The “tick, tick … BOOM!” Research at the Library

Three people standing in the Performing Arts reading room, looking at a display of sheet music on a table in front of them.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (from left), Steven Levenson and Jennifer Tepper view musical theater holdings in the Performing Arts Reading Room in October 2017. Photo: Roswell Encina.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda visited the Library on Oct. 10, 2017, not many people knew about it. Clad in jeans and sweatshirt, the celebrated “Hamilton” creator quietly made his way to the Performing Arts Reading Room.

There, with two companions, he began sifting through the papers of theater composer Jonathan Larson. The trio was on a mission to bring one of Larson’s works to cinematic life.

The result became public in November, when Netflix released Miranda’s directorial debut, “tick, tick … BOOM!” The film expands on a semiautobiographical one-man show Larson wrote before his breakthrough musical, “Rent,” took Broadway by storm.

Larson conceived “tick, tick” (with a different title) in 1990 when he was about to turn 30, anxious his career was going nowhere after a decade of devotion. The film tells a similar story about a theater composer, Jonathan, wondering if he should give up his Broadway dream for a different life.

Tragically, Larson died suddenly in 1996 just before the first scheduled performance of “Rent.” Several years later, his family donated his papers to the Library.

When Miranda came to the Library in 2017, his companions were “tick, tick” scriptwriter Steven Levenson of “Dear Evan Hansen” fame and theater historian Jennifer Tepper. She had used Larson’s papers extensively and guided Miranda and Levenson to gems within them. [https://go.usa.gov/xeVAZ]

“What’s particularly exciting to us … is how much of what they discovered in the Larson collection ended up being added to the film,” Mark Horowitz, senior music specialist, said. “This is the fantasy for us archivists — that because we acquired … a collection, previously unknown, lost or forgotten work has had life breathed into it.”

There really is no definitive “tick, tick” script, Horowitz said. Larson’s papers contain various iterations and drafts. After he died, playwright David Auburn adapted “tick, tick” into a three-person off-Broadway musical. That’s when Miranda first encountered it.

Already an aspiring composer, he saw the musical in a small New York theater in 2001 when he was a college senior, he’s said. Then, in 2014, before “Hamilton” made him a household name, Miranda played Jonathan in a “tick, tick” revival. His performance, wrote the New York Times, “throbs with a sense of bone-deep identification.”

The movie version of “tick, tick” adds details about Larson that aren’t in his script and draws on his collection at the Library, including original songs that haven’t previously had a public audience.

A song from the collection, “Swimming,” became a major number in the film, Horowitz said, and a dance scene unfolds to a piece of original music by Larson. In a car scene, Larson’s music plays on the radio.

“It’s thrilling to us,” Horowitz said of the movie’s interpolation of Larson’s music. “You get collections because you hope they’ll be used and appreciated, but there are no guarantees.”

Larson’s collection is among Horowitz’s favorites. “I’ve actually never seen a collection quite like it,” he said.

Larson wrote notes and questions to himself that he would try to answer, Horowitz said. And for “Rent,” he wrote biographies of major characters more than once as the show changed.

“It’s just really rich, incredible stuff,” Horowitz said.

He acquired the collection for the Library and processed it, an experience he described as approaching otherworldly.

“It’s happened to me on a handful of collections,” he said. “You begin to feel the ghost of the creator standing over your shoulder. They become a presence … and you want to honor them.”

Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox

One Comment

  1. Paula
    December 17, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Very insightful and fun to see the behind the scenes on the movie recently viewed. Thx for sharing.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.