Nearly five years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Karen Olivo starred in the City Center mounting of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!. Open about Larson’s extreme influence on his life and career, Miranda had always worshipped Rent but even moreso the rock musical’s predecessor about a writer struggling to find his own voice. Now, Miranda is making his film directorial debut with the film adaptation of the musical—but he first digs deeper into the story with the help of screenwriter Steven Levenson, the Tony-winning book writer behind Dear Evan Hansen, who, as it turns out, was also heavily influenced by Larson.
“The first decision that we made together,” says writer Levenson of himself and Miranda, “was to go back to the original solo show that Jon performs—and so that's the foundation of it, just trying to get back to that original story.”
In the stage musical, Jon is an aspiring composer in New York City worried he has made the wrong choice in choosing a life in the arts, constantly hearing the ticking of the clock in his head as an unending expression of his anxiety.
Larson started performing the show as a solo piece back in 1990, and continued developing it at Second Stage, the Village Gate, and New York Theatre Workshop through 1993. But Rent took the spotlight as the sought-after Larson work. After Larson’s death in 1996, and the success of Rent, playwright David Auburn adapted it into the trio musical that bowed Off-Broadway in 2001.
“More than the original theatrical adaptation into the three-person musical—which is amazing, and what Lin and I both fell in love with—this [considers] the time between that and now, and knowing so much more about Jonathan.”
Miranda and Levenson have tapped Larson’s family and friends to help create more of a portrait of the artist—at least in this incubating draft. “It's a little bit more about the person of Jon, and his life—what it was when it started,” Levenson explains, calling it a “hybrid between this musical and this real story of this guy, Jon, who's making a musical about how he's struggling to find his voice, and trying to be an artist.”
Having Miranda attached to the project has helped Levenson excavate personal details about Larson. “Everybody is so excited to talk to Lin, and get to share this story with him,” he says, “we've gotten such incredible access to the people in Jonathan's life, his family and friends who have just been invaluable in helping us learn more.”
The pair are also concurrently working together on the FX series Fosse/Verdon, Levenson as screenwriter and Miranda as an executive producer. Levenson says the stories behind the two projects fulfill a yin and yang.
“It's sort of the exact opposite of the Bob Fosse story, which is why it's a little bit of a palate cleanser,” Levenson says. “[Jonathan] never got the acclaim that he deserved [during his life], and Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, on the other hand, sort of wrestled for their entire lives with the acclaim that they got. It's such a different story: one is a fight for recognition, and one is what happens when you are that recognized.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about what he'll take from Mary Poppins Returns into directing tick, tick...BOOM! below: