Steven Levenson on honoring Jonathan Larson’s legacy in ‘tick, tick…BOOM’

Steven Levenson

When Steven Levenson heard that Lin-Manuel Miranda was directing­­ a film adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM!, he was like, “Well, how can I possibly be involved with that?”

At the time, Levenson was working on the mini-series Fosse/Verdon, on which Miranda was a producer, and the two started a years-long process and excavation into writer/composer Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical work. The film adaptation of Larson’s show, which he wrote just before Rent turned him into a household name, is now in select theatres and streaming on Netflix.

“The thing for Jon was like, ultimately he never compromised on his vision or what he was trying to do,” Levenson said of the late writer, who died suddenly just before Rent opened off Broadway. Tick, tick…BOOM! looks at a less successful show, Superbia, which ultimately never went anywhere after the workshop. “In that way, he was never a failure because he was always true to himself and true to what he was trying to do,” Levenson continued, “which I do think that is the worst sort of failure, if you're not true to yourself. Even if it goes well, that betrayal of your own vision, I think, is the only real failure.”

As a writer, Levenson identifies with Larson’s story and plight in the film, and he’s definitely experienced his share of closed doors early on in his career. He was also able to use his experience mounting plays and musicals, like Dear Evan Hansen, putting together this movie, as Miranda organized a series of workshops with the script where the team could rehearse.

“I was bringing in new pages and making changes. It was like making a musical, it was so fun,” Levenson said.”

Levenson spoke with New York Theatre Guide about writing the film, Larson’s legacy, and why we need different types of musicals onscreen.

What was your connection to the show before working on the film?

I did a tiny production of it back in my acting days; two friends and I put on this little production of it. I don't even remember why; I think just for fun, like in the upstairs space of one of the student theatres for like three nights. So, I knew the show very well. And obviously, like as with anyone of a certain age, Rent was transformative for me and was the thing that really sealed the deal for me in falling in love with theatre.

Lin-Manuel Miranda also performed in tick, tick…BOOM! in 2014 at City Center in New York. Do you think your mutual experience of being in the show helped shape your collaboration on this?

For sure. I've discovered as a writer and working with other writers who began as actors, you understand things from a different perspective and you understand how a show works, I think better than anyone, if you've been in it. And certainly, with Lin, that was always our joke like, we'd both been in tick, tick…BOOM!

Did you both play Jon?

No, I played Michael, so mine was a little lower-stakes than that.

As a writer, do you identify with Jonathan’s story in the show?

The thing I've always loved about this story in particular is that it is ultimately the story of a failure. It’s not the story of overcoming the odds and beating adversity and achieving your dream, which so many artist stories are. But 99 percent of one's life as an artist is not like that. It's really the story of what it is to put everything you have into an idea — to give it all the talent, all the time that you can manage, and it still doesn't work. And to me, that's the thing that makes it so unique and so personal. I feel, as a writer, as an artist of any kind, it's something you have to learn to deal with, when it just doesn't work out.

And what do you do next? And that's really the question at the end of the film is what do you do out of that? And what John did out of that obviously was tick, tick…BOOM!, and then Rent.

Yes, Jonathan Larson has an astounding legacy, made even more revered by his untimely passing. How much research into Larson’s early work, life, and family did you do as you were working on this?

We did a lot. We went to the Library of Congress, and we just made copies of all the drafts of tick, tick…BOOM! and Boho Days, which it was sometimes called, and Superbia. And then a lot of the work was getting to talk to — and I say “work” loosely, because it was really a joy — his friends and collaborators, his sister, Julie, and really trying to get a holistic sense of who he was. The show went through different incarnations and different versions, and when he performed it and some of them are more autobiographical than others.

And we decided to just make it what we thought it was, which was his story as told by him, which is not to say that it's true exactly. It is his version of it. It’s sort of like he has gotten frozen in time a bit, mostly because of the tragedy of his death. And he's kind of this saintly canonized figure, and it was important to us to make him fully human again and to show him, the way he showed himself, which was with flaws and struggles and trying to figure it out like everybody else. He was the “savior of musical theatre”— that came later and was a title that was given to him, not one that he put on himself.

Tick, tick…BOOM! has an unconventional structure for a musical; it’s not linear. How much of that did you want to retain for the film?

Lin really loved the idea of going back to that original rock monologue and really centering the film around that monologue. So, the movie is framed with Jon’s performance of tick, tick…BOOM! With musicals on film, you always have to think about how you're using music and how you're getting into the singing, because it's not something that audiences just take for granted. And so, for us, the singing, basically it comes out of the concert as he's performing it, but then we go into his life. We see the things he's talking about, we see the reality of it, but those moments are infused with song because they're part of his imagination. So the whole thing is really through his point of view.

We’re living through a musical theatre film renaissance, and the pandemic has only expanded the accessibility of films onscreen. How do you hope tick, tick..BOOM! on Netflix helps introduce audiences to more types of musical theatre?

I'm hoping that people can see that musicals come in different shapes and sizes. Because I think there can be a really monolithic view of what a musical is, and people love musicals or they hate musicals. And I'm hoping that what we can see is that there's a world where In The Heights can exist and tick, tick…BOOM! can exist as movie musicals. I want a world where both of those can be valid, exciting musicals, and people can see that there are different kinds of musicals, just like there are different kinds of films. And if you don't like one of them, you might still like another.