Please note: This article contains spoilers for the film tick, tick…BOOM!, now available on Netflix.
If you’re a fan of Broadway, then you’re likely to gasp with delight during one particular scene in tick, tick…BOOM! If you haven’t seen the Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed film about the semi-autobiographical life of RENT creator Jonathan Larson just yet, be warned: there are spoilers ahead.
Members of the press have been asked to keep details of this particular moment in the movie a secret, so audiences can experience it for themselves without having the surprise be ruined. Now, that tick, tick…BOOM! is streaming widely on Netflix, it’s time to reveal how it all happened.
“That was obviously one of the most exciting things to shoot,” screenwriter Steven Levenson said.
It won’t come as a shock that the idea of getting many of Broadway’s luminaries all together for the “Sunday” diner song was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, according to Steven Levenson. It’s the film’s biggest production number, where Jon, in the middle of a busy Sunday brunch service, imagines a grand Broadway musical he yearns to create.
“That was Lin’s idea from the beginning,” Levenson revealed, as I promised these exciting details would not be shared until the movie was widely screened. “It was populating [the scene] with all of the people that would live inside of Jon’s imagination and people he wouldn’t even know but would somehow be the descendants of him.”
“When we were told who [were] the people who were going to do it — it was like ‘oh my God!’ It was this perfect assemblage of past and present Broadway and was just so fascinating,” said executive music producer Bill Sherman. Sherman was roommates with Miranda after college and they would listen to tick, tick…BOOM! on replay constantly. “With this, [when] you’re doing a love letter to Broadway, you really pull out all the strings.”
The scene-stealers are a who’s who of Broadway. Joel Grey, Howard McGillin, Brian Stokes Mitchell, André De Shields, Chuck Cooper, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Beth Malone, Phylicia Rashad, Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, and Lin-Manuel Miranda too, all make cameos. So do original RENT stars Daphne Rubin-Vega, Adam Pascal, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia.
Bernadette Peters also shows up on screen, marking her second notable appearance in the film. In the movie, Jon references her performance in Sunday in the Park with George a few scenes earlier as he watches a clip from the musical’s PBS special.
“For you to say yes…being at the center of it,” Miranda said to Peters during a pre-taped Zoom conversation during the film’s virtual premiere Monday night. “You are magnificent in it.”
“It is a beautiful sequence and I am sure [Jonathan] is very happy,” Peters replied.
It’s actually “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George that inspired Larson to write his own “love letter to a show that profoundly inspired him,” Miranda explained of Larson’s version of “Sunday.” “[It was an] homage to his hero, my hero, and a generation of musical theatre writers’ hero, Stephen Sondheim,” Miranda explained in production notes about the film.
“When it was performed by Jon, it was just him at a piano singing it,” said Levenson. “‘Sunday’ is so swelling and operatic. His version is obviously tongue-in-cheek and a little bit silly.”
“I had the opportunity to revisit that song as a choral number and I wanted to build the chorus of Jonathan Larson’s dreams,” Miranda described of his vision for directing the scene. “And that’s what I set out to do. It’s been amazing to see the reaction to that choir.”
The iconic scene at the Moondance Diner was filmed on the very last day of shooting, Levenson said. It’s where Larson waited tables for ten years in order to pay the rent while pursuing his musical theatre career. The diner, which closed in 2007, was recreated at Steiner Studios using images and home videos from Larson’s last day there.
“It felt like a real homecoming to be on set with all of those people who have been touched by Jon’s music and Jon’s work in one way or another,” Levenson said.
“It really honors the lineage of musical theatre performers in the grandest, most spectacular way,” added Broadway’s Joshua Henry (Carousel) who plays Roger in the movie.
But the COVID-19 pandemic almost made it nearly impossible to happen and according to Levenson, there was no plan B.
“The idea of getting all of these people into one space to do this number seemed actually impossible for a minute,” Levenson recalled. “Getting all of those legendary people on a set felt risky and kind of crazy. We [had] to take care of these incredible performers.”
“All of a sudden, it was trying to figure out how we were going to make this epic thing so that these people would be in it,” said Sherman.
Including the health and safety protocols already in place, additional measures were implemented to ensure the stars’ safety on set. The crew quarantined for a few days in advance “just to make it extra safe,” Levenson said.
Cinematographer Alice Brooks came up with a sophisticated way of shooting so that there were never too many people present at the same time, Levenson revealed. “Through the magic of cinema, it doesn’t look that way.”
The musical theatre legends either worked with executive music producer Kurt Crowley on set or they went to a studio to record their vocals. “Some of them recorded before the COVID shutdown — some after. So, it was a puzzle piecing it together,” explained Sherman.
Another fun fact is that after the scene was shot, the original Sunday in the Park with George orchestrator, Michael Starobin, came into the recording studio to help orchestrate the number so it would sound like Sondheim’s original version. “We had this full orchestra playing this grandiose, humongous thing. He was there and it was a very surreal meta full-circle moment,” said Sherman.
In addition to the Broadway stars’ voices, an additional chorus full of Broadway performers was brought in to round out the sound. “Those top notes that are really high — you can hear Bernadette which is amazing. And you can definitely pick out people’s voices from time to time,” said Sherman.
Adding, “I think that that’s so magical.”
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