How much of Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...Boom! is true?
We delve into the movie and the history behind its inception
"Everything you're about to see is true, except for the parts Jonathan made up".
That's one of the first lines in the five-star wonder that is tick, tick...Boom!, which has had an explosive premiere on Netflix – chronicling the creative woes of one Jonathan Larson. If that name rings a bell, it's because Larson went on to be critically lauded for his incredible rock musical Rent.
Screenwriter Steven Levenson and director Lin-Manuel Miranda have lovingly augmented Larson's three-hander musical into a multi-faceted, rollercoaster movie – but how much is grounded in truth? Below we let you know: obviously, spoilers for tick, tick...Boom!.
Larson's epic mega-rock-musical SUPERBIA is the artistic project that acts as the focal point of the movie. Fun fact – the show actually existed! The piece did preview at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Ira Weitzman in 1990. What isn't mentioned (though you might have twigged) is that the piece was originally an unauthorised version of George Orwell's 1984. What is also omitted from the story is that Larson's show already had a degree of critical kudos by the time of its showing in 1990 – it had bagged Larson the Richard Rodgers Production Award and the Richard Rodgers Development Grant. So there was definitely some momentum behind the project. That said, as depicted in the film – producers thought it too adventurous to stage successfully. If you want to know more be sure to read Boho Days – The Wider Works of Jonathan Larson by J Collis.
Another fun fact, Miranda and Levenson found parts of Superbia and added them to the movie – so that's Larson's actual score you're hearing. Cool huh?
The framing device for tick, tick...Boom! is that Larson has crafted a musical based on his attempts to make a musical – and we, as Netflix-ers, are watching both the new musical (which is tick, tick...Boom!) being staged as a solo act at the Village Gate, the Second Stage Theater (it was also presented at the New York Theatre Workshop through to 1993), PLUS we're flashing back to 1990s well as Larson's attempts to stage SUPERBIA from 1990. What's cool is that you can actually watch some clips from that first performance on YouTube, PLUS, as a fun tidbit, the show was originally titled Boho Days. So it's a very different form now to how it was conceived – further helped by playwright David Auburn and arranger Stephen Oremus – who, after Larson's death, crafted a more modern three-hander often staged today.
Stephen Sondheim features heavily in tick, tick...Boom! – both show and film – with a bolstered presence in the film version. In many ways, Larson living up to the approval of the man behind the likes of Company, Sweeney Todd and, of course, Sunday in the Park with George. What's important to note is that Larson was actually under Sondheim's stewardship (fun fact, Sondheim also contributed his voice to the film!) and in the original version of tick, tick...Boom!, Larson actually gave Sondheim a pseudonym.
Susan and Michael
Two of the most pivotal characters in the movie are Susan (a fantastic Alexandra Shipp) and Michael (a heartbreaking, utterly wonderful Robin de Jesús. Both, as it turns out, are grounded in a (varying) degree of truth: the character of Michael was based on Larson's real-life friend Matt O'Grady (who actually went to watch Miranda star in tick, tick...Boom! during its 2014 run. The circumstances around Jonathan and Susan's relationship are a bit more original material – while Larson is said to have had. girlfriend in the 1980s (before the workshop) who had been a dancer, it is unlikely their relationship came to a head in the same week as his 30th birthday. But Miranda has also said that Larson's girlfriend did show up to watch the 2014 revival, so there's something there.
Larson's workplace is meticulously, lovingly recreated in the movie, with production designer Alex DiGerlando going through imagery of Larson's own workplace in order to lovingly replicate its existence. Real footage of the spot (sans certain cameos!) is shown at the film's close.
Here's what is very much a great tragedy: Larson died on the morning of the first preview of RENT, the Broadway smash that has catapulted his name into the musical theatre pantheon of epoch-defining creatives. It's exciting to know his life story has been immortalised on such a grand scale.