Day 6

Late Rent creator would be touched by Lin-Manuel Miranda's revival of Tick, Tick... Boom, says friend

Twenty-five years after his death, Broadway composer Jonathan Larson's legacy lives on in the film adaptation of his 1990 musical, Tick, Tick… Boom. Larson is perhaps best known for creating the hit musical Rent, which became a worldwide phenomenon.

Story of Jonathan Larson, known for the musical Rent, immortalized in new Netflix film

Jonathan Larson, right, and Victoria Leacock met as drama students at Adelphi University in New York. (Submitted by Victoria Leacock Hoffman)

Originally published Nov. 12, 2021.

Twenty-five years after his death, Broadway composer Jonathan Larson's legacy lives on in the film adaptation of his 1990 musical, Tick, Tick… Boom.

The film, which premiered Friday in theatres and begins streaming on Netflix on Nov. 19, is a semi-autobiographical take on Larson's life as an artist in the early 1990s. Larson is perhaps best known for creating the hit musical Rent, which became a worldwide phenomenon.

In Tick, Tick… Boom, Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) is approaching his 30th birthday and is forced to confront whether he should give up his dream of working in the performing arts. 

"Maybe it's 90 per cent Jonathan and not 120 per cent. I imbue so much of Jon's work with him himself, but it's very much what he went through," said long-time friend and producer Victoria Leacock Hoffman.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jonathan Larson in the film adaptation of the musical, Tick, Tick... Boom. (Macall Polay/Netflix)

Larson died unexpectedly on Jan. 25, 1996 — the same day that Rent marked its first off-Broadway performance — from an aortic dissection, or tear in the aorta, the body's largest artery.

But thanks to Leacock Hoffman, a part of him makes its debut on screen.

"Since Jon passed, [I] had a shirt of his hanging in my closet, and I knew it was time to share it and to give it to Andrew [Garfield] to carry something of Jon's forward," she told Day 6 host Peter Armstrong.

Not just a 'minor early work'

Leacock Hoffman first met Larson during rehearsals for a production of Godspell, a musical based on biblical parables, at Adelphi University in New York where the two were students. 

The production was circus themed and Larson, playing Christ, was suspended from gymnast rings. Larson was well-known for his stage presence, but "a gymnast he was not," she said.

"I just knew that he was going to be my first love," she recalled. "We had the sweetest romance the first half of that year and then after arguing about a movie or something in January, we just became close friends."

Leacock Hoffman would go on to produce many of Larson's works, including the first off-Broadway production of Tick, Tick… Boom in 2001.

Larson, right, began writing the musical Tick, Tick... Boom in 1990 after temporarily shelving his work on Rent. (Submitted by Victoria Leacock Hoffman)

Though that show often lives in the shadow of Rent, Leacock Hoffman says the composer actually began writing the latter in 1989 before starting Tick, Tick… Boom

"Tick was created and written in the middle of Rent, so it's really the same artistic development period," she said. "It's not like a minor early work. It's its own wonderful creation."

Larson shelved his work on Rent following a creative difference with his collaborator at the time. It was the AIDS crisis of the early '90s that spurred his desire to return to what would become a renowned rock opera. 

Three of Larson and Leacock Hoffman's mutual friends had just been diagnosed with the disease. HIV was, at the time, considered a death sentence. Three of the characters in the musical, who share their experiences of living with AIDS, are named after those friends.

"When they were diagnosed, I feel like the palate and the story of Tick was no longer big enough to fully express and deal with the crisis at hand," said Leacock Hoffman.

WATCH | CBC's Eli Glasner reviews Tick, Tick... Boom

Tick, Tick… Boom embraces the messiness of musical creation

2 years ago
Duration 6:14
The Netflix musical Tick, Tick… Boom stars Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, the composer of Rent, and the creative crisis he went through earlier in his career. It is the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda inspired by Larson

Tick, Tick… Boom marks the directorial feature film debut for Broadway star and Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his return to the show after a starring turn in the 2014 off-Broadway revival that ran for three nights.

And Miranda has long been inspired by Larson's work, Leacock Hoffman says.

"His girlfriend had gotten him back-row tickets [to Rent] on Broadway," she said. "And that was the show that made him realize that you could write contemporary musical theatre and have it mean everything and have it be really relevant." 

Larson died at age 35 before his musical Rent premiered on Broadway. Rent would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon. A film adaptation of the picture of 1990s New York City was released in 2005. (Submitted by Victoria Leacock Hoffman)

When Tick made its off-Broadway debut, she says Miranda saw the show four to five times.

Speaking to Vogue, Miranda said, "Here's a show by my hero, and he's telling me two things at once: It's harder than you think it's going to be, your peers are all going to go get real jobs, and you're going to be the only one knocking your head against the wall of this childhood dream."

"But, if you love what you do, it is worth it. And God, I love sitting down and writing a song. It makes me feel so alive."

Miranda, left, pictured with Leacock Hoffman at the premiere of Tick, Tick... Boom. (Submitted by Victoria Leacock Hoffman)

As Miranda carries on Larson's legacy with the latest film adaptation, Leacock Hoffman says Larson — who was so inspired by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Billy Joel — would be touched.

"That he's an artistic father to the next generation, and that because he wasn't able to live and have his children and father them — to me, these are his children."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Sameer Chhabra.