The Story Behind Netflix’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM!”

This review contains spoilers, read at your own risk.

On Nov. 12, 2021, Netflix released a semi-autobiographical film about Broadway’s beloved composer and writer, Jonathan Larson, in a pop-rock musical, “Tick, Tick…BOOM!”

The film is rated PG-13, as it may include some sensitive material for younger audiences. The movie shows a realistic representation of Larson’s life in 1990 as a broke artist in New York City. The film was directed by the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda and starred award-winning actor, Andrew Garfield as Larson.

“Tick, Tick… BOOM!” follows Jonathan Larson as he is embarking on a new chapter of his life–he is about to show the world his first musical, “Superbia,” which he has been writing and composing for the past eight years. With a presentation of the musical less than a week away, Larson finds himself struggling to write the most prominent number in the show. Adding to the pressure, he wishes to complete everything before he turns 30 in just a few days. The story alternates between the musical “Tick, Tick…BOOM” and Larson’s life while facing the pressures of love and friendship, and coping with the loss of numerous friends due to the AIDS epidemic.

Jonathan David Larson was born on Feb. 4, 1960, and died on Jan. 25, 1996. Larson died the morning of the first Off-Broadway preview performance of “Rent” at age 35 due to an aortic aneurysm. Larson spent his life focused on social issues regarding multiculturalism, addiction, and homophobia in his work. He is most known for his musical “Rent,” which ran on Broadway for 12 years (1993-2008), making it the ninth longest-running Broadway show in history!

“Tick, Tick…BOOM!” is the first film that Lin-Manuel Miranda has directed. The film was Miranda’s passion project. “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” was my first love,” Miranda states in the “First Film” interview with Netflix. (If you’re interested in hearing more from this interview, click on this video link! ) Larson’s “Rent” was his inspiration for getting into the musical theater business, but he says that “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” hit even closer to home. At 41, Miranda has won a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy, three Tony’s, three Grammys, and even more. Most of these accolades he got from his hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” He’s only an Oscar away from an EGOT!

A lot had to be done before Andrew Garfield could embody the role of Jonathan Larson. Prior to the film, Garfield couldn’t sing. He spent over a year learning how to sing with various vocal coaches. And now, he can even play the piano. “Stepping outside of my comfort zone as an actor is something I’m always interested in doing,” Garfield said in an interview with Variety. He states that working on “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” was like sewing up the wounds from his mother’s passing in 2019. Garfield in the film bears a striking resemblance to Larson’s personality and physical appearance.

There has also been a lot of buzz about the cast of the film and their outstanding abilities to portray the roles they were given. Alexandra Shipp (Susan Wilson), Vannessa Hudgens (Karessa Johnson), and Robin de Jesus (Michael) co-starred, plus several Broadway actors had cameos as well. These actors included Phillipa Soo, Renee Elsie Goldsberry, Joshua Henry, Howard McGillin, and many other stars.

During the filming of “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” there were several different locations all around New York City that were used to recreate the city in the 90s that Larson lived in. Larson is seen in the film performing at an off-Broadway theater called ‘The New York Theater Workshop’ at 79 E. 4th Street. This is where Larson is seen performing several of the numbers and all of the monologues. Larson’s apartment, located at 508 Greenwich Street in Soho, is where he hosted parties, wrote his musicals, and staged rehearsals. His apartment was also where Larson was found dead from his sudden aortic aneurysm. Since the 1990s, the apartment has shockingly remained the same, so it made it more straightforward to recreate it on a set. There was help with photos and home videos from Larson’s family and friends which made it easier to decorate the interior. A number of items on the set belonged to Larson, just like his cassette collection, and homemade Christmas cards!

To replicate Larson’s workplace at the Moondance Diner that closed in 2007 after 74 years in business, production designer Alex DiGerlandos had to pay close attention to details. For the sensation of the falling wall, and the strikingly similar resemblance to the original diner, a very specific set had to be built. Believe it or not, when Larson is seen in Times Square, it’s all a set! Set designers used vintage storefronts to achieve the 90s Times Square look. Larson is seen swimming in the film multiple times, coming up with the most important number in the show, and performing the song “Swimming.” When the production designers were looking for a pool to film at, they discovered the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center in which they later found out that it was the actual pool that Larson swam at. The Playwright’s horizon is where Larson finally went to perform his musical “Superbia” after eight years in the works. Larson is pitching his musical to some very important producers including his idol, Stephen Sondheim. This scene was filmed on 42nd street and is a part of NYU Tisch School of Arts.

The soundtrack for “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” is absolutely spectacular. You feel as if you have been transported into Larson’s eyes of the world. Amazingly, every song in the film was written by Larson. “30/90” is the opening number in “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” The song is about how Larson is turning 30 in just a matter of days and still feels like there’s so much to accomplish in his 20s. Though his life is not how he wishes, working as a server who can’t afford rent, Larson is still positive that his musical “Superbia” is going to get recognized at 29. In the song, Larson wrote, “they’re singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ you just want to lay down and cry.” This shows that Larson feels indescribable pressure to accomplish his dreams before entering his 30s. After Susan puts on a triumphant dance recital, Larson hosts a party at his apartment. When the party is starting to die down, Larson sings the song, “Boho Days” to try and rescue it, since he doesn’t want it to be over. Acapella, he improvises lyrics just by observing things that are occurring around him. All of his friends then start to sing along to the chorus, “this is the life bo bo, bo bo, bo!” Larson is content and satisfied with his life, and wouldn’t trade it for anyone with a “normal” career. “No More” performed by Larson and his best friend Michael is based on a fantasy Larson has about living with Michael and if Larson gave up his dream for success the same way he did. Though Larson feels that giving up your dream for a “real job” is a total cliche, he does a reality check and realizes life would be so much easier if he were like Michael. The number “Sunday” is one of the broadest scenes in the film that takes place in the Moondance Diner. The scene shows an unromanticized representation of the Diner on a Sunday morning and depicts the stress and hustle of Larson’s job. In this number, Larson “freezes time” and sings a song about his artistic representation of what Sunday at the Moondance Diner feels like to him. At the end of the number, Larson’s arms go out as the wall is slowly falling so it looks as if he is controlling it with his hands. “Therapy,” is a witty song that goes back and forth between lyrics such as, “I feel bad that you feel bad, about me feeling bad.” The song is based on Larson and Susan’s argument about her leaving to get a new job, but in “Tick, Tick…BOOM!,” it is sung by Larson and Karessa. “Come To Your Senses” is the spectacular, act-two number that Larson has been struggling to write but found while he was manically swimming to pass time. When he rushed back home, he stayed awake the entire night before his workshop, pouring the lyrics out of his heart. At his workshop, Karessa, after only one run-through, blows the audience away with the song. Larson envisions Susan singing the song to him, which is why she is seen singing prominently throughout the number.

The film has been an inspiration to many young artists, who identify with Larson’s struggles. It has some of your favorite stars, along with a soundtrack you won’t be able to get out of your head. If you have or want to see “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!