pushed Broadway’s musical vocabulary forward toward the present. And both wrote musicals that are obsessed with the problem of mortality and ambition, and how to accomplish great works in a life cut short.

With Miranda’s Tick, Tick … Boom!, the story of these two composers is coming full circle.

“I’m going to bring rock ‘n’ roll back to Broadway”

Jonathan Larson started writing Tick, Tick … Boom! in 1989. He was about to turn 30, and he had just failed to land any producers for his ambitious space-age musical Superbia, which meant he was stuck at his weekend job as a waiter. Meanwhile, his close friend Matt O’Grady had just tested positive for HIV.

Larson had already lost several friends to the AIDS epidemic. He was feeling very aware of his mortality. He was also feeling bitter that every producer who came to his Superbia workshop had told him that it was both too expensive to mount off-Broadway and too weird to mount on Broadway. So he channeled his frustrations and his grief into a musical he could put on just by himself with a small band. It would be a rock monologue about the twin ticking clocks of his potential and his friend’s life, both of which he feared might be about to run out.

The show made the rounds at various small off-Broadway theaters, going through a few different titles — 30/90, Boho Days — before settling on Tick, Tick … Boom! It was a modest success, and it won Larson the attention of theater producer Jeffrey Seller. “Here was a man telling his life story that I felt was my life story, and telling it in a musical vernacular that was giving me goosebumps,” Seller recalled in Michael Riedel’s 2020 book Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway.

Broadway’s musical vernacular at the time was the sound of Cats, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera: big, bombastic pop musicals that didn’t sound like anything on the radio. The literati of New York’s theater scene were forever griping over how far away American musical theater had gotten from any sort of sound that felt fresh and modern and rooted in the music that the rest of the country was listening to. But no one seemed to have a clear idea of how to bring Broadway’s sound into the present. Seller had a hunch that Larson would be the guy to pull it off. Larson agreed. “I’m going to bring rock ‘n’ roll back to Broadway,” he used to tell people.

For that reason, Seller would become an early supporter of Larson’s next project: a reimagining of Puccini’s La Boheme as a rock opera set in New York’s gritty Alphabet City, about impoverished artists like Larson and his friends. It was called Rent, and when it premiered on Broadway in 1996, it was an instant smash hit, earning Larson three posthumous Tonys and a posthumous Pulitzer. And it did indeed change the sound of Broadway permanently. It took until the 1990s, decades after the birth of rock, but Rent made American musical theater finally and at last embrace the rock musical with open arms.

Larson didn’t live to see it. He died in his apartment of an aortic aneurysm the night before Rent’s off-Broadway premiere. He was just weeks shy of his 36th birthday.

After Larson’s death, producers returned to Tick, Tick … Boom! to see if they could find a way to restage it without him. Playwright David Auburn came on board to reshape Larson’s existing material, turning it from a monologue into a three-person chamber musical. After Auburn’s revisions, the new show was no longer a one-man experience. Instead, it featured characters based on Matt O’Grady and on the dancer Larson was dating while he tried to stage Superbia alongside Jonathan as our central character.

The three-person Tick, Tick … Boom! never became the smash Rent did, but it did develop a cult following. It premiered off-Broadway in 2001, and various revivals of the project toured frequently over the next decade.

And in 2014, New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series produced a revival of Tick, Tick … Boom! In the role of Jonathan Larson, it starred the hot young composer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“I want to change the landscape of American musical theatre”

Miranda first saw Rent when he was either 16 or 17 years old (he tells this story a lot, but his accounts vary). “It was the first truly contemporary musical I had ever seen,” he told the New Yorker in November. “I remember thinking, This takes place now? In New York? Downtown?”

He credits Rent with being the show that made him want to write his own. “I went from someone who likes musicals, and if he saves enough money buys TKTS tickets on his birthday, to thinking, Oh, the truth can come out in a musical. You’re allowed to write musicals,” Miranda said in June, at a speech presented by global storytelling organization The Moth in partnership with Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance. “And that’s when I went from being a fan of musicals, from being a theater kid to trying to write musicals.”

Four years later, Miranda saw Tick, Tick … Boom! off Broadway and had a similar experience. “It felt like a message in a bottle just for me,” he said in that New Yorker interview. He was 21, a senior in college, and he could see already that his future was going to look a lot like Larson’s looked in the world of the show: working a crappy day job to get by, writing musicals in his off hours, watching as all his talented friends decided to give up the dream of making art and get real jobs.

“You’re going to be the only idiot smashing your head against their childhood dream,” he imagined the show saying to him. “And, if it’s worth it to you, it’s worth it. But it’s really fucking hard.”

“I went back and saw it three times,” Miranda said.

Miranda spent the next few years as he had foreseen, taking jobs with flexible hours (substitute teacher, jingle writer) and plugging away at the score for a musical. This musical was heavily influenced by Rent: set in the neighborhood where Miranda spent his days, and blending Broadway balladry with the kind of music he could hear on the radio. In Miranda’s case, that meant the musical was set in Washington Heights, and the music was Latin pop and hip-hop.

The show was called In the Heights, and as Miranda developed it, he leaned repeatedly on Larson’s legacy for inspiration and resources. Rent producer Jeffrey Seller, who had continued to look for musical theater composers who might be able to drag Broadway’s sound into the present, signed on to produce In the Heights in 2004. And as Miranda continued workshopping the show, he applied for the Jonathan Larson Grant for early-career musical theater writers. (He didn’t get it.)

“By writing about his friends with the problems and anxieties he felt, Jonathan Larson gave me permission to write about my life, hopes and fears,” Miranda wrote in his 2004 application. He added a line that echoed Larson’s old boast: “Quite frankly, I want to change the landscape of American musical theatre.”

Miranda, like Larson before him, succeeded at his ambition. In the Heights hit Broadway in 2008 to critical acclaim, moderate commercial success, four Tonys (including Best Musical), and a Grammy. It proved that Latin music and hip-hop could flourish on Broadway and that the Great White Way didn’t need to depend on sounds that had been thoroughly whitewashed.

Miranda kept working after the success of In the Heights. He continued writing musicals (Bring It On: The Musical hit Broadway in 2012), and he also picked up occasional acting gigs, like that 2014 Tick, Tick … Boom! He was already becoming a brand name by that point, but he still seemed to think of himself as a Larson-like figure, a striver who hasn’t quite hit it big yet. His performance in that revival, said the New York Times review, “throbs with a sense of bone-deep identification.” After all, the review went on, “not too many years ago, Mr. Miranda was himself a struggling young musical-theater composer living hand-to-mouth in New York, teaching high school English while scribbling songs on the side.”

In 2015, Miranda’s third musical, Hamilton, hit Broadway and was a runaway success. It won 11 Tonys (including Best Musical), a Grammy, and a Pulitzer. It landed Miranda a MacArthur genius grant. It made Broadway suddenly and stunningly relevant to mainstream popular culture. It was the biggest thing anyone could remember since, well … Rent.

Unlike Larson, Miranda lived to see his success.

“Will I make it to 40?”

It’s the idea of living to see your success that really connects Miranda and Larson. Beyond their shared ambitions and their biographical parallels, the connective tissue between their work is, fundamentally, a shared obsession with mortality and with what we leave behind.

Larson, mused Ben Brantley in the New York Times in 2001, “seems to have lived his life and composed his music to the rhythm of some cosmic metronome, noisily decapitating the seconds.” Rent is haunted by the impending death of one of its central characters, and its most celebrated song, “Seasons of Love,” counts out the days left in the last year of her life. In Tick, Tick … Boom!, Larson’s character Jon is obsessed with the idea that his time is running out, that he has a limited window left to produce a great musical and he still hasn’t done it.

Meanwhile, Miranda’s Hamilton is built around the problem of Hamilton’s forthcoming death: You know through the whole show that he’s going to die in a duel, and you’re just waiting to see how it happens. Hamilton himself keeps fantasizing about his own death; he’s fixated on the question of how he’ll be remembered after he dies, and on whether the work he’s doing is enough to build a legacy on. “How do you write like you’re running out of time?” Burr demands of Hamilton, and we in the audience know it’s because Hamilton believes that he is running out.

“See, I never thought I’d live past 20,” admits Miranda’s Hamilton.

“Will I make it to 40?” Jon asks in Tick, Tick … Boom!

Larson was explicit about why his work is so focused on death and dying. He was an artist in the late ’80s with a lot of friends who were HIV positive, and many of them died of AIDS. He was surrounded by death very young, and that shaped the way he thought about his life and his work.

Miranda, meanwhile, says he became fixated on death after experiencing a childhood tragedy: His best friend died in an accident when he was 4 years old, he said in that speech for The Moth, and what he remembers of his grief at that age is just “a year of gray.”

“When I was writing Hamilton and the line, ‘I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory’ popped out — that is not in Ron Chernow’s book. That is not in any history book,” he said. “That’s something coming out of me that makes me understand this person.” He felt the same way, he added, writing Burr’s line, “If there’s a reason that I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died, I’m willing to wait for it.” He had found the thing that helped him lock into the character, and that was their shared grief, loss, and heightened awareness of mortality.

“​​I’m naturally drawn to people who feel that urgency,” Miranda explained to the New Yorker in November, “because I felt that urgency very acutely when I was younger.” Larson was one of those people who felt the urgency of the ticking clock.

It seems to be that shared sense of determination between Miranda and Larson that makes Miranda’s Tick, Tick … Boom! feel so tender, so affectionate: You’re able to empathize utterly with Larson’s fears of running out of time because Miranda understands them so well.

Under Miranda’s direction, the film becomes a tribute to ambition itself, to the panic of being young and talented and striving but not quite getting there yet.

It becomes a paean to writing like you’re running out of time and living like there’s no day but today.

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