Most big screen musical adaptations have one script and one score to work with, but for tick, tick…BOOM!, screenwriter Steven Levenson and director-producer Lin-Manuel Miranda were synthesizing multiple developmental and performance drafts and Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright David Auburn’s three-actor Off-Broadway musical version. And since the musical is autobiographical, Levenson and Miranda had Larson’s real life to draw from as well.
We recently chatted with Levenson about untangling this web and creating his new cinematic take on Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!, which premiered on Netflix November 19 starring Andrew Garfield. According to Levenson, one of the early decisions was to highlight Larson’s original solo show version of the work, both in terms of material and the film's central narative.
“[Lin and I] talked about the film of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which we both adore. It’s framed around this performance of the show within the show, and so we got excited about honoring Jonathan’s performance of the show and framing the film around it.”
Levenson and Miranda traveled to The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where Larson’s papers are held, to look at all of the drafts of tick, tick…BOOM! But because the scripts were undated, it was difficult to determine which was Larson’s official and final version of the work.
“We had to go through all of these different drafts and try to figure out what felt essential through all of them, what were the threads that stayed and what felt like the heart of this story. We took all of that information and Lin and I sat down in a conference room with note cards on a bulletin board, and we put up these note cards for all the songs that were in the score in all of the different versions. We tried to take the skeleton of the story as it existed and figure out how it would match the score.”
Levenson’s biggest discovery was a song that had initially been considered for Auburn’s take on the work.
“There was a song that I believe was in the Off-Broadway musical version in previews but was cut before the final version of the show happened, which was the song ‘Swimming.’ It’s a song which is really about Jonathan being at the end of his rope. He’s really struck creatively, he’s stuck in his relationship, and he takes all that frustration and goes swimming, which is something Jonathan Larson did all the time. He was a regular swimmer, and so the song is really about doing something totally different than making art to somehow get back to finding some spark of creativity or spark of imagination. I love that song because it was so immediately cinematic. When I heard it, I totally understood why it wouldn’t work on stage or why it would feel static, but it’s literally about swimming and you can feel that on film, and you can capture that. That was a big revelation.”
Levenson expanded the show even futher by following threads started by Larson in his solo show, fleshing them out for the screen.
“His monologue was pretty spare and bare bones, as you would imagine a one-person solo show would be, and so we took those bones and expanded them into meatier scenes and meatier ideas. There’s a page in the original monologue about Superbia [an earlier musical of Larson’s that never made it past the workshop phase of development] and the workshop process and his frustrations with not being able to get a full band, which was a huge thing of his. He was trying to make a rock show that sounded unlike anything else, and the infrastructure of theatre making at the time just couldn’t accommodate that. He was doing this workshop and they wanted to give him a piano and he was saying, ‘I need a rock band because it’s a rock score.’ I was really struck by that, so we turned that into a storyline. We took things that were paraphrased in the monologue and stretched them into real, three-dimensional storytelling.”
Levenson also wanted to explore Larson’s real life, something that was decidedly not a focus of the original monologue. Levenson and Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM! is, as a result, is perhaps the most biographical of all iterations of the work.
“When Jon was writing the show, he didn’t put a lot of incidental stuff about his life because I don’t think he was super interested in all of that stuff. It was just his life and seemed boring. For us looking back, it’s Jonathan Larson, and we were super interested in all the minutiae of his life, and the parties he was throwing and the conversations with friends and really digging into who he was.”
Luckily, Levenson had an excellent source when it came to the minutiae of Larson’s life: Larson’s sister, Julie.
“Julie Larson has been an advisor to us, certainly a consultant on all things Jonathan, and she’s also been our North Star in a lot of ways in capturing her brother and capturing who he was, really giving us permission to go there and encouraging us to tell the story the way we felt like we should. She was an incredible partner to us because she always trusted us as artists, which I think makes sense because her brother was an artist, but she always trusted us to make decisions and to find the right solution. She was there to offer us her perspective and her feelings, and to offer us, in a way that nobody else could, the sense of what it was like to know Jonathan as a human being, as a person from childhood.”
Levenson, himself a writer of plays and musicals including Dear Evan Hansen and If I Forget, was drawn to focus on Larson’s fierce creativity and determination. And those attributes are on full display in a story that mostly centers on Larson’s ultimately unsuccessful workshop of Superbia, a sci-fi rock musical inspired by Orwell’s 1984 that Larson worked on for eight years.
“We’re used to hearing stories about artists’ triumph, and the story of artists who suffer and struggle and in the end that thing that they’re suffering and struggling over becomes this massive achievement. And even when you’re telling people the story of this film, you find yourself saying, ‘It’s about Jonathan Larson working on this musical that nobody understands, nobody gets, but he’s working on it. He’s trying and in the end that musical is Rent’—that’s where you want the story to end, but it’s not. This is the story of a musical called Superbia that was a failure, ultimately. It never got the life that it deserved, or the life that certainly Jonathan wanted for it. I never wanted to shy away from the pain of that and the heartbreak of that...The musical never happened. Jonathan had to pick himself up and start over and start on the next one...The only thing you can really do is keep working, keep going on to the next one, and the next one. That’s the joy of it and the frustration of it, but that’s what it is. I found that a powerful idea.”
According to Levenson, that Larson was able to keep creating in spite of the setbacks and with little encouragement for his work, ultimately writing a musical that would make both artistic and commercial waves on Broadway and around the world, might just be the most inspiring aspect of Larson’s life story.
“Jonathan wrote songs about everything, and he wrote songs every day. He just wrote and wrote and wrote, and I’m inspired by that, and by his lack of preciousness. Sometimes as an artist you’re terrified of starting things and you’re terrified of making mistakes, and he just kind of went for it. He made big mistakes and he took big swings. I think the thing that I’ve taken away from Jonathan and from talking to his friends and his collaborators is this exuberance he had for everything in life. Nothing was ever halfway for Jonathan. He lived his life in this huge way, and he didn’t waste any of the time he had. I’m endlessly inspired by his refusal to give up.”