David Henry Hwang: ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ is ‘Heart-Wrenching Love Letter’ to Follow Dreams Despite Rejection

David Henry Hwang Tick Tick Boom
Hwang: John Pinderhughes

For Variety‘s Writers on Writers, David Henry Hwang pays tribute to “Tick, Tick … Boom!” (screenplay by Steven Levenson; based on the musical by Jonathan Larson).

Movies about writers are notoriously difficult, since the central action of the protagonist is largely cerebral. Here, that protagonist is composer-dramatist Jonathan Larson, whose musical “Rent” defined a generation.

However, this story is not about the making of “Rent,” which would build to a victorious if bittersweet ending (Larson tragically passed away before the show’s first performance). Instead, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” concerns an earlier show, “Superbia,” abandoned by its author after a disappointing developmental workshop.

The real-life Larson subsequently wrote an autobiographical “rock monologue” about this experience and turning 30. After his death, it was adapted into a three-character stage musical based on his five different drafts, one of which was titled “Tick, Tick … Boom!”

Against all odds, this movie musical adaptation triumphs as a heart-wrenching love letter to following your passion and dreams in the face of rejection, thanks largely to Steven Levenson’s exquisitely crafted screenplay. The script utilizes two frames: a performance of the rock monologue by Larson (Andrew Garfield) allows the movie to hop back and forth through time with occasional narration through monologue and song.

A voice-over by Susan (Alexandra Shipp), a struggling dancer dating Larson, explains his eventual importance, adding gravitas and context. Levenson also expands and deepens the characters of both Susan and Larson’s best friend Michael from the source material. Among other smart choices, the screenplay invents two more “ticking clocks” to propel the dramatic action: Susan finds herself at a career crossroads and Jonathan is unable to write the climactic song for his “Superbia” workshop.

By inverting the triumphalist trope of traditional showbiz musicals, Levenson and director Lin-Manuel Miranda have made a movie about failure that proves as soaring and inspirational as any happy ending. After the disappointing workshop, Larson’s agent’s advice killed me softly with its devastating and beautiful truth: “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start the next. And on and on. That’s what it is to be a writer, honey.”

Hwang is a Tony Award-winning playwright.