‘Tick Tick … Boom!’ a tragic, true tale of ‘Rent’ creator

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“Tick, Tick … Boom!” — an early musical by Jonathan Larson, who created “Rent” — was born of unhappiness, anger and frustration.

In the late Nineteen Eighties, Larson discovered that Matt O’Grady, his greatest good friend from childhood, had contracted HIV. Working within the theater, Larson knew a number of individuals who had AIDS. Now it was threatening somebody he’d recognized most of his life.

“Matt’s diagnosis shocked him,” Victoria Leacock, a shut good friend of Larson’s from faculty, advised The Post. “He realized that you don’t know how much time you have. It’s finite. And how you spend it matters.”

At the identical time, Larson was struggling along with his stalled career aspirations. He wished to jot down rock musicals that handled modern points at a second when pop operas from Britain — “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” — dominated Broadway. Larson had written some spectacular scores, and had acquired a few prestigious grants and awards, however nothing he did went anyplace. And he was pressed financially. His thirtieth birthday was developing in 1990, however he was nonetheless working as a waiter on the Moondance Diner in Soho.

Andrew Garfield (proper) as Jonathan Larson (left) within the film model of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”
Netflix

Larson start writing the autobiographical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” in 1989. Now, greater than three many years later, “Tick, Tick … Boom!’ is a film, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield. It opens in theaters Nov. 12 and begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 19.

Sadly, Larson isn’t round to see it, nor did he get to expertise the well-received off-Broadway manufacturing that opened in 2001. He died in 1996 at 35 from an aortic dissection brought on by Marfan Syndrome, a genetic situation that impacts the physique’s connective tissue.


Larson wrote “Tick, Tick … Boom!” after two different exhibits he’d been engaged on fell aside. One was a trendy adaptation of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” He’d written three songs, together with the title tune, “Rent,” along with his collaborator, Billy Aronson. But Larson and Aronson’s visions didn’t mesh. Aronson wished the present to happen on the yuppie Upper West Side. Larson wished to set it on the bohemian Lower East Side. They have been at loggerheads.

The different present was referred to as “Superbia.” A sprawling, futuristic musical, it took intention on the corporate-controlled, mind-numbing leisure tradition. Stephen Sondheim, who had befriended Larson, thought the rating, a combine of rock, new wave, techno and Broadway, was spectacular. The script was not. “It was unresolvable,” Sondheim advised me once I interviewed him for my 2020 e-book, “Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway.”

Playwrights Horizons staged a workshop, however then dropped the present. Nobody else picked it up. Producers advised Larson it was too large for off-Broadway and too superior for Broadway.

“Jonathan was devastated by that,” his sister Julie Larson advised The Post. “So he went to work on a show that was just him, a piano and a band. Nobody could tell him it’s too big.”

Inspired by Simon Gray’s autobiographical “Swimming to Cambodia” and Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio” — each one-man exhibits — Larson conceived “Tick, Tick … Boom!” as a rock monologue delivered by a struggling composer named Jon. He wrote songs and speeches about his career frustrations, O’Grady’s HIV analysis, a fraught relationship he was having with a feminine dancer, even his agent, who had stopped returning his calls. He initially referred to as it “30/90,” a reference to his looming thirtieth birthday.

Leslie Odom Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo in the course of the opening evening efficiency of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” in 2014.
Getty Images

Larson invited Leacock to his ramshackle fourth-floor walk-up on Greenwich Street to listen to a cassette tape he’d made of his songs. “You’d sit in front of his speakers and listen, and he’d look directly at your face, trying to figure out your reaction,” she mentioned. “It was very intense.”

Leacock advised him the songs, brimming with anger and disappointment, have been terrific. But, she added, “I understand why you don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t understand why you still do.” Larson was greatly surprised. The subsequent day he phoned and performed her a tune he’d written in a single day. He referred to as it “Why.” It summed up his life: He was happiest writing exhibits, and he would proceed to take action whether or not they obtained produced or not.

“There was a sense of ticking time,” Julie Larson mentioned. “But, honestly, I don’t think he seriously ever considered doing anything else.”

Second Stage, a small nonprofit theater, produced a staged studying of the present, which Larson retitled “BoHo Days.” When Robyn Goodman, the theater’s creative director, met Larson, he advised her, “I’m going to bring rock ‘n’ roll back to Broadway.”

Jonathan Larson and Victoria Leacock within the unique manufacturing.
Victoria Leacock Hoffman

“He wasn’t arrogant about it,” Goodman advised The Post. “He really meant it. He was obsessed, in a wonderful way.”

Larson insisted on performing the present himself. And that was a drawback. The songs have been good, however the script was unfocused. Goodman wished to hire an actor to play Jon. That method, Larson may consider the storytelling. Larson refused. It was his life, and he wished to carry out it. After the studying, Second Stage dropped “BoHo Days.”

But Jeffrey Seller, an aspiring producer working as a booker in a Broadway manufacturing office, caught a efficiency of “BoHo Days.” It made him cry. “Here was a man telling his life story that I felt was my life story, and telling it in a musical vernacular that was giving me goose bumps,” he advised me for “Singular Sensation.”

The subsequent day, Seller wrote Larson a letter: “Your work – music, lyrics, and spoken word – has an emotional power and resonance that I have rarely experienced in the theatre. You’re also insightful, perceptive, and very funny.” He added, “Like you, I want to do great things in the theatre.”

Just a few days later, they met for a drink at a bar close to New York University. Seller, who would at some point produce “Hamilton,” was struck by Larson’s dedication to convey modern music to Broadway. “He was on a mission to change the world,” Seller recalled.

With Second Stage out of the image, Leacock stepped in to provide the present — now on its third title, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” — on the Village Gate. During technical rehearsals, they discovered that one of their shut buddies, Pam Shaw, had contracted AIDS. Another good friend, Alison “Ali” Gertz, one of the primary heterosexuals to confess publicly she had AIDS, was getting sicker. And they came upon that yet one more good friend, Gordon Rogers, was HIV-positive. (All three died of AIDS. Matt O’Grady, alternatively, by no means developed AIDS and continues to be alive.)

“We had gone from a crisis to a plague,” mentioned Leacock. “And it was evident to Jonathan that the palette of ‘Tick’ just wasn’t big enough to deal with the nightmare we were living through.”

When he completed his run on the Village Gate, Larson went again to “Rent.” Aronson, his writing accomplice on the present, agreed to let him go it alone. He wrote a scene about an AIDS help group. He named three of the characters within the scene Ali, Pam and Gordon.

Director Lin-Manuel Miranda on the film set of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” in 2020.
GC Images

Five years later, “Rent” was in rehearsals on the New York Theater Workshop, with Jeffrey Seller as one of its producers. After the dress rehearsal Jan. 24, 1996, Larson, who had not been feeling nicely and had been to the emergency room twice, returned to his Greenwich Street condo (its jammed bookshelves, bathe within the kitchen and keyboard by the window are meticulously recreated within the film).

Around 12:30 a.m. Jan. 25, he placed on the teakettle — and collapsed. His aorta had torn open. His roommate discovered him lifeless on the kitchen flooring at 3:30 a.m.


After “Rent” turned a worldwide sensation, producers checked out every little thing Larson had written. Goodman and Leacock wished to provide “Tick, Tick … Boom!” Larson’s mother and father have been in favor, however his sister was not. “It would have been too painful as a one-man show,” she mentioned. “It didn’t feel right to me that somebody would be up there playing Johnny.”

Goodman and Leacock introduced in David Auburn, a Tony Award-winning playwright, to rewrite the script. He added two characters. One was based mostly on Matt O’Grady; the opposite on the dancer Larson was courting whereas writing “Tick, Tick … Boom!” As a three-character chamber piece, it was “lovely,” mentioned Julie Larson.

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp co-star within the new movie.
Netflix

She’s happy with Miranda’s film, for which she receives government producer credit score.

“Tick, Tick … Boom!” is “always going to be tinged with complicated emotions,” she mentioned, however the film “beautifully highlights an artist’s infinite confidence and absolute despair, and the tottering between the two.”