Lin-Manuel Miranda always knew what he would direct if he was ever given the chance. He dreamt of how he’d adapt Tick, Tick... Boom!, a series of autobiographical monologues written and performed by the late Jonathan Larson. He would go on to create Rent, but tragically died on its opening night.
Miranda had both seen and performed Tick, Tick... Boom!, and it was an intensely personal production for him. On the carpet at the movie’s premiere in LA, he told reporters that the play “felt like a message in a bottle just for me,” a sentiment that’s not uncommon with much of Larson’s work.
The A.V. Club sat down with Miranda to talk Tick, Tick... Boom! You can check out that interview in the video above, or read the transcript below.
The A.V. Club: I was in high school in the mid-’90s, and I was one of those people that drove around in their friend’s car listening to Rent over and over and over.
I was reading some of what you said at AFI Fest, and you mentioned that first seeing Tick, Tick... Boom! felt like “a message in a bottle, just for you.” I think a lot of people feel that way about Jonathan Larson’s work, and I’m wondering: Why do you think people connect with Larson and his work so deeply?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I can tell you what I connected with about Rent when I saw it at 17: It felt messy and homemade and personal in a way that musicals don’t always feel. A lot of the Broadway musicals I’d seen, I loved. I was a fan of musical theater from doing shows in high school, but they just feel like they came from some other place. It didn’t feel like you could write one at home.
But Rent was very clearly someone writing about his friends and his community. It was the most diverse cast I’d ever seen in a Broadway show, and that opened things up in me that I didn’t know were possible.
At the end of the day, it’s all about artists living and dying and trying to figure out how to do what they love. I was definitely a high school kid who walked around with a camcorder, and it was easier for me to film my friends than hang out with my friends. So when Roger calls out Mark saying, “You pretend to create and observe, but you really detach,” I felt personally attacked in the back of the Peter Landau theater.
Then, when I saw Tick, Tick... Boom! my senior year of college, it felt like all of those preoccupations in a more concentrated and personal form. It was like, “Hey, here’s what your twenties are going to look like, dude, if you’re really trying to do this.”
And so that message in a bottle thing feels really real. But I think people respond to it because it feels homemade, and feels like it’s for them. You feel artists in it that are flawed and still trying to do their best and get sidetracked by the wrong things and come back to what they love. That’s true of both Rent and Tick, Tick... Boom!
AVC: Part of the plot of Tick, Tick... Boom! is Jonathan struggling with turning 30 and fretting that he hasn’t made it, even though Sondheim launched his first Broadway show at 27 or something like that. You were 28 when In The Heights won a Tony. Would Jonathan Larson be mad at you?
But, you know, when you choose Jonathan Larson as your hero, you’re so superstitious, because Jonathan never lived to see the mark his work made on the world, and that’s so tragic.
One of the things that was really our thesis statement about Tick, Tick... Boom! was that it’s not about Jonathan’s death; it’s about his life. This is about what a life force he was to his friends and the people who loved him.
I think about that a lot. I think about the fact that I actually have been lucky enough to survive, to live, to see how my work connected with the world. I feel really grateful for that. I feel a little Aaron Burr, like I don’t know why I got to live and Jonathan isn’t 61 years old and sitting next to me and maybe yelling at me.
AVC: You did a limited run of Tick, Tick, Boom! eight months before Hamilton came out, which, first of all, how do you get it all done? Secondly, how did working on that show mark that point in your life?
LMM: I did this show about Jonathan Larson at when I was at a crossroads. I was incredibly pregnant with Hamilton at the time. We would start rehearsals four months later.
My wife was incredibly pregnant with our first child, and I’m there doing Tick, Tick... Boom!, the show that clarified my resolve to do this, with Karen Olivo, who was my costar on my first show In the Heights, and Leslie Odom Jr., who would be my future costar in the next show. So it is this weird vortex when I’m actually in the in-between period in all of the phases of my life.
But my biggest takeaway from that production was actually how amazing it was to meet all the real life inspirations in Jonathan’s life who are still alive. His best friend, Matt O’Grady, on whom Michael was based, is still around. His girlfriend was there, his family was there. And there’s something about when Tick, Tick... Boom! is performed. It’s like Jonathan is still around because it was so semi-autobiographical and it was him writing about his friends and where he was at.
And so, it was exciting to draw on that community as a resource so that we could get the most well-rounded version of Jonathan on screen, and not a plaster saint. But the times when he’s frustrating and the times when he’s impatient and self-absorbed and all of it... just as much of it on the screen as we could muster.
AVC: Well, congratulations.
LMM: Thank you! I was late to the interview because I was reading The A.V. Club review! [laughs, then mimes reading his phone] I was like, “A B+ from The A.V. Club is an A anywhere else!”
Tick, Tick... Boom! is in select theaters now. It will hit Netflix on November 19. You can read that B+ review of the movie right here.