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Everything Tick, Tick...Boom! Doesn't Tell You About The True Story

The Netflix musical "Tick, Tick... Boom!"  is an adaptation of the Jonathan Larson musical of the same name and a semi-autobiographical look at Larson's experiences trying to break into the world of musical theater. The tale is told through the story of a fictionalized version of Larson going through struggles ranging from money problems to song-writing issues. The film, Lin-Manuel Miranda's directorial debut, wastes no time pointing out that not everything you see on screen is real, with a narrator saying that it's all true, "Except for the parts Jonathan made up."

While many of the characters in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" are based on real people, their stories and motivations have been altered to fit the musical's narrative. Since it references real places and events that happened to Larson, some of these moments are either not elaborated upon or removed entirely. 

For those interested in separating fact from fiction, below is a rundown of everything "Tick, Tick... Boom!" left out of the story, along with what really happened to both Larson and the people involved in his life and his work.

Larson never published Superbia

Much of the plot of "Tick, Tick... Boom!" revolves around Jonathan Larson trying to become a professional musical theater writer by getting his first play produced. The play in question is titled "Superbia," a dystopian musical that Jonathan spends eight years of his life writing. Based on an actual play of the same name that Larson wrote, the story of "Superbia" is inspired by George Orwell's novel "1984" and takes place in a world where humanity is obsessed with technology and devoid of emotion.

Just like in real life, promising workshops and an endorsement from Stephen Sondheim himself weren't enough to get "Superbia" produced. But the film never really addresses what happened to the musical, as a voiceover states that Larson left "Superbia" behind to work on other projects. To this day, "Superbia" remains unproduced and unpublished due to Larson's sudden death. But hope is not lost for those curious about what remains of it, as various items related to "Superbia," such as drafts and lyric sketches, can be found in the Jonathan Larson's papers at the Library of Congress.

The Moondance Diner is gone

In between his constant rewrites and money problems, Jonathan spends much of his days working at the Moondance Diner in SoHo, where the real Larson was actually employed. This isn't the first time the Moondance has appeared on screen, as you can find it in early seasons of "Friends" and when Mary Jane Watson briefly works there in the original "Spider-Man." But the actual Moondance Diner is no longer there; its demise was a complicated one that involved its death, rebirth, and eventual second death

After more than 70 years of operation, the diner announced it would close its doors in 2007 but was later purchased by Cheryl and Vince Pierce for $7,500, moved out of New York City, and reopened in Wyoming in 2008. This reopening didn't last long, however, and the diner closed for good in 2012. 

"It's heartbreaking," Cheryl Pierce told the New York Daily News that year, explaining that the hoopla around the restaurant's reopening just couldn't be sustained. "It's almost like a death in the family ... business has really slowed down."

The diner was listed for sale in 2012 but hasn't made news in the years since.

One of Larson's Moondance co-workers was a future Rent cast member

Jonathan's days working at the Moondance Diner are depicted alongside fellow staff members and friends. There aren't a lot of prominent Moondance workers followed up on in the film, however, and this includes one big omission from the real Larson's time working there. 

In a 2003 interview with Playbill, actor Jesse L. Martin, who originated the role of former anarchistic professor Tom Collins in the Larson musical "Rent," talked about how he worked at the diner and met Larson there. 

"The next time I saw Jonathan was at the auditions for 'Rent'," he recalled. "It was several months later, and at first we couldn't figure out how we knew each other."

Surprisingly, Martin (or someone playing him) does not appear at all in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" There are no characters at the diner inspired by him, nor is he one of the many cameos during the "Sunday" musical number (which features other "Rent" alumni and Broadway performers, including Miranda). Since "Rent" is such an important part of Larson's legacy, it's surprising that Martin doesn't get an acknowledgment.

The real life Michael was never Larson's roommate

One of the main characters in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" is Michael (Robin de Jesus), Jonathan's best friend and onetime roommate who quits his dream of becoming an actor in order to pursue a career in advertising and make more money for himself. 

Near the end of the film, Michael reveals himself to be HIV-positive, and the revelation sends Jonathan into a tailspin. Thankfully, Michael doesn't end up dying at the end of the movie — and neither did Matthew O'Grady, Larson's best friend who inspired the character.

While much of Michael's story does stay true to the real-life O'Grady, "Tick, Tick... Boom!" exaggerates some details. While being interviewed for the nonfiction book "Boho Days: The Wilder Works of Jonathan Larson," O'Grady said that he never wanted to become an actor and wasn't Larson's roommate when he was working in New York. But he did admit to inspiring Larson in many ways.

"Being downtown doing drag was such a big thing then. It was so easy to do and fun, especially at Christmastime," O'Grady told 27 East in 2021, explaining that Larson based the "Rent" character of Angel on him after they spent many nights together enjoying the drag scene. "There were so many drag clubs to go out to. Plus, I was really skinny and fit into everything."

The real life Susan never broke up with Larson

Another character from "Tick, Tick... Boom!" involved in some factual fluctuation is Susan (Alexandra Shipp), Jon's girlfriend who used to be a dancer. Jon's single-minded ambition to finish his play conflicts with their relationship, and the two break up halfway through the film. 

Susan is based on a real relationship Larson had with dancer Janet Charleston. In a 2003 interview with the Quad-City Times, Charleston recounted their time together, noting that she never broke up with Larson as depicted in the film; the two were still together up until his death. 

"We split for a while but would run into each other on the street and he would say, 'I think of you every day,'" Charleston told QCT. "We were back and forth together." 

At the end of the film, Jon and Susan have one last interaction before she leaves. But Charleston goes on to describe how she was with Larson when he first started writing "Rent," and the pain she felt when her last phone message to him was never returned — further details omitted from the movie.

Larson and Stephen Sondheim were much closer

Trying to pitch "Superbia" to Broadway producers was going to be tough, but composer Stephen Sondheim — the man behind "West Side Story" – believed in Larson's talent. Portrayed by Bradley Whitford in the film, Sondheim does not have a very large role in the movie; he only gives some minor advice to Larson to improve his musical.

In reality, Sondheim took a much more hands-on role in mentoring young playwrights like Larson. In a 1996 interview with The New York Times, Sondheim said that he did try to help Larson as much as he could with finishing "Superbia" and offered his own critiques on both the original "Tick, Tick... Boom!" musical and "Rent." Theater historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper told InsideHook in 2021 the relationship even went so far as to help Larson get an agent, with Sondheim inviting the younger playwright to sit in on rehearsals for the original Broadway production of "Into the Woods."

Sondheim often responded to letters written by aspiring writers seeking advice on how to improve, of which Larson was one. Many of these letters have since been posted via an Instagram account called Sondheim Letters.

Larson's death was followed by a lawsuit

The life of Jonathan Larson ended tragically on the day of the off-Broadway preview for "Rent," when he died of an aortic dissection at the age of 35. 

This led to the preview of the show being cancelled, and the cast came to sing the songs to his grieving family. While Larson's death is never shown in the film, and neither are the grim details that surrounded it, in real life things became quite complicated.

The New York Times reported in 1996 that two New York hospitals had been fined for failing to properly diagnose Larson prior to his death, as his symptoms allegedly lined up with undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, which could have been treatable. According to the report, the doctors at Cabrini Medical Center and St. Vincent's could not find any signs of an aortic dissection when Larson visited them, leading to a misdiagnosis. Stress and food poisoning were among the afflictions suspected at the time, neither resulting in any particular cause for alarm.

After these discoveries, the Larson estate filed a malpractice lawsuit against the hospitals, as well as the doctors that failed to properly treat Larson. The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine said in 1996 that the lawsuit, seeking $250 million, was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.

Tick, Tick... Boom! is structured much differently

After the "Superbia" workshops failed, Larson decided to take a break from the project and work on the musical the film uses as a framing device to tell its story – "Tick, Tick... Boom!" The film constantly cuts between Jonathan performing and narrating the musical to the audience, interspersed with a filmed version of what the characters in the story are going through. Facts about Larson's real life are sprinkled throughout. Since the movie ends before Larson's death, that means that the film doesn't address how the musical changed after Larson passed away.

In real life, Larson originally wrote the musical as a one-man "rock monologue." It wasn't until after he died that playwright David Auburn rewrote the musical and streamlined the plot, transforming it into a three-actor piece featuring the characters of Jon, Susan, and Michael. 

Auburn told TheaterMania in a 2016 interview that despite changes made to the story, "80% are Jon's words." So while there are significant differences between the two versions of the musical, Larson's legacy still lives on.

Larson's other unproduced works didn't make it in

It is true that even with the early runs of the original "Tick, Tick... Boom!," Larson never achieved the massive success he dreamed of until "Rent" came along. But if you only watch the movie, you might think that those two projects, including "Superbia," were the only things Larson ever worked on. But the truth is that Larson had his hand in several other unproduced musicals.

Back when Larson was studying at Adelphi University, he collaborated with David Glenn Armstrong to write the musical "Sacrimmoralinority" (later renamed "Saved! – An Immoral Musical on the Moral Majority"), which was first staged at the university and later won Larson an ASCAP award. He also collaborated with four other playwrights on the musical "Sacred Cows: A New Beginning," a musical that satirizes several Bible stories. Playbill revealed that, just like "Superbia," audiences weren't ready for something as radical as "Sacred Cows."

And then there's "J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation," a musical Larson collaborated on with Jeffrey M. Jones about the life of the banker of the same name. The musical was staged, but like many of Larson's unproduced works, it never properly reached the masses.

The "Tick, Tick... Boom!" movie covers a lot of Larson's life, but it would have been better to shine some light on his even more obscure works.

The real Roger Bart had a real friendship with Larson

Jonathan Larson performs his version of the "Tick, Tick... Boom!" musical alongside his two friends, Roger (Joshua Henry) and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens). The character of Roger isn't really explored in the film, but Lin-Manuel Miranda confirmed in an interview with Showbiz Junkies that the character is actually based on the real-life Roger Bart, a Tony Award-winning actor known for his roles in such productions like "The Producers" and "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" as well as providing the singing voice for the title character in "Hercules."

Miranda revealed in the same interview that Bart was very close with Larson back in the day. "I talked to Roger Bart who we honored with Josh Henry sort of playing a version of him because Roger was a fellow waiter and artist and sang backup for all of Jonathan's concerts," Miranda said. "Roger gave us so many insights on Jonathan as a person versus Jonathan in a rehearsal room, and what that specific energy was like."

Since "Tick, Tick... Boom!" is focused entirely on Larson's personal journey, the stuff about Bart's relationship with him never makes it in the film. But Bart still makes it into the film in another way, as he is one of the many Broadway performers to make an appearance in a musical number.

Larson's family kept his legacy going

The ending of "Tick, Tick... Boom!" where Jonathan Larson seems hopeful about his future while performing the final song is juxtaposed with the narration detailing how he tragically died before he ever got to see "Rent" take off the way that it did. But even though he never got to see his success, and the film never elaborates on these successes, his family made sure that his name wouldn't be forgotten.

Larson's family's efforts to preserve his legacy have taken the form of the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, which now operates out of the American Theatre Wing, a philanthropic organization, and distributes the Jonathan Larson grants. According to their website, the grants are "awarded to musical theatre composers, lyricists, and librettists, or writing teams, early in their career, to support artistic endeavors and safeguard long-term music writing careers." The grants were also inspired by the grants that Larson received back when he was still struggling to get his work produced.

The film adaptation also has some personal connections behind the camera. Julie Larson, Jonathan Larson's sister, served as a producer on the film. When talking to Yahoo News, Julie Larson revealed how close she was with her brother and how important making the film was to her, saying that "It's a very personal story to my family as an intimate reflection of who my brother was."

Larson had a big influence on Lin-Manuel Miranda

"Tick, Tick... Boom!" was not only an important and personal film for members of the Larson family, but it was also very important for Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. Miranda stated many times before, including in an interview with Deadline, that watching the original production of "Rent" on Broadway changed him. "It was the show that made me go from admiring musicals, like the way you might admire a piece of art, to thinking that I could make one," Miranda said. "It just felt possible. It felt homemade. It felt like it was concerned with the same things I was concerned with." He also talked about how he also saw "Tick, Tick... Boom!" on Broadway when he was in college.

Outside of directing, Miranda doesn't have any real role in front of the camera in the movie other than a cameo in the "Sunday" song. This means the film glosses over the influence Larson had on Miranda. As chronicled by Vox, there a plenty of parallels between Larson and Miranda; both of them supported themselves with part-time jobs while writing musicals in a style that wasn't already prevalent on Broadway, and based their stories on the places and conditions they grew up in. In Miranda's case, his reality-based musical was "In the Heights." Both achieved massive success, with the only difference being that Miranda was still around to experience that success.