How the Legacy of Rent Creator Jonathan Larson Provides the Heartbeat of Tick, Tick...Boom!

Executive music producer Bill Sherman tells E! News all about Andrew Garfield's uncanny talent and why adapting Jonathan Larson's other musical meant so much to director Lin-Manuel Miranda.

By Natalie Finn Nov 12, 2021 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Andrew Garfield Tells Why 2018 Tony Awards Is Unique

Alexander Hamilton only lived until he was 47 (or 49, the records show dueling birth years) and the question of what the still rather impressive founding father could have really done if he'd had more time factors prominently into Lin-Manuel Miranda's smash-hit, Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning musical about the man's life.

A most promising life cut short is also at the center of Miranda's feature directorial debut, Tick, Tick...Boom!, adapted from the stage show by the late Jonathan Larson, who drew on his own experience trying to write the next great American musical while feeling the hot breath of his 30th birthday on his neck and the encroaching chill of the AIDS epidemic starting to claim his friends.

"Years are getting shorter / The lines on your face are getting longer / Feel like you're treading water / But the riptide's getting stronger," struggling artist Jonathan—played in the film by Andrew Garfield, doing all of his own singing—laments in the opening banger, "30/90."

The self-imposed pressure at that age may sound unnecessary, but in Larson's case it was eerily prescient.

Stars Playing Real People

"At the end of the movie, the question you're left with is, what could have happened if he didn't die so young? It's such a sad story," Bill Sherman, an executive music producer on Tick, Tick...Boom! and a Larson fan from way back, told E! News in a recent interview. "To me, when you have genius folks who die early, that's always what you're wondering, right? If they had lived five more years, what would have been the thing they would have graced life with?"

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Tick, Tick...Boom! actually stems from the period in Larson's life when he was writing Superbia, a dystopian musical based on George Orwell's 1984, which he couldn't get made—but which found its fans, including Stephen Sondheim, through workshop performances.

His next stab at a masterpiece, however, turned out to be Rent, the smash-hit, Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning phenomenon that fired up Miranda and his fellow musical theater buffs to no end when it debuted in 1996—and whose success its creator never got to enjoy.

The basic arc of Larson's simultaneously triumphant and tragic story is well-known: He wrote the book, music and lyrics for Rent and died of an aortic aneurism on the morning of Jan. 25, 1996—hours before the show was to have its off-Broadway premiere. He was 35.

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Cue the added agony of songs about running out of time, young lives being cut short due to AIDS and trying to leave one's creative mark on the world before it's too late. And yet, Rent was also utterly exhilarating, a raucous celebration of seizing the day, very of its time (medically speaking, thank goodness) but also—borrowing as well from the 1890s-era opera La Bohème—timeless in its themes, as well as in its savvy foray into a pop-grunge sound.

Stars on Stage: Broadway & Beyond

"My whole thing is that American popular music used to come from theater and Tin Pan Alley," Larson explained to American Theatre in an interview published posthumously in the summer of 1996, "and there's no reason why contemporary theater can't reflect real contemporary music, and why music that's recorded or that's made into a video cannot be from a show."

When he spoke to the publication, he was still picking up two shifts a week as a waiter at the Moondance diner in SoHo, where he'd worked for more than eight years—a matter-of-fact part of his journey chronicled in the Tick, Tick...Boomsong "Sunday," which pokes fun at the yuppie brunch rush.

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While it was posthumously adapted by playwright David Auburn into a three-actor production that premiered off-Broadway in 2001, the show was first performed by Larson in 1990 as a one-man-with-a-band rock monologue. Originally called Boho Days, it was rich with influences ranging from Billy Joel and Elton John to Talking Heads and The Cure. After that initial staging, he made some changes and presented it again with the new title in 1992, all the while working on Rent, seeds of which are audibly discernible in Tick, Tick...Boom! 

In his staging, Auburn also excised lines such as "sometimes, I feel like my heart is going to explode," because, as Garfield explained to the New York Times in September, "It was too on-the-nose for people after he passed away." 

But whether Larson had an uncanny premonition about his own fate or not, he didn't distinguish between the urgency to live a good life spread out over many decades or within only a few.

"He knew that this is a short ride and a sacred one," Garfield said, "and he had a lot of keys and secrets to how to live with ourselves and with each other and how to make meaning out of being here. Once he accepted that, he could be fully a part of the world, and then he could write Rent. I don't think there's an accident in that."

But with Rent and its 11-year Broadway run tending to dominate the Larson narrative, most people may not even know that he had Tick, Tick...Boom! in his pocket, as well.

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"This is the first of its kind," Sherman told E! News. "It really revamped what people thought was possible, and I think that we need to revel in that, and we need to keep on experiencing that."

So it was up to he and fellow executive music producer Alex Lacamoire, along with Miranda and other members of their close-knit circle of friends and frequent collaborators who first made their mark on Broadway with In the Heights in 2008, to turn Tick, Tick...Boom! into a cinematic experience. "We were all just sort of like an extended summer camp, hanging out, making music," Sherman said of the 2020 shoot, which got underway after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic put it on hold for several months.

But while going from stage to screen presents an opportunity to max out an arrangement to its full sonic potential, Sherman and Lacamoire—who shared a Best Orchestrations Tony for In the Heights and were music producers on the recent film adaptationrecognized that they had been gifted a lineup from the 2001 production's musical director, Steve Oremus (also a longtime friend), that didn't need a major overhaul.

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"His vocal work, the way that he made those three voices sing, is unbelievable," Sherman explained. "And we kept most of that stuff, honestly, because it was so good." But in addition to Garfield, Alexandra Shipp and Robin de Jesus as the main trio of Jonathan, Susan and Michael from the stage show, they had a bigger lineup, including musical veterans Vanessa Hudgens, Laura Benanti, Joshua Henry and Jonathan Marc Sherman, to spread the singing around.

And in addition to bringing in a full-on orchestra for certain songs, they wanted to highlight the variety of pop music that Larson drew from.

"There's a great shot in the movie of [Jonathan's] tape collection," Sherman shared, "and I like to think that really was his tape collection—Talking Heads, The B-52sRamonesTick, Tick...Boom! is an amalgamation of those kinds of music. Both Alex and I really wanted to have those things be very salient in the score and in the whole movie itself, just so it pops a little more, it really shows those influences."

Ranking the Recent TV Musicals

But they also knew when to leave well enough alone. Or if they didn't, someone was there—often times Miranda—to reassure them that it was OK to take a more hands-off approach to the music he and Sherman first listened to on repeat back when they were roommates at Wesleyan, their CD collection taking up an entire wall.

"It was easy to push it in a different direction if we wanted to," Sherman recalled. "But at some point, Jonathan Larson's songs and the arrangements of them are so good, it's just like, get out of the way. So that was another thing Alex and I were always debating: These songs are so good, if we put too much stuff in them we're going to mess them up."

"And Lin was always doing that," he added, "Lin would always be like, 'Simpler, simpler, let the songs speak for themselves, you don't have to do any heavy lifting, you're not trying to cover anything up. Just let it happen.'"

Musicians Performing Live on Stage

And he was right, Sherman reflected. "Often that was the right thing. Because like in 'Why,' which is this piano ballad at the end, it was just, 'We don't need anything else, just Andrew and the piano, it's so great, don't f--k  it up.' Sometimes you work on things where the source material is not so great and you have to fix it, like make it into something that it's not. Whereas with this, this is so beautiful, just get out of the way and don't cluster it, just let it do its thing."

Speaking of which, how about Garfield and that piano?


"I was totally floored by him," Sherman admitted of the Tony-winning actor, whom Miranda saw on Broadway in Angels in America in 2018 and just sensed that he was right for the role, not even knowing whether Garfield could sing or not. 

"He was such a life force—he burned so bright on that stage—and I realized that he had everything I was looking for: incredible intensity but also incredible empathy," Miranda, who also played Jonathan in a 2014 Tick, Tick...Boom! revival at New York's City Center, told Vogue.

The now 38-year-old Garfield wouldn't even know about Miranda's epiphany for a year, but once he did get the part, he threw himself into it completely, studying with famed New York voice coach Liz Caplan and learning enough piano so that he'd look like a natural on camera.

"We don't cover him up at all," Sherman said. "There's no studio tricks, there's no nothing with this, it's just like he learned how to sing and he learned how to lead a rock band, and it was unbelievable. Watching that happen over time, we'd have rehearsals with the band and they'd be playing to prerecorded stuff, but he would sing live and it was so engaging and so amazing. I was so impressed."

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Garfield told the New York Times, "It's a strange thing when there's someone like Jon that you didn't have any relationship to before, and then suddenly now there's this mysterious forever connection that I am never, ever going to let go. I just feel so lucky that Jon was revealed to me, because now I don't remember who I was before I knew who Jon was."

The same could be said for so many of the people who brought this incarnation of Tick, Tick...Boom! to life.

As Miranda told Vogue, "I really wanted to get it right, so that the ghost of Jonathan Larson didn't come back to haunt me and tell me that I f--ked it up."

Tick, Tick...Boom! is in limited release in theaters now and begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, Nov. 19.