Andrew Garfield standing in front of a piano as Jonathan Larson in tick, tick...BOOM!

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! Movie Proves Having a Musical Fan Behind the Lens Works

He did an absolutely incredible job.

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Being a fan of musicals can be hard, not because we’re made fun of for our love of musicals (we are) but because, recently, the musical movie landscape has not been that great. From not our best musicals to bad adaptations, there are few musical movies in recent years that really worked for me. With the exception of Rocketman and In the Heights, I think the problem stems from people behind the lens who are, frankly, misunderstanding the significance of these musicals or what they are trying to say in the first place.

That leads me to tick, tick… BOOM!, a movie musical translated for the screen by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Steven Levenson, two men who clearly understand musical theatre and the importance of Jonathan Larson’s work. Larson, who is famous for his musical Rent that won him a Pulitzer Prize, reached fame later in life. While working on a musical called Superbia, based on George Orwell’s 1984, Larson turned 30 years old and was worried that he was running out of time to be the next great thing in musical theatre.

In a way, Larson was right. He’d go on to change the modern idea of musical theatre with Rent, and he’d be known for bringing rock music into the genre, but his next musical after Superbia was tick, tick… BOOM!—Larson’s response to his agent telling him to “write what he knows.” I went into the movie knowing a few songs from the show, but knowing Larson’s Rent more intimately. (I was in a production in college.)

I loved Rent, and I loved that what Larson would unintentionally give me as my favorite musicals on Broadway tend to lean more towards the rock side of things. But I was not emotionally prepared for the journey that tick, tick… BOOM! would take me on. Sobbing in a theatre to the point where my mask was actually wet with tears, the movie manages to bring a musical to life with nods to the videos of Larson that exist online, as well as connecting back to musical theatre as a whole (with wonderfully fun cameos for theatre lovers).

So why does this all work so well? Because there’s someone behind the lens who cares. I’m not saying that Tom Hooper doesn’t care about Les Misérables or Cats or that Michael Gracey fundamentally misunderstands musicals and how they should be told with The Greatest Showman. I’m saying that having someone telling this story with the care that Larson had in his own work makes this movie feel so lived in and special in a way that other (recent) movie musical adaptations have not.

The only other directors I can think of in recent years to get it have been Dexter Fletcher and Jon M. Chu, two men who understand the scope of a musical and the importance of their structure. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who made a name for himself in musical theatre first and foremost, clearly understands that and, in his directorial debut, shows that having a love for these stories and how they are told makes the movie that much better.

There’s a moment in this movie when Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson sings “Why” that truly felt like such a theatre kid/New York moment, and I don’t think it would have worked had it not been directed by someone who gets it. Larson is upset over learning something about a friend and is running through Central Park, and the minute he jumps a fence, I knew exactly where he ran to.

There is a theater that houses the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park each summer, a free theatre experience that brings us big stars and some of our favorite William Shakespeare shows. The theatre is called the Delacorte, and there is a weird magic about it despite sitting in bleacher seats outside and running the risk of being rained on or having to wear sunglasses when the show actually starts.

It’s beautiful and wonderful and so very New York and theatre specific, and so watching Garfield sing “Why” while surrounded by the empty seats of the Delacorte, pouring his heart out into the piano on the empty stage, just felt like I was seeing theatre magic before me.

Telling a story is one thing. Telling a story as a musical is another, and then adding the cinematic aspect of it can make or break it. I’m so happy that tick, tick… BOOM! was fantastic because it gives me hope for the future of the musical movie, one that I hope Miranda continues to dive into because I did not fully expect to sob throughout the nearly two-hour movie, and yet, that’s exactly what I did.

(image: Netflix)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.