Steven Levenson interview: ‘tick, tick… Boom!’ writer

Screenwriter Steven Levenson’s process of adapting Jonathan Larson’s musical “tick, tick… Boom!” for the Netflix film of the same name began with the question, “Which of these scripts is going to be our basis?” The late composer had performed the piece as a solo rock monologue “a few times, and each time with a different script,” Levenson recalls, so he had to pour over the five versions available in Larson’s archive to create “an amalgam.” The final product is the screenplay for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film directorial debut, which stars Andrew Garfield as the composer most famously known for writing the book and score for “Rent.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.

Larson’s archive, which is housed at the Library of Congress, proved essential to Levenson’s work. He and Miranda traced the evolution of the “tick, tick… Boom!” solo show to see what songs were included and excised in each draft and to decide which to restore for their film adaptation. The musical sequence “Swimming,” for example, did not appear in each version of Larson’s show, but he shares that it “felt so cinematic to us, so perfect for this film.” Levenson’s screenplay stays true to the scope of the source material, as both the play and film unfold over the course of a week in Larson’s life as he prepares for a public presentation of his first musical “Superbia” while stressing over his upcoming thirtieth birthday. His task was to turn “a 45-minute solo show into a feature film,” to “fill that in and make it feel full and rich” while still remaining “faithful to this idea of the solo show.”

WATCH Lin-Manuel Miranda (‘tick, tick… Boom!’ director): Jonathan Larson’s musical ‘a sneak preview of what my twenties would look like as a struggling songwriter’

Levenson rounded out his source material by delving into the historical context of the period in which “tick, tick… Boom!” is set, emphasizing how the AIDS epidemic “hovered over all of Jon’s work.” He similarly set out to reflect “all of the dimensions of his life.” “The fun part of this story was trying to get as much of his story into this week. How much can we cram into this one week in every possible place?,” Levenson recalls asking himself and the team. What they did manage to get into the film gracefully is over a dozen of Larson’s songs from both “tick, tick… Boom!’ and his unproduced “Superbia” even though he thought he could only make room for seven. Miranda persuaded him otherwise.

Levenson won a Tony Award in 2017 for his libretto for the musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” Even though both projects required Levenson to build a script around songs, the experiences felt vastly different. He addresses the challenge of the “tick, tick… Boom!” score in that “our composer is no longer with us,” which was “a constraint, but also sort of freeing to have that constraint” because “you have to take what you have and make it work.” Additionally, Levenson explains how the cinema requires the traditional stage musical be made “visually dynamic and interesting.” “In a movie musical, every element has to be musical,” he shares, adding, “The costumes are musical, the cinematography is certainly musical, the editing is absolutely musical, everything has to have a rhythm to it and a musicality.”

WATCH Andrew Garfield (‘tick, tick… Boom!’): Playing Jonathan Larson felt like ‘being introduced to an old brother that I didn’t know existed’

To pen such an intimate movie musical about Larson, Levenson had to master writing in Larson’s voice. In addition to Larson’s papers, he had access to a “grainy VHS video” of Larson performing “tick, tick… Boom!” when it was titled “Boho Days.” “Seeing Jon perform you hear his voice so clearly at least as an actor, certainly as a writer,” Levenson notes. The team also spoke with many of Larson’s friends – Jonathan’s sister Julie Larson is also an executive producer on the project – so Levenson felt he had a good sense of him. He describes Larson as “amazingly driven and amazingly passion and also sort of furious that his work wasn’t getting done the way he felt it deserved to be.” He also cites Larson’s “sense of extravagance” as the key that unlocked his understanding of the composer’s personality.

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UPLOADED Dec 20, 2021 1:29 pm