Production designer Alex DiGerlando had a unique opportunity when it came to set-building for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage-to-screen adaptation of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” (in theaters Nov. 12) — he could walk around the actual Greenwich Street apartment of “Rent” playwright Jonathan Larson. “There are a lot of vestiges of that period that are still there,” DiGerlando says.
“Tick, Tick … Boom!,” an autobiographical musical, tells the story of Jon, a promising young theater composer who navigates love, friendship and the pressures of life as an artist in New York City.
Larson, played in the film by Andrew Garfield, lived at the address his entire adult life, and died there in 1996 after suffering an aortic dissection on the day “Rent” was about to have its first preview performance.
DiGerlando found a treasure trove of photos from Larson’s friends. But it was the playwright’s sister, Julie, who provided the most valuable asset: Larson’s visual documentation of the actual apartment. “He took a video camera and recorded everything he owned in case there was a serious fire [so] he would have a record of everything he lost,” says DiGerlando.
The designer freeze-framed every shot to match the cassettes, the books and even the Frisbee and kite Larson kept. “We obviously couldn’t find that exact one, but we found a red kite and we painted a brontosaurus to match.”
While Larson’s family had his Yamaha keyboard in their possession, DiGerlando sought the precise model to fill out the living room/office. The production crew also weathered a director’s chair to match the one Larson’s family inherited.
DiGerlando’s goal was to keep the apartment natural and lived-in. “We never wanted it to feel like a designed space, because he wasn’t someone who cared about that.”
DiGerlando’s favorite detail is the subtlety of the bowing of the bookshelves. “We tried very hard to get that sag,” he says. “We would have a brace to hold it up when we weren’t filming in case it would come down.”
The Moondance diner, where Larson was a waiter for 10 years, was also crucial to depicting his life, but it closed in 2007, so DiGerlando built a replica of the beloved SoHo spot.
“There wasn’t a huge record of what the diner looked like in that era. We did find an episode of ‘Reading Rainbow’ that was shot there that had some clues,” he says. The diner was finally able to get its closeup accurately when the movie’s picture researcher discovered a folder of location photos at New York’s Public Library.