Swell Superbia: the Supporting Men of tick, tick…BOOM!

Andrew Garfield as Broadway composer Jonathan Larsen in tick, tick…BOOM! — Photographer… Macall Polay
Andrew Garfield as Broadway composer Jonathan Larsen in tick, tick…BOOM! Photographer… Macall Polay

tick, tick…BOOM! supporting standouts Robin de Jesús and Joshua Henry talk about discovering Jonathan Larson, their twenties, and how Spike Lee’s Crooklyn is due for the musical treatment.

When you work with Jonathan’s work, one of the things that he always tries to instil in us is presence. There’s only us, there’s only this; forget regret, life is yours to miss.” —⁠Robin de Jesús

Broadway dreamer Jonathan Larson wouldn’t live to see his bohemian opus Rent become a blockbuster. He wouldn’t live to see it go on to win four Tonys including Best Musical (and eventually turned into a movie), and he wouldn’t live to see the profound impact he had on the lives of future dreamers aspiring to also take to the stage.

Larson died suddenly on January 25, 1996, at the age of 35, due to complications caused by his undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, on the day of Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview performance.

In the too-brief time he had, Larson created and performed the autobiographical rock monologue tick, tick…BOOM!, initially titled Boho Days, which chronicled his desire to fulfill his destiny as a wunderkind. It was inspired by the rejection of his passion project, the dystopian musical Superbia. After his death, tick, tick…BOOM! was expanded by playwright David Auburn into a three-person show, and now, with the assistance of Hamilton scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda, it is finally transformed into a well-populated movie musical.

Miranda’s own meteoric trajectory has been following a pathway forged in the footsteps of Larson himself. Indeed, Miranda credits attending Rent on his seventeenth birthday as the event that inspired him to begin creating work of his own. Shortly before Hamilton debuted in 2015, Miranda played Larson in a two-week production of tick, tick…BOOM!, and it was this performance that directly led to him being tapped for his first swing in the director’s chair.

Since Hamilton went supernova, Miranda has become firmly intertwined with the musical-film scene, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song with Moana’s ‘How Far I’ll Go’ and co-starring in Disney’s Mary Poppins sequel. Never one to slow down (or refrain from offering his two cents as a talking head in a litany of documentaries), tick, tick…BOOM! is one of four high-profile films Miranda is involved with this year, including the cinematic adaptation of his Tony-winning hit In the Heights, and composing contributions to the animated musicals Vivo and Encanto.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Robin de Jesús at the New York premiere of tick, tick…BOOM! — Photographer… Monica Schipper
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Robin de Jesús at the New York premiere of tick, tick…BOOM! Photographer… Monica Schipper

Among legends of musical theater and other recognizable faces from Miranda’s inner circle, the director enlisted the Hollywood star power of Andrew Garfield for the task of portraying Jonathan Larson. While Garfield has received acclaim for his performances on the stage, including his work as Prior in Angels in America, he had to learn how to both sing and play piano in order to embody the role, matching the production’s mission to closely replicate the facets of Larson’s life—as seen in uncanny end-titles footage.

Supporting Garfield, Miranda has stacked the cast with cameos—Joel Grey! André De Shields! Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in Rent!—to the delight of theater kids everywhere. And for the primary ensemble, he tapped a musically gifted young cast, including Robin de Jesús and Joshua Henry. De Jesús plays Michael, Larson’s departing roommate and closest friend, who gives up his creative dreams for a life of financial security, while Henry is Roger, who joins Vanessa Hudgens and others as a de-facto Greek chorus for Larson’s grandest musical numbers.

De Jesús is best known for his debut indie film role in Camp, his stage and film performances in The Boys in the Band (released last year on Netflix), and for originating the role of Sonny for In the Heights. Henry was nominated for a Tony Award for The Scottsboro Boys in 2011 and went on to take over the role of Aaron Burr for the US touring production of Hamilton. Also a recording artist, he released his debut album, Guarantee, earlier this year.

We spoke to de Jesús and Henry about Larson’s legacy, and their continuing collaborations with Miranda.

Robin De Jesús as Michael, MJ Rodriguez as Carolyn and Ben Levi Ross as Freddy in tick, tick…BOOM! — Photographer… Macall Polay
Robin De Jesús as Michael, MJ Rodriguez as Carolyn and Ben Levi Ross as Freddy in tick, tick…BOOM! Photographer… Macall Polay

We have to start with the man himself, Jonathan Larson. What personal impact did he have on your life?
Joshua Henry: I found out about Jonathan Larson a little bit later in life, once I got to New York. I talked to a lot of his friends, walked the streets where he lived on the Lower East Side, and eventually saw Rent as an adult. I got an appreciation for his passion for authenticity, for his desire to bring his very diverse group of friends to the forefront and present them onstage and say: look world, this is how all of us live.

I gained so much inspiration from him and I think audiences will, as well, with Andrew’s portrayal of Jonathan. You see how much he was aware that time was fleeting, in a way that a lot of folks are not, and he needed to get these songs off his heart. I can relate, because I’m a solo artist myself and there’s some days where I feel like if I don’t get this out in the next hour, is it going to come out the way that I want it to?

Robin, you made your Broadway debut in a production of Rent at age 21. How far back exactly do you go with Larson? What does he mean to you?
Robin de Jesús: The first time I really felt [Jonathan] was freshman year. Everyone in the musical [production of Rent] was hanging out in the hallway and people were playing the cast recording. Someone showed me the CD and I saw a bunch of Black and brown folks, and I was like, ‘Hold up! Yo, there’s space here for us!’ It gave me confirmation that my assumption of this being an art form that wasn’t accepting of people that looked like me was bullshit.

As the years went on, I listened to that album hardcore, I knew it inside and out. When I was eighteen, I went for an open call for the non-eq [Non-Equity] tour [of Rent] and then they called me in, but I wasn’t able to go.

Post-Camp, I kept getting typecast, and I thought maybe I had to pump the brakes on playing queer characters, because most of them were so one-dimensional. At least now we have gay characters who are well-developed—there is diversity within the group of gayness and queerness.

I refused to audition for Rent for years, and when I was 21, I got to a point where I had done enough work as an actor playing straight roles that I thought okay, now I can take on a gay role again, I can take on Angel. A month later, I got asked to audition for it. I called that thing in and it listened.

How did you shed your expectations of what you knew about Larson beforehand with what you had to discover about him as a character alongside Andrew Garfield?
RdJ: The thing that made it a lot easier was Steven Levenson’s script being so good. There was so much already on the page, so finding out anything else was extra.

We had a historian consultant, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who gave us a lot of information, reminding me about the crack and AIDs epidemics through the ’80s and ’90s in New York, and how that changed the climate for us. How that experience was felt for someone like Jonathan, as a white straight man, versus me as a Latino gay man in New York City, because those were different experiences.

But I gotta say the thing that was so cool was when I got to experience Daphne Rubin-Vega’s reaction to me being cast in the movie, because Jonathan meant so much to her. I thought I knew what it meant, but when she expressed how she felt, now I know what it means.

Andrew Garfield and Robin De Jesús, roommates and friends in tick, tick…BOOM! — Photographer… Macall Polay
Andrew Garfield and Robin De Jesús, roommates and friends in tick, tick…BOOM! Photographer… Macall Polay

Michael represents the friends who have to sell out and turn their backs on their dreams, and you can feel the pain of your character’s choice even before the devastating ‘Real Life’ scene. What were you channelling to be able to portray that internal conflict throughout the whole film?
RdJ: I remember this feeling of: ‘I am a two-liter soda bottle, and I’ve been shaken, but I can’t release the top.’ I’m usually the person who gets to go crazy and leave it all on the table. With this, I had to be a little more subtle, a little more reserved, hold onto some of my buns, you know?

I also knew that I didn’t want it to be self-indulgent. When most of my friends reveal their status, they would like to have released that moment of being taken care of, where oftentimes the person you share the diagnosis with feels the thunder and makes it about them—they’re so devastated, and the person who received the diagnosis now has to take care of them. It was nice to showcase what I know to be more of the reality.

The film uses this opportunity to resurrect Jonathan Larson’s pet project, Superbia. How was the experience of bringing that story and those songs back to life?
JH: It was like hearing the deleted scenes back when there were DVDs! “They didn’t use that? Nobody invested in that? That was amazing!” Superbia is this musical that not too many people knew about, myself included before working on this film, that Lin dug up from a library. It’s about a world that was devoid of emotion with people that always had their devices in front of them. Prophetic, right? He was way ahead of his time, and I’m glad we get to see this sort of deleted scene of a musical that he worked on.

Josh Henry takes the mic as Roger in tick, tick…BOOM! — Photographer… Macall Polay
Josh Henry takes the mic as Roger in tick, tick…BOOM! Photographer… Macall Polay

There is an immaculate attention to detail in the accuracy of the locations and costumes. How did you also meet the obligations of portraying a real person?
JH: I got the privilege of playing Roger Bart in this film, and I wanted to make sure that every time you saw me [I was] in awe of Jonathan Larson. Roger and Jonathan were friends from their childhood and he knew that Jonathan was a genius and that his voice was so unique and was gonna change things. So for me, I got to watch Andrew turn into Jonathan and seeing him work through these challenges and come to the set every day with something new, it felt very easy to fall into that, because I’m in awe of Andrew’s talent.

The film is largely about the pressure that people put on themselves to meet certain goals before they turn 30. How do you feel about your twenties in hindsight?
RdJ: Oh my god, the bullying! I said one day to my friend Karen Olivo when I was 23 that I was going to start therapy and she said, “Are you ready?!” I replied, “What do you mean?”, and she said, “Are you ready to understand how much you get in your own way? Are you ready to understand how it is you treat yourself and how much better you deserve?” And that proved to be true.

I lived in my twenties, I had a great time. There was some recklessness and some sabotage that was happening there. When I turned 30, I was depressed because in all of the abundancy I had experienced, I told myself that I hadn’t done enough. I told myself that at this point I should own a home. There were all these goals that I had attached to because that’s what I thought 30 was supposed to look like. When you work with Jonathan’s work, one of the things that he always tries to instil in us is presence. There’s only us, there’s only this; forget regret, life is yours to miss. 

JH: When I got to New York in 2006, I was in a basement apartment, staying up till two o’clock in the morning, just dreaming about what was possible. I know that there were times when I compared myself to other people, just like Jonathan says how [Stephen] Sondheim was this age by the time he had this hit. If I had to go back, I would tell my twenty-year-old self to never compare yourself to anyone. Continue the path that you see for yourself. Know that the dream changes, know that the definition of success changes from moment to moment.

Seeing Jonathan stress out about that on the other side of my thirties; he didn’t know, but he was going to be alright, and sometimes that’s what we need to hear: Jonathan, you’re gonna be alright. Little Joshua, you’re gonna be alright. Artists, you’re gonna be alright.

Director of photography Alice Brooks, Andrew Garfield and director Lin-Manuel Miranda on location for tick, tick…BOOM! — Photographer… Macall Polay
Director of photography Alice Brooks, Andrew Garfield and director Lin-Manuel Miranda on location for tick, tick…BOOM! Photographer… Macall Polay

So, in the world of film, all eyes are on Lin-Manuel Miranda as a first-time feature director. What’s your opinion on how he adapted to a new medium?
RdJ: We all know that when you work with Lin, there’s gonna be joy, there’s gonna be fun, there’s gonna be love. He provides a positive setting, we all know that. [But what] we didn’t expect was the ingenuity, the fact that there would be times when he would come up with shots on the fly that were so beautiful.

We all came in thinking: is Alice Brooks, our amazing director of photography, going to be the one doing all the work and then Lin’s gonna regret it? No, it was a group effort. Lin was handling his department, Alice was handling hers. That’s why the movie looks so good.

JH: One of [Lin’s] biggest strengths is that he’s a freestyler by trade. There were shots that were planned where he could figure out four different ways on how to make the shot. I think we see his strong eye for direction in a scene like ‘Therapy’. It’s a very comedic number, and we also see the very serious relationship issues that are happening in real life. I read that on the page and [I thought] ‘How is this going to work?’, until I saw the cut. To see his craft in that way, I was like: ‘How dare this be your first swing at directing, sir?’

Robin, you originated the role of Sonny for In the Heights, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the film adaptation that came out this summer, especially about the way the importance of the story has evolved in such a short time.
RdJ: There’s more currency with an In the Heights movie coming out now, just as there’s more currency in the tick, tick…BOOM! movie coming out now. When it comes to Heights, we weren’t ready to have the conversations on immigration like we are now. During the run of Heights was when Arizona decided to act out on some real crazy stuff, I mean real discriminatory. So, the fact that Sonny’s character gets to add in being a Dreamer, that was so cool and so beautiful to watch.

Also, there’s more appreciation for Latinx culture now. When you talk about the last election, people are talking about the importance of our demographics because we’re affecting what’s happening in the nation in a way we were pretending wasn’t the case.

What are your favorite movie musicals that are just total comfort food for you?
JH: Jesus Christ Superstar, I remember watching as a kid and seeing Judas run through the desert like “Jeeesus!”, oh my gosh. I remember seeing The Sound of Music, and seeing people burst into song at the height of their emotions [because] they needed to sing about something. It’s such an amazing thing to watch.

RdJ: I have to say the In the Heights movie, and I’m not just saying that because of the crowd I’m rolling with. I loved it. West Side Story is always a beautiful one as well. I would say my favorite movie musical is probably Funny Girl. Barbra Streisand’s performance in that movie is so good. Funny, yes, but also so heartbreaking.

Zelda Harris as Troy, one of the Carmichael clan in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994).
Zelda Harris as Troy, one of the Carmichael clan in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994).

If you had to choose one movie to be adapted into a Broadway musical, which film would it be?
RdJ: For years, I have felt that Spike Lee’s Crooklyn would be an amazing movie musical. I don’t think we’ve had a musical that’s been centered on a young Black woman since The Wiz. I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

What about vice-versa—a Broadway musical with great potential as a movie?
JH: Ragtime! [Which had a non-musical adaptation in 1981 from the same source novel by director Miloš Forman.] Shall I look at the camera? Where are the producers at? This is the one that is a dream role of mine, it’s the only dream role that I have left, really. I want to play Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime, and I want to capture that on film.


tick, tick…BOOM! is screening in US theaters and streaming on Netflix.

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