Among the 13 songs in “Tick Tick Boom,” which director Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted from the late Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical off-Broadway play, one major earworm stands out: In “Boho Days,” the aspiring playwright (Andrew Garfield) dances around his cluttered ’90s apartment singing an a capella song about his scrappy existence as his party guests clap along to the beat. It’s a marvelous showcase for the energy Garfield brings to the performance, as well as the way Miranda reinvented the material. In Larson’s original show, “Boho Days” opened the story; here, it arrives at a turning point, as Larson makes the case to his roommate not to move uptown for a fancier place.
The joy of the scene echoes the moment of its creation. As Garfield and Miranda revealed in an IndieWire interview as part of our Awards Spotlight series, “Boho Days” was shot in the post-vaccine days of fall 2020, when opportunities to gather for a good time weren’t so easy. The production had shut down earlier in the year, and it took some extra preparation to gather when the “Boho Days” shoot finally happened.
“Everyone in there had quarantined and been alone for 14 days to get the right to be in there maskless,” Miranda said. “So there’s also a joy in the fact that they could sing together.”
The night before the shoot, Garfield said, he had a dream. “I was in a really cool downtown theater opening after-party, and suddenly a bunch of people started improvising and no one was paying attention,” he said. “Gradually, they started paying attention, and it became the coolest party in New York. And I was like alright, that’s how it has to feel, everyone has to want to be at this party. I want to make this the coolest fucking party in New York.”
Garfield’s performative intensity in “Tick Tick Boom” is particularly notable because he jumped straight into the role after his Tony-winning turn as Prior Walter in “Angels in America.” Despite the astounding commitment involved in that role (which required him to perform multiple times a week in a nearly eight-hour show stretched across two days), it could not prepare him for the fresh challenge of learning how to sing.
Before the “Tick Tick Boom” opportunity, Garfield admitted that he wasn’t even much of a karaoke guy. “My karaoke song is Will Smith’s ‘Miami,'” he said with a laugh. He worked with veteran vocal coach Liz Kaplan on a wide array of voice exercises to grow comfortable with the part. “Here’s the thing,” Garfield said. “I’ve always wanted to know if I could sing in a way that served the story in a level that’s acceptable. The guy sings from every cell. He sings from the bottom of his guts. From his whole heart. It’s totally unbridled and wild and full of abandon. He’s singing for the soul of America.”
Garfield arrived for a “Tick Tick Boom” workshop in Washington Heights the day after his last “Angels in America” performance. “I was sleeping in my body again,” Garfield said, noting that he was not quite ready to inhabit a new character. “We’re the only ones who saw the Kushner version of Prior playing Jonathan Larson,” Miranda said. Garfield laughed. “We got a bit of Jim Bakker in there at one point, which did not work.”
The pair spoke to IndieWire in December, ahead of the omicron stage of the pandemic, but were adamant that in-person cultural experiences — movies and stage performances alike — would remain powerful aspects of society. “I’m sorry, but it’s not the same on your phone,” Miranda said. “Imagine getting through the pandemic without, ‘insert your favorite movie or TV series or book or music or album here.’ We needed it to stay sane and feel connected to each other.”
For his part, Garfield was speaking ahead of the release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” so his surprise supporting turn in that movie was still a secret. But he seemed to hint at its future box office success when considering the future of exhibition. “It’s a weird thing when people say are movie theaters going to die?,” he said. “It’s like, no. No! Because at the end of the day, we’re all human and there is this very mysterious, unnameable, unknowable desire we have to commune.”
Watch the full interview above, which was recorded a week after the death of Stephen Sondheim and includes recollections from both men about their encounters with the musical theater giant.
“Tick Tick Boom” is now streaming on Netflix.