A truly exhilarating moment in the new film musical tick, tick…BOOM! comes with the song “No More.” In it, the lead character, struggling composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), and his friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) lament the misery of living in 1990s downtown Manhattan. They sing of walking up six flights of stairs to cold, cramped living quarters. Of climbing over homeless people on the street, of inhaling noxious fumes from cars and exhaust pipes. It might be anachronistic to what we know about Larson who made La Vie Boheme chic with his 1990s ultra-popular musical Rent. However, the sequence works because Garfield and de Jesús have fabulous chemistry and the scene shows us the deep connection between their characters.
The film, which is based on Larson’s autobiographical musical, follows him for a few weeks in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be “the next great American musical.” Adapted by Steven Levenson and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film explores Larson’s relationships with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), shows the rehearsals of the musical he’s composing – Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry play singers – and his day job waiting tables at a diner (Mj Rodriguez appears as a co-worker). However, where it pops most is in the Jonathan/Michael friendship.
That feels apt, since Larson’s most famous work, Rent, famously included the stories of his queer friends, and most of them were living with HIV/AIDS, like Michael in tick, tick…BOOM. INTO spoke with the team behind the film at the New York premiere which took place Monday at the Schoenfeld Theater.
Garfield called Larson “the gold star of being an advocate and an ally,” de Jesús agreed, “he modeled allyship better than a lot of folks nowadays.”
tick, tick…BOOM! takes place in New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was shot in the city in 2020, post covid, pre-vaccine. Miranda called that similarity in circumstances “the weird echoes of 1990 and 2020.” Ben Levi Ross who plays another of Larson’s queer friends talked of another echo. “My character, Freddie, is HIV positive. It was a really full-circle moment living in this pandemic, being a 23-year-old queer actor in New York City.” Levi Ross said out loud what many people thought when Rent became a hit more than 2 decades ago.”A lot of people think that Larson was queer. And he was not as far as we know, he was in a heterosexual relationship.” That speaks to the complexity and nuance of the queer characters he wrote.
de Jesús calls them “messy human[s] with regular life struggles.” He thought of Michael as a gift from Larson, “Black and brown folks, especially in New York City, were completely erased from the AIDS epidemic conversation. It’s very healing for our ancestors, to insert me into this period piece as a queer Latino artist. To show that we exist. Jonathan doesn’t even know that his allyship just keeps on”.
Garfield, who gives a live wire performance that is deservedly garnering Oscar buzz, took on the role “because it was a challenge, technically, for me to sing and play piano.” But more than that it was for Larson. “I want as many people as possible to know him,” Miranda calls tick, tick… BOOM! “[Larson’s]personal piece, because it’s about the context from which his art arose.” The way Larson composed was unique and linked art with social responsibility “He would write himself a big question. How are we? Why does it take a disaster for things to change? And then he would write a song to find the answer. He truly engaged with the big questions in order to make what he made. And that’s very inspiring.”
Miranda hopes tick, tick…BOOM! will inspire a new generation of would-be artists, as it did him. “I hope it will land on people, the way that show landed on me when I was 21 years old, and questioning whether I should do this.” Continuing the same sentiment, Garfield talked about people seeing “ the healing ripples of what [Larson] has created.” de Jesus acknowledges that there was death and AIDS then, and that we are still in a pandemic now. But that people should try to make their time count. Like Larson. “Sometimes we get so heavy and weighted that we don’t focus on lightness and in this film there is celebration as well. There is joy.”♦