How Jonathan Larson's Family Revived Tick, Tick...Boom!

·3 min read
Photo credit: Macall Polay/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Macall Polay/NETFLIX

Before Jonathan Larson wrote Rent, the landmark 1996 rock musical about down-and-out denizens of Manhattan’s East Village, he documented his own vie bohème as a budding composer struggling to fully bloom. Tick, Tick… Boom! marks a countdown to its narrator’s 30th birthday—become Sondheim or bust.

“It’s a very personal story to my family as an intimate reflection of who my brother was,” says Larson’s sister Julie Larson, an executive producer of the musical’s film adaptation, which is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, stars Andrew Garfield, and is due in theaters November 17 and on Netflix November 24.

Larson died suddenly at age 35 from an aortic aneurysm in 1996, on the night before Rent’s Off-Broadway premiere. The posthumously revived Tick, Tick… Boom! has provided fans with a precious, surreal totem of an artist whose time really was more limited than anyone imagined.

“We were always very close. I was one of his biggest cheerleaders,” says Julie, who has championed her brother’s creative legacy and overseen his estate for 25 years. The Larson kids grew up in a close-knit New York home, and as adults they talked sometimes multiple times a day, even after Julie relocated to the West Coast.

“I would hear every beat, every time he was excited and felt there was something promising happening,” Larson recalls. “And all the anger and doubt and despair when he felt like no one was ever going to understand what he was trying to do.”

Photo credit: MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX
Photo credit: MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX

Larson’s intimate knowledge of her brother’s personal and artistic life was invaluable during the film’s production, says screenwriter Steven Levenson.

“Even beyond all the wisdom and insight Julie shared with us, the experience of sitting on set with her and watching her brother’s story through her eyes reminded us every day of our responsibility to get it right and do justice to Jon’s extraordinary vision,” says Levenson, a Tony winner for Dear Evan Hansen.

The experience of conjuring up her brother for the screen was an emotional one, Larson says. “Sitting there watching Andrew do such a beautiful job, sometimes I would feel like I was sharing time with my brother," she says. “It was both very lovely and eerie at times.”

Photo credit: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin - Getty Images



Like Rent, Tick, Tick… Boom! demonstrates the beauty of unconventional family ties, which Larson says the siblings gleaned from their parents’ own lively social circle. “We learned it was natural that family was not necessarily blood relatives,” Larson says. “It’s finding people who understand you and share your most important and powerful experiences in life together that makes family.”

Count Miranda, the entire team of Tick, Tick… Boom!, and pretty much anyone who has worked on a production of Rent among the Larsons’ extended kin. “We’ve always tried to make sure that we’re putting Jon’s work in loving hands, with people who really understand him and are passionate about it,” Larson says, noting that their father, who just turned 96, has never wanted performing Jonathan’s work to be “just a gig” for an actor. (Their mother died in 2018.)

“It’s been hard trying to hold on to some of the little personal pieces we need to keep just for us and yet also share him with the world,” Larson says. “There are still moments when I think, That was just my punky little brother”—the one who used to kill spiders and then chase her around the house with them.

Watching Jonathan’s work resonate with the next generation of fans has been remarkable, Larson says. “It’s unbelievable. These were all of his dreams come to life.”

This story appears in the November 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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