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Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘There are lessons in chasing what scares you’

In his directorial debut tick, tick…BOOM! Lin-Manuel Miranda pays tribute to the legacies of Jonathan Larson and Stephen Sondheim while celebrating the spirit of creativity. He tells The Big Issue what you have to do to keep that fire burning.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was 17 when he first saw Jonathan Larson’s Rent and it changed his life. At 21 he saw Larson’s autobiographical musical tick, tick…BOOM! and it changed his life again. These shows proved it was possible for him to follow his dream and write his own musicals.

And that he did. In The Heights and Hamilton are the best musicals of the century. Since they sparked a revolution in popular culture, Miranda has starred in blockbuster movies and TV shows, composed the music for several Disney film – including extra tunes for the upcoming live action remake of The Little Mermaid.

For his directorial debut, it was only fitting that Miranda returned to the piece that inspired him so much.

Starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp and Robin de Jesús, tick, tick…BOOM! is a musical about nobody wanting to listen to your musicals.

Jonathan Larson would go on to write Broadway blockbuster Rent but through his 20s he was waiting for his moment, obsessed by the sense that as time kept ticking it was fast running out. And for Larson, it tragically did. He died aged 35 on the morning of Rent’s first public performance.

With the world currently turned upside down, The Big Issue spoke to Lin-Manuel Miranda over Zoom from New York about tick, tick…BOOM! being a celebration of creativity despite the odds…

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The Big Issue: tick, tick…BOOM! explores being creative in difficult times. We’ve had plenty of that recently, so do challenging circumstances stifle or encourage creativity?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Any time encourages creativity if you’re doing it right. I feel very grateful that I grew up with a mother that understood I was going into the arts come hell or high water. One of the things she said to me for as long as I can remember is, ‘You want to be an artist? It’s all grist for the mill.’

That was a way she would counsel me through difficult moments in my life – don’t turn your brain off in your most sorrowful moments, remember what it feels like. Because if you’re going to be an artist, there’s going to be a time where you’re going to need to pull from that experience to create what you’re making.

She also conned me into some chores I didn’t want to do like, ‘Take out the garbage, it’s all grist for the mill!’

I think that’s a very useful way to go through life. Everything you’re going through, if it’s all fair game for later use in your work as a writer or as a sculptor or as a musician, then it has not been in vain.

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The pandemic has paused large parts of the arts industry. But will it be made up for by what these circumstances will inspire?

I feel most for students who do not get the same university experience that I had, where you find fellow members of your tribe, collaborators who are interested in making the same things as you, or more talented colleagues that push you to want to be better. That’s hard to do over Zoom. So I really mourn that on behalf of a generation of artists starting out.

At the same time, the art they’re going to create… I haven’t even dreamed of yet because of the hardships the pandemic has placed on them and has placed on all of us. That’s kind of the deal.

Lin-Manuel Miranda directing Andrew Garfield in tick, tick…BOOM! Cr. MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021

I was looking at rent prices on Greenwich Street in the building Jonathan Larson used to live. It was coming up as $4,800. Is that per month?

Yeah, Jonathan Larson’s Village is gone.

So where are the Jonathan Larsons of today?

They’re living in Jersey, they’re living in the deep, not yet annexed portions of Brooklyn. They’re living in the Bronx. They’re living in my neighbourhood, in Washington Heights and Inwood. That’s where my apartment was, I lived on 212th Street and Broadway after university. The Village was already a dream by the time I graduated in 2002.

That was actually a fun challenge in terms of making tick, tick…BOOM! – we’re filming in a neighbourhood that doesn’t exist anymore. We had to recreate a part of the city that’s gone.

tick, tick is a show about nobody wanting to see his other show. What is the difference between writing when you’ve not had any success and writing after you’ve had the greatest success imaginable and you’ve got nothing left to prove? Does it make it more difficult to kind of find that well of inspiration within you?

No. I feel the same when I attack a blank piece of paper as I did when I was 18 years old and when I was 25. Song-writing doesn’t get easier. That blank page is just as blank. What you do have to wrestle with are the expectations on your work.

I know that Hamilton is the first line in my obituary no matter what I do for the rest of my life. That being said, you have to figure out how to flip that mindset into being freeing. OK, first line handled, what else can I make? As opposed to it being a burden ­– because you can’t bring that burden to the blank page. It doesn’t care about your burden. And my way of approaching it is really try to write things that scare the crap out of me or write things that I think I’m going to learn from.

Every project I’ve taken on in Hamilton‘s wake has been something that I want to learn more about. Whether that’s Colombian culture with Encanto, or writing songs with [The Little Mermaid composer] Alan Menken. I know I’m going to leave with three new tricks, ways to attack that piano that I didn’t have before working with him. So if you always approach it as a student, I think you can’t lose.

As a line in Louder Than Words asks: ‘Why should we blaze a trail when the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting?’

That’s another one of the amazing legacies Stephen Sondheim leaves in his incredible and immortal wake, he never repeated himself. From Company to Sweeney Todd to Pacific Overtures to Follies. The only thing those shows have in common is an incredible composer and a restless mind. There’s lessons in that, there’s lessons in chasing the thing that scares you.

Is Sondheim’s legacy not only his music but the music he helped others to create? He mentored Jonathan Larson and yourself. Do you feel responsibility to do the same to the next you?

It’s up to us now, isn’t it? I mean, I was talking to that guy two weeks ago so it’s still very fresh. I’m very grateful that tick, tick honours both the legacies and the work, which is immortal and will outlive us all.

John Marc Sherman, who is the actor who plays Ira Weitzman in our film, he’s a playwright in real life. And he met Steve when he was 17 years old, because he was the first winner of the Young Playwrights Festival, which was started by Stephen Sondheim to encourage young people to take up playwriting. Steve wrote John’s recommendation letter for Yale. It’s that level of involvement and that level of encouragement. And Steve’s gone and so it’s on us to inspire the next generation and tell them to keep going. That weighs on me very heavily in his passing.

You must come across people who saw In The Heights or Hamilton at a young age and it forever changed their future, just as seeing Rent and tick, tick changed your life?

I feel very grateful. I always think of the way Sondheim described sitting down with Oscar Hammerstein, who was like a father to him. The way Oscar put it to Steve: ‘You’ll be ahead of 90% of the competition if you don’t write like me. Figure out what interests you, what makes you tick. If you chase the ideas that keep you up at night, you’ll be ahead of the game.’

That’s what I try to encourage. It’s not just write what you know, it’s write what you know that you also see as missing, and that would never occur to me to bring to the stage.

What I find so exciting is the work that in a million years at 10,000 typewriters I could never have written, whether it’s Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop or Flying Over Sunset. I could never have written those shows. So all you can do is sort of applaud and encourage that work.

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in tick, tick...BOOM! Credit: Macall Polay/Netflix
Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in tick, tick…BOOM! Credit: Macall Polay/Netflix

Was there a moment where the ticking stopped for you? When was the BOOM?

The ticking doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop. With therapy it can be a little quieter, so that you can get through life.

But I can say that I felt an enormous relief the moment In The Heights had its first preview off Broadway. I remember thinking, it doesn’t just exist in our head anymore. It exists in the world and it can go on because other people have it now.

That’s an enormous pressure. Us musical theatre composers, we can’t self-publish. It’s not like being a novelist where you can get a few hundred bucks and put it out there. We need collaborators who make us better. We need actors and musicians. We need producers who believe in the work.

And so I remember feeling a release valve go off in my head, once In The Heights existed in some form on stage. In making tick, tick…BOOM! I went back to that time in my life when you’ve got this whole show but it only exists in this one-foot square of real estate [he points at his head] and how heavy that feels.

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Can you tell us what it was like to see tick, tick on stage for the first time in late 2001?

It was my first time venturing downtown since the terrorist attacks. I’d been back to the city to check in on my family but we live 200 blocks uptown.

I am someone who is now a theatre major because Jonathan Larson with Rent showed me that this was possible. And now here’s a posthumous work from Jonathan Larson. And it’s even more specifically about the line of work I’ve been insane enough to go into!

It was enormously clarifying for me. It hit me like a gale force wind. This is what the message in the bottle was to me when I experienced that show at the Jane Street Theatre:

That pretty girl sitting next to you who is a talented singer and actress? She’s not going to be a singer and actress when she grows up. She is going to get sick of the rejection that comes with auditioning and choose a more stable life. She’s not gonna be your girlfriend anymore.

Your talented friends, all of whom are studying theatre or film or writing, they’re gonna get jobs that give them health insurance. They’re going to find other ways to happiness. And it’s just going to be you. You’re going to be the only one chasing your childhood dream. And the world might not notice while you’re alive. Is that OK?

Like this was happening to me in real time while I’m sitting there.

I had a lot of soul searching to do but it clarified my resolve to try to do this insane thing: write musicals in New York. And I knew I’d be OK. Because what tick, tick asks of you is that you be OK not knowing the outcome. You can’t control the outcome, you can only control the calling. And if you feel the calling, you got to do it.

Those were just some of the many gifts, tick, tick…BOOM! gave me and I saw that production three times, driving down from Connecticut to go see it and get the lessons again.

What is your advice to people in the future who will inevitably make a film about you writing In The Heights or Hamilton, in a ‘Mozart writing his masterpiece’ style biopic?

You know, what makes tick, tick…BOOM! resonate with people, or at least the folks who reach out to me and tell me it resonated with them, is that it’s not the story of Mozart writing his masterpiece. It’s the story of Mozart writing something nobody wanted to hear. And getting back up.

This is a story about someone who spent an enormous amount of emotional capital and time working on something that didn’t work out. And we all have a version of that. We have a relationship that lasted five years and ended, we have a job that we thought was going to be our future that wasn’t. How do you get back up? And how do you extract lessons from the disappointment and heartbreak that comes with those endings?

Jonathan’s answer was to write a show. And the gift that show gives is a signal flair to other artists saying you don’t have to have it all figured out.

It goes back to what my mom said. It’s all grist for the mill. All of that disappointment he endured was grist for the mill for the next one. You take the remnants and you use it as kindling for the next fire.

tick, tick…BOOM! is available now on Netflix

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