Even if you’re not a fan of Broadway musicals or don’t know much about New York theater, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the new Netflix film, tick, tick… BOOM! — primarily Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance (read our recommendation for more on that). But understanding its origins and references helps to appreciate it on a whole other level. So in case you’re wondering why theater fans are geeking out about this one, here’s a handy explainer that should help clear up any confusion.
Is it a true story?
Yes. Well, sort of. It’s complicated.
Jonathan Larson (whom Garfield portrays in the film) was a real person who wrote musicals with big aspirations to have his work produced on Broadway. Starting in his early 20s, he spent eight years writing a show called Superbia (a loosely adapted version of George Orwell’s 1984), but couldn’t get anyone to produce it. Larson took that experience and wrote about it for another show called Tick, Tick… BOOM!, a “rock monologue” in which he performed new songs in a concert format — in between telling the story of writing Superbia and putting on a workshop for it.
This new version of tick, tick… BOOM! is basically a screen adaptation of Larson’s autobiographical show, with the background story filled in visually through flashbacks.
So what happened to Jonathan Larson?
Though it’s only touched upon briefly in the film, Larson did ultimately have a lasting impact on the world of musical theater with his revolutionary smash hit RENT. Unfortunately, he suffered a sudden aneurysm on the day of the first preview performance and never got to see what a phenomenal success his final work would become, or the tremendous influence it would have on a new generation of artists, including Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who directed tick, tick… BOOM!
Is the Moondance Diner a real place?
It was, but it closed in 2007. Larson actually worked as a waiter there to support himself (barely) while he worked on his music. Besides Larson, a number of other aspiring actors and creators did their time at the Moondance before making it big, including Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order, The Flash), who met Larson there and would go on to be an original Broadway cast member in RENT. Before its closure the diner’s iconic exterior appeared in a number of films and TV shows, including Spider-Man (the 2002 Sam Raimi version), Friends, and Sex and the City.
Who are all those cameo performers in tick tick …Boom!
Lin-Manuel took the opportunity to stage the number “Sunday”—inspired by another song called “Sunday” from the musical Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim—inside the Moondance Diner and fill it with wall-to-wall Broadway stars, past and present. Some are more recognizable than others, but there are so many that even die-hard Broadway fans might not catch them all the first time through. It would take a whole separate article to list every person and their credits (and if that’s what you’re looking for, a quick Google search will bring up several pieces that do just that) but these three folks are worth a special mention:
They are (left to right) Adam Pascal, Daphne Ruben-Vega, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, all from the original Broadway cast of RENT.
Also, be on the lookout for Lin-Manuel himself in a Hitchcock-esque cameo as a line cook, along with a couple of cast members from Hamilton striking a familiar pose. One other notable inclusion in the scene: Bernadette Peters, whose legendary stage career includes a starring role in Sunday in the Park with George. You can see Larson watching her on TV in a scene from that show earlier in the film, one of many nods to the influence Sondheim had on his work.
Another scene that’s less obviously loaded with insiders is an earlier one where Larson is attending a writers’ workshop and gets feedback from Sondheim himself (portrayed in the film by Bradley Whitford). Among the attendees looking on with interest are some of the most celebrated artists the Great White Way has ever seen. Some of the shows they’ve contributed to include Wicked, Hairspray, Aladdin, The Prom, Dear Evan Hansen, In the Heights, and many more you’ve probably heard of.
Why doesn’t Sondheim sound like Bradley Whitford on Jonathan Larson’s answering machine?
That’s because it’s Sondheim himself on that recording. The legendary composer actually did leave a message for Larson congratulating him after the Superbia workshop—and Larson wrote that moment into Tick, Tick… BOOM!. But after hearing the message in the film, Sondheim said it didn’t sound like something he’d say and offered to record it again himself. What you hear in the film is his reenactment of the real message he left for Larson all those years ago.
What other questions did you have about the film, either before or after watching it? Let us know in the comments and maybe we’ll address them too.