Stephen Sondheim’s last message
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Stephen Sondheim’s last message

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new film 'Tick, Tick …Boom!' has a final tribute from the great Jewish composer to Jewish composer Jonathan Larson who died aged 35.

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

The late composer Stephen Sondheim who mentored the late Jonathan Larson
The late composer Stephen Sondheim who mentored the late Jonathan Larson

If only cinemas were like pubs. If they were, there would have been tussles at the box office when they opened after the lockdowns. Sadly, post-pandemic, movie-goers are not showing up like they used to, which means many will only see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film Tick, Tick …Boom! on TV courtesy of Netflix.

Some will have thought Miranda foolhardy, to make his directorial debut an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical musical written by a relatively unknown Jewish composer. But what he did for Alexander Hamilton , he has now done for  Jonathan Larson, who died at the age of 35 from an aortic aneurysm on 25 January 1996 – the day his musical, Rent, premiered off-Broadway. He had spent a decade in obscurity working on Rent, which eventually became the 11th longest-running show in Broadway history. Posthumously, Larson also won three Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson

But before Rent there was  Tick, Tick…Boom!, Larson’s one man show about his difficult relationship with a dancer and the rejection of his first musical, Superbia.  Tragically, the enormity of his composing talent was only realised after his death, and when Tick, Tick…Boom! eventually played in 2001 at a small hotel theatre in New York, Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the audience. That was when he decided to become a composer.

The list of musicals without any Jewish contribution is a short one and Miranda, who performed Fiddler’s To Life at his non-Jewish wedding, has brought  exemplary Jewish talent to his debut feature. There’s the screenplay by Dear Evan Hansen playwright Steven Levenson, cameos from Joel Grey, Frasier’s Bebe Neuwirth and composers Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell/Prince of Egypt) and Marc Shaiman (Hairspray/Charlie and The Chocolate factory) and a cast that includes Transparent’s Judith Light. Then there’s Andrew Garfield who, when asked by Miranda if he could sing, responded with: “I’ve never tried.”

Director Lin-Manuel Miranda on location with Garfield for Tick,Tick….Boom

The Jewish actor who was Oscar-nominated for his role in Hacksaw Ridge, didn’t know if he could play piano either, but both were required to play Larson convincingly and he acquired the skills inside of a year. Another Oscar nomination seems likely for LA-born Garfield, who spent his formative years in Surrey, telling  The Irish Times:
“I am a mongrel. I do feel English and I don’t, I feel like nothing a lot of the time. But I feel very Jewish quite often, because of my father’s side.”

Andrew’s father is Ashkenazi,  like Larson’s family, but the composer embraced his faith, playing Tevye in a school production of Fiddler and attaching it to Mark Cohen, his lead character in Rent, who learnt to waltz “with Nanette Himmelfarb, the rabbi’s daughter”.

Jonathan Larson died on the day Rent previewed off-Broadway

That the release of Miranda’s film coincided with the death, last week, of Stephen Sondheim is profound, as Sondheim became  Larson’s mentor after meeting him at college. Over the years, Sondheim assessed his work, sat through showcases and wrote letters of recommendation to producers. Larson’s tribute to the composer was to parody a song from Sunday in the Park With George in Tick, Tick…Boom!, but Sondheim, who is played in the film by Bradley Whitford, showed his respect by rewriting and recording a phone message that is heard in the movie’s penultimate scene.

“It makes me weep to even think about,” Miranda told Variety. “Because he was a mentor to Jon and generations of songwriters. But yes, he rewrote that message and recorded it himself and just sent it to me.” Sondheim’s final words on film.
A parade of Jewish talent. Tick, Tick …Boom! is too big for the small screen. And the cinema is open.

Tick, Tick..Boom! along with a pre-recorded Q&A with director Lin-Manuel Miranda and other creatives and cast members will be showing at BFI Southbank tonight (Thursday) at 8.30pm. Tickets: www.bfi.org.uk 

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