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How Lin-Manuel Miranda Pulled Off the Most Thrilling Cameo in Tick, Tick…Boom!

Tick, Tick…Boom! has a bit of pretzel logic built into its core—it’s an adaptation of a stage show by Jonathan Larson that is also a deeply affectionate tribute to Larson, a mostly true biopic about Larson, and an origin story for the Larson who would eventually burst onto the Broadway scene with Rent. On top of all that, the original show that Larson wrote was deeply inspired by Stephen Sondheim, who appeared in the stage show as a cheekily faux-anonymous character called “St—– S——-” and is played in the film version by Bradley Whitford. 

The real Sondheim, however, has a role to play in the movie too—both behind the scenes and in a very tiny cameo. “I was in touch with Stephen Sondheim at every stage of this, cause so much of Tick, Tick…Boom! is a love letter to Sondheim, the way this movie is my love letter to Jonathan Larson—with links in a chain in that regard,” says director Lin-Manuel Miranda on this week’s Little Gold Men podcast. “I showed him drafts of the script and the final, kind of amazing thing was I finally got up the courage to send him a screener of the film. He was gracious about his portrayal in the movie, but he said, ‘I have one note, which is the final voicemail message to Jon—that line, ‘I think you’re going to have a very bright future,’ sounds very cliché. I don’t think I would ever really say that to another artist. Can I rewrite it?’”

There are other rewrites in Tick, Tick…Boom!, but it’s primarily the work of Larson himself, with Miranda setting aside his own talents for songwriting to focus on directing for the first time. 

Listen to more of Miranda’s conversation with Hillary Busis on Little Gold Men above, and find an abbreviated transcript of the interview below. 


Vanity Fair: I’ve read some interviews where you spoke about your history with Rent and with the work of Jonathan Larson. You wrote your first musical after you saw Rent when you were a teenager?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah. I started writing In the Heights about two years after I saw Rent and, you know, the themes do rhyme [laughs].  I saw this musical about this community fighting gentrification, using contemporary music to tell the story, and that’s exactly what I tried to do with my community in upper Manhattan with, In the Heights, it was a one-to-one ratio of inspiration.

Then you saw a Tick, Tick…Boom! a few years later when that was off-Broadway. Tell me about how that also influenced the first time you saw it.

Jonathan Larson has inspired me to try to write musicals. And now I’m a senior at Wesleyan University, and I’m studying theater and here’s this off-Broadway posthumous production of Tick, Tick…Boom! starting the brilliant Raul Esparza, channeling Jonathan Larson in his own way. And the whole show was a sneak preview of what my 20s were gonna be. It felt like a direct message to me in the 10th row of the audience being like: Hey, Lin, this is gonna be harder than you think. And that very pretty girl sitting next to you is not gonna go into acting. She’s gonna get a real job. And your friends who are all studying theater or film are gonna grow up and find other roads to happiness that are not this thing. And you’re gonna be the only one banging your head against the wall of this childhood dream.

And the world is gonna tell, you know, over and over and over again, do you really want to do this, knowing that the world will probably not notice what you’re making in your lifetime? And my answer to that was yes, and it strengthened my resolve. But it asked all the questions that I needed to ask of myself [laughs] at that moment in my life. And I saw it three times. I saw three times at the Jane Street Theater. And I even tried to, I fantasized about doing sort of an illegal production for my senior thesis [laughs]. You know, you can’t license the rights when the show’s just come out. But I really thought about going in there and taking notes.

Watching it, did you ever think, This would make a great movie? I mean, it is maybe not the most intuitive thing to turn into a movie.

No, it’s not. And, and you know, who really deserves the credit, for seeing that is, is Julie Oh. Julie Oh was someone I had met briefly, in the time when Heights was being shopped around from studio to studio. I met her as a young executive then, and she came to me in 2016 and said, “I have the film rights to Tick, Tick…Boom! And I have the blessing of Julie Larson and the Larson estate.” And as soon as I got that email, two things happened at the same time. One, I realized Jonathan performing this as a rock monologue with a rock band could be the frame that that told the whole story.

And two, I replied faster than I’ve ever replied to an email in my life. I said, I’m the only person who can direct this movie [laughs]. I’ve never directed a movie, but if I know anything, it’s, it’s what it feels like to try to get a show on in your 20s, what it feels like to have the weight of your own expectations and a show in your head and the gulf between the musical only you can hear and the things that need to go right for anyone else to hear it. I understood that pressure. I’ll always be grateful for her to foreseeing that. Because as soon as she saw it, she showed it to me and I saw it.

And was this after you had performed in Tick, Tick…Boom! itself onstage?

Yeah, I performed in Tick, Tick…Boom! in 2014. And it really is in hindsight was a crossroads in my career. It’s about a musical songwriter at a crossroads. And at that moment, it was a few months before we’d start rehearsals on Hamilton. So I was super pregnant with Hamilton. My wife was super pregnant with our first child, who would be born two weeks before rehearsals started for Hamilton. And I was performing the show with two collaborators from my past and my future: Karen Olivo, who was my colead in In The Heights, and Leslie Odom Jr., who was my future colead in Hamilton. So it really, in hindsight, it’s like this crazy midpoint, in my career where I’m, I’m between the, the past and the present.

And that does mirror the way that Jonathan is in-between: giving up on Superbia, which he’s been working on for eight years, and then he finally realizes it’s not gonna go anywhere and then starts working on Rent.

Right. A hundred percent. And the other thing that I took away from that production more than the production itself—which was directed by Oliver Butler and was a really just joyous experience, and I’m forever grateful to Jeanine Tesori, who curates Encores Off-Center for believing I could do it—was going from backstage to the postshow reception and meeting all the real figures in Jonathan’s life. It was like the last scene in Big Fish for me. It was like, hello, I’m Matt. I was Jonathan’s best friend. Hello, I was Jonathan’s girlfriend. Meeting all of his best friends, seeing his family—both his parents were still alive then. Allan and Nan Larson were there, and you realized very powerfully, Tick, Tick…Boom! is less complicated for the survivors of Jonathan Larson. Whenever Tick, Tick…Boom! is being performed, Jonathan is back, and he’s singing about them, and he’s singing about his loved ones and his community. And it was such a wonderful place to be.

And I knew that if we got to make this movie, I could lean on the resources of those people for whom keeping Jonathan’s memory alive is so important. And I got a really well-rounded picture from that. I sat down with everyone who was at that party in 2014. I sat down with Roger Bart, because if you watch any footage of Jonathan Larson performing Boho Days, his original rock monologue, you can see Roger Bart sitting in the back singing high harmonies. They were really close in the ’80s; they were both starving artists and waiters together. They’d feed each other in their respective shifts.

One of the things he gave me was, I think, one of the most important insights into Jonathan, which was Jonathan could be impatient and he could be frustrating and he could be self-obsessed with his work. But when he was in a rehearsal room and he was teaching his songs to fellow actors, he was like light and happy and free. He said it was like watching a fish reentered into the water. It was like, oh, that’s what Jonathan was put on this earth to do. And as long as he was doing that, he was in his happy place. And it was everything else was a struggle to get to that happy place. And that was a key insight for us in both the development of the screenplay and in my interactions with Andrew as he was embodying Jonathan.

When you and Steven Levinson were working on the script, was there anything that you learned about Jonathan—going through his archives or talking to his loved ones—that surprised you?

The thing that I hope comes through in the movies is utter resilience. We read rejection letters from every major theater-making body in New York and abroad. We read his recommendation letter from Stephen Sondheim. We clicked on a file called Jingles, and found jingles he wrote for CNN, Lucky Charms, Irish Spring  [laughs]. None of these were produced. He was not paid for any of them, but there was a time when he was trying to pay the rent doing that. And actually, there’s a scene in the movie where Michael and Jon are driving in the car, and his fake CNN music is playing out of the radio.

But yeah, I mean, honestly, what we wanted to do was paint as complete a picture as possible, because Jonathan in writing this was attempting to create a self-portrait of the artist as a young man. And our job was to round out that picture, because when you’re putting this on a film, it’s not just Jonathan embodying those characters for us, or the three-person cast of the off-Broadway version. We have a chance to meet Rosa Stevens. We have a chance to meet Stephen Sondheim. We have a chance to meet Jon’s parents. And our job is to paint a fuller picture than perhaps even Jonathan painted. And so to that end, we really talked to the, those figures in his life.

And you know, it was important for me to find balance in those because Jonathan is a very unreliable narrator [laughs] when he is performing this show. But I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with choosing to be a dancer that doesn’t necessarily dance in New York.

Yeah, I feel like the show from Susan’s perspective is maybe like, “I have this boyfriend who just cannot get his, like his shit together.” 

Yeah. A hundred percent. And you know, there was a lot of opportunity to flesh that out—because if his girlfriend’s a dancer, which she was, dancers hear the ticking of a clock way louder than anybody else. They are entrusted with their own bodies as an instrument. And when that starts to go and when injuries start to pile up, they die twice. And so really kind of leaning into that, and leaning into, you know, an artist can be an artist wherever they are in the world.

That’s Jonathan’s shit, that he needs to be in New York. And then the same is true of Michael. I think that sometimes in the casting of productions of Tick, Tick…Boom! I’ve seen, they always sort of cast someone who looks totally at home in the business world. It’s always sort of like a Benny from Rent type.

Wearing a suit, yeah.

Whereas I think, when you get Robin as Michael, you get, oh, that guy was definitely an artist. The guy is definitely an actor. It comes off him in waves. But he is someone who can bring his creative life to his work, and has health insurance  [laughs]. And isn’t living hand to mouth, and there’s nothing wrong with making those choices for your own safety and your own sanity. And so again, making these as a more plausible roads that Jonathan could go down and find happiness, if you so chose, were it not for the calling that is, that is somewhere inside him, and the ticking that is somewhere inside him.

So Jonathan has this very kind of black and white worldview, where you’re an artist or a sellout. But the movie, you don’t think, is really taking that point of view.

No, I think we wanted to provide opposing viewpoints, because a movie has more room for that. You know, when Michael says like, “Why can’t I have those things? Like, look at the world we’re living in.” He’s not wrong. And we want it to get out of the, the binary of, there’s artists and there’s everyone else. Because you know, there’s lots of different roads to happiness in this life. And most of us don’t get to do what we love for living. But I think a greater lesson of this is if you can find space for the thing you love, you will live a good life.

I know that there’s another timeline where no one produces In the Heights and I am an English teacher at Hunter College High School. And hopefully I’m inspiring lots of kids, but I know I’m writing songs at the end of the day because I would be doing that if no one was watching. I was doing that when no one was watching. And so that’s sort of the clarifying journey that, that Jonathan goes on.

I obviously have to ask you about Andrew Garfield. He’s so amazing in this role. Besides his amazing Jonathan Larson hair, what was it that made you believe that he was the only person for this part?

Yeah, he didn’t have that hair when I met him. I saw him in Angels in America, which, by the way, is also set around the same time as Tick, Tick…Boom! It’s set amidst the plague of the AIDS crisis. Andrew Garfield is playing Prior in an eight-hour show in two parts, and he’s giving everything. And literally the endurance test on the body and on the voice, I just felt like that guy can do anything

Even though he hadn’t sung before.

Even though he hadn’t sung before, I felt like if he wants to, he can learn that. And so I finagled my way into a sushi lunch with him. And when I asked him about singing, he said, “it’s something I have never done. And I’m terrified to do, but have always wanted to explore.” And then I knew we were fine, because [laughs] Andrew Garfield does whatever he needs to do to embody whatever character he’s playing. I think if there’s any through line in his work from stage and screen, it’s him becoming whoever he needs to become.

So my job was to give him the time and the resources to do that. I knew Liz Caplan was like the great voice guru in New York, and doesn’t worry about teaching you how to “sing,” quote, unquote. She sort of finds whatever is blocking you from singing to your fullest and like, gets that out of the way. And that’s what Andrew needed. Someone said something wrong to him about his singing too early, and like shut off that spout. And we needed to break that down and open it back up, and get the rust out of the pipes and get him going.

And it was such an amazing journey over the past like, year and a half where we would just do readings to kind of continue updating the script. I worked on this like I was working on a musical, like any musical I would write. And I just got actors around a piano. We’d spend a week learning songs, and then we’d read the whole thing through. And at every one of those Andrew, sang a little more. I think at the first one, he just sang “Boho Days” because it was a cappella and less terrifying  [laughs]. And watched him grow until he was, you know, fearlessly, pounding away at a piano and singing at the top of his lungs by the time cameras are ready to roll.

I wanted to ask you also about a specific scene in the movie. This going to air after the movie’s been out for a week, and in theaters for a little bit longer. So I wanted to see if you could tell us a little bit about filming the “Sunday” sequence, which is this incredible collection of Broadway performers, legends and newer talents. How did that come together?

Again, every musical number here’s a lesson. I always believe in, like, what did you learn from the last thing you worked on, and what do you bring that to the next one? And the lesson I learned on writing Hamilton was that yes, the musical theater truism of the opening number establishing the rules of the world is important. You have to tell the audience how to experience this show, and how does singing work and, and what are we watching?

But I also learned on Hamilton that every number is an opportunity to renegotiate that relationship and crack it open a little more and bend the rules here. And, you know, “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” I was like, “Okay, we reserve the right to play with time and rewind a moment if we need to to tell you this story.” With “10 Duel Commandments,” it was like, all right, I know this seems super weird, but this was actually super common in the era in which this show is set. And here’s how it worked. It was highly, ritualized, and establishing all those rules with every song and pushing on those rules so that by the time we get to the end of the show, we can literally stop time. And we don’t have to explain dueling.

It’s world building, yeah.

Yeah. Every song has an opportunity to world build. And I brought that into Tick, Tick. And what I knew about “Sunday” was that it’s his love letter to Stephen Sondheim and the creative process. And, you know, the original “Sunday” in Sunday in the Park With George is this frenzy and cacophony of all the characters onstage, and Georges freezes it. And in that moment, he assembles everyone into the tableau, which is his masterpiece. Jonathan only ever sang this alone at a piano with a rock band. And I have the opportunity as a filmmaker to fill that out as a choir, every bit as loud as the one at the end of act one of Sunday in the Park With George. So what is Jonathan Larson’s dream choir? Because this is Jonathan Larson’s fantasy very openly.

And so I reached out to the figures that played an enormous role in Jonathan’s creative life and Sondheim alums and other incredible theater alums that, you know, we are the sort of legends that we’re lucky enough to continue to create alongside.

And you got a cameo from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Well, that was last minute [laughs]. I only jumped in because the person I had in that role backed out because of COVID. And I was already quarantined, so I was like, let me play it. We got to keep moving.

But I’m not in the number proper, because I never intended to be. But I also, as the kids say, I wanted Jonathan to have this like, galaxy brain moment where he can kind of corral singers from the past, present and future. So there are future Rent collaborators that he hasn’t met yet, but they get to be in this number because he’s having this transcendent galaxy brain moment. There’s Beth Malone, who created the role of Big Al in Fun Home, which I believe is one of the great musicals of the modern era. There’s two out of my three Schuyler sisters. And let’s just make this theater-legend chorus so loud that Jonathan can hear it wherever he is.

And then the final touch was hiring Michael Starobin, who was the orchestrator on the original Sunday in the Park With George, to orchestrate this number. And so again, like every detail was, what would Jonathan Larson’s dream moment of this be?

Yeah, the moment where Bernadette Peters shows up feels like a real—

Well, that’s the Prestige.

Everybody has to kind of stop.

Yeah. You start by asking Bernadette, and you work backwards from there [laughs].

I’m glad that you mentioned Sondheim, because Bradley Whitford’s Sondheim is so uncanny—the way that he holds his face. Did the actual Stephen Sondheim give you his blessing for that casting?

I was in touch with Stephen Sondheim at every stage of this, cause so much of Tick, Tick…Boom! is a love letter to Sondheim the way this movie is my love letter to Jonathan Larson—with links in a chain in that regard. And we’re so lucky that Sondheim is still around and creating new work at age 91. I showed him drafts of the script and the final, kind of amazing thing was I finally got up the courage to send him a screener of the film. He was gracious about his portrayal [laughs] in the movie, but he said, “I have one note, which is the final voicemail message to Jon—that line, ‘I think you’re going to have a very bright future,’ sounds very cliché. I don’t think I would ever really say that to another artist. Can I rewrite it? And I’ll record the voice if you can’t get the actor back.” And I was like [jokingly] whoa, a rewrite from Sondheim? Gosh, I don’t know. And I said, “Yes, of course.”

And so Sondheim wrote his own final message to Jon—which is poignant on several levels—and then sent me a voice memo, and that’s what’s in the movie.

As a lyricist and a composer yourself, did you ever feel like you wanted to make any tweaks to any of Jonathan’s songs?

No. There were cuts I made, certainly just for time and for clarity, given the new context some of these songs took on. So there’s internal cuts inside of “Swimming”; there’s references to blue eyes and blonde hair, and we did not have a white actress playing Susan. So I changed those lyrics. And there’s internal cuts in “Boho Days” because we recontextualize that song as an impromptu number to kind of save a dying party. And so I wanted him to be kind of seeing the items he’s singing about on the fly. And so we kind of kept it to those things in the apartment.

But yeah, other than cuts, it’s all Jonathan’s work, and it’s even Jonathan Larson’s score. We had the opportunity to dive into his archives, and at every opportunity we kind of used music Jonathan Larson had written to sort of create the landscape of this world according to Jonathan Larson, which was our thesis.

Yeah. And I love how many little Rent Easter eggs are also sprinkled throughout the movie. When I heard his answering machine’s messages is “Speak…”

Yeah. And he refers to Michael as Pookie the moment he walks into the apartment.

And he plays “One Song Glory” for a moment.

Yeah. That’s my favorite one, because it has canonical repercussions. Like, oh, if Susan hadn’t shown up at his apartment that day, would he have written “One Song Glory” [laughs] that night? It would be a piece of Superbia. So we kind of create a little like, Marvel What If… in that moment by having him get as far as the opening chords and get interrupted.

Oh, that’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Having made the movie now, how do you think that your feelings about Tick, Tick…Boom! have changed in the 20 years since you saw it for the first time?

They’ve only intensified. I think one of the journeys I went on in navigating and interrogating this material was—and the thing I think I love about it now on the other side of 40… Again, we’re making “30/90” when I am 40, in 2020.

Are you like, “calm down. You’ll be fine”? [laughs]

Not only “calm down, you’d be fine,” but also this is not the story of someone writing their masterpiece. This is the story of someone recovering from failure, and failure is what we experience the most as artists. Not always spending our twenties on a musical that no one will ever make—although sometimes it’s that—but how do you get back up, and how do you make the next thing? And I think that is universal, and that’s what Jonathan was processing. And he needed to write Tick, Tick…Boom! to process the loss of Superbia and clear his mind and his heart to create Rent.

Literally, the existing show is because Jonathan needed to make room for the next great thing. And I think that’s the lesson I tried to take into my life as I’m talking to you about Tick, Tick…Boom! I have another movie I’ve spent five years writing the score for, Encanto, that comes out the week after, because pandemic shifted everything to the same time. And next year, I have an empty desk for the first time in six years. And what am I gonna make? And when I am staring at that empty page, I have no plans. But I take inspiration from Jonathan in like, getting back up and making the next thing.

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