Once upon a time in West Lake Village, a girl memorized all the lyrics to a musical written by a man who died before he knew he had a hit. On her way to becoming a producer of a Netflix movie (“Tick, Tick…Boom!”) that’s garnering award attention, the woman who was that girl had to move to the East Coast to get acquainted with show business.
Although she was born and raised in Southern California, for Julie Oh the Hollywood scene of small and big theaters and their musicals wasn’t part of her extracurricular education.
Oh explained, “I was born and raised in Southern California. I grew up in West Lake Village, which is a suburb outside of LA. My parents are Korean immigrants. I think they know ‘Mary Poppins’ and and they know ‘Chicago.’ I can’t really tell you stories of going and seeing Broadway shows growing up because it just wasn’t accessible in the neighborhood I was living in.”
For Oh, it wasn’t older musicals that got her interested. She admitted, “For the longest time I thought ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was about a fiddler who would play his music on a roof. I didn’t realize that was not the case until I was much older. My earliest musical memory is actually watching a VHS of ‘Cats.'”
That meant, she skipped over the Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Oh said, “My experience with musicals and the musicals that I loved were whatever was available through movies and cast recordings and CDs and whatever was in the cultural zeitgeist. I think that’s why Jonathan Larson and ‘Rent’ in particular occupied such a huge area in my brain and heart.”
Her introduction to Jonathan Larson was through the original Broadway cast album. “A friend of mine had it on CD and we just played it over and over again. I remember I walked into a room and all my friends were just singing it and thinking: ‘This is amazing’ and ‘Why don’t I know what it is?’ I figured out what it was and then became obsessed with it.”
Oh wasn’t alone. Before “Hamilton,” “Rent” is the musical that brought a younger generation into the theaters. “Rent,” garnered posthumous Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1997 for Jonathan Larson. Oh remembers, “What was so extraordinary about ‘Rent’ is it really meant something to an entire generation. It was the first musical where my peers were telling me: You have to listen to it; We have to learn all the lyrics and we have to sing it together over and over again.”
For her, cast albums were her education. “‘Rent,’ ‘Chicago,’ ‘Cabaret,’ ‘Wicked,’ ‘Hairspray’, those were the musicals I grew up on.” Even though she grew up less than 40 miles away from Hollywood, Oh said, “I didn’t know how to have access to theater in a real way until I moved to New York when I was 23.” At that time, she was working for a producer and the office was in Time Square. “Broadway was right outside the office door.”
Jonathan Larson and the world he knew and loved was already a memory by then. Larson died at his home the very day of that “Rent” made its first off-Broadway preview performance, 25 January 1996. He had gone to see two doctors (at Cabrini Medical Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital) but his chest pains were misdiagnosed as the food poisoning or a virus. “Rent” made its Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theatre in 1996 where ran until September 2008.
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Larson’s musical replaced tuberculosis with HIV/AIDS and transported the action from Paris in the 1800s to the East Village in the late 1980s. The tubercular seamstress, Mimi, became Mimi Márquez, an erotic dancer who was HIV positive. The poet in love with her, Rodolfo, became a songwriter Roger, who was also HIV positive. Marcello, the painter, became Roger’s roommate, an indie filmmaker named Mark Cohen.
Lin-Manuel Miranda cited “Rent” as his main source of inspiration for his Broadway hit, “Hamilton.” Miranda, who makes his debut as a director with “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was also instrumental in getting Oh interested in the original stage production.
Oh explained, “I got to see ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’ in 2014. It was a production of Encores!” Oh noted, that Encores! is ” an amazing program where they will take musicals that haven’t been widely produced or really deserve a second or third audience, and they put it on for a handful of performances.”
“Encores!” are more concert than full scale musicals.
Oh continued, “I was lucky enough to get a ticket to one of the performances. I was in the back in the mezzanine and it was Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jon and Leslie Odom Junior (who originated Aaron Burr in ‘Hamilton’) playing Michael and Karen Olivo playing Susan. It was a year before ‘Hamilton’ opened.”
“Hamilton” opened off-Broadway on 17 February 2015 at the Public Theater with Miranda as the eponymous character. The musical transferred to the Richard Rodgers Theatre for its Broadway premiere, opening on 6 August 2015. “Hamilton” won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and garnered Miranda a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
But in 2014, Miranda had already found some success on Broadway with his 2002 “In the Heights” which won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. He had also co-written the music and lyrics for the 2011 “Bring It On: The Musical” (with Tom Kittening and Amanda Green.
Of that performance, Oh said, ” To me it felt like a lightning bolt moment. In the same way that ‘Rent’ felt contemporary and about real life. It’s a musical also in Jonathan’s Larson’s voice. It was like when I heard ‘Rent’ it felt incredibly real to me.”
“Tick, Tick…Boom!” is about a struggling songwriter who is working on a science fiction musical in hopes that it will lift him out of poverty. To make ends meet, he works at a diner. Based on several versions of Larson’s rock opera, the film’s screenplay was written by Steven Levenson who wrote the book for “Dear Evan Hansen” for which he won a Tony Award).
Oh quickly got in contact with Jonathan Larson’s estate, but was warned that the family was very protective because this was Larson’s most autobiographical musical. Still, Oh felt, “The themes were so undeniable and expansive that it has to be a movie.” Eventually, Oh approached Larson’s sister. “I give all credit to Julie Larson (McCollum.) who is Jonathan Larson’s sister who has championed and protected his work for the last 25 years….I asked for her blessing to approach Lin-Manuel Miranda.” From the start, Oh felt that Miranda was the only person who, even as a first time director, could do justice to the material. Oh explained, “Julie Larson and the Larson family and Lin have their own personal relationship. They’ve been in contact for the last 20 years because Jonathan Larson was a hero of his.”
Julie agreed that Miranda was the one who could do justice to the material. After an email to Miranda who was in London filming “Mary Poppins Returns,” got a lightning quick affirmative response from Miranda, Oh was on the plane to England. Remembering her first meeting with Miranda, Oh said, “It was an immediate alignment of what making a movie would mean to both of us and what it would mean to an entire generation of artists.”
Filming began in March 2020 and just as quickly closed down, but Miranda, Oh noted, is the kind of person who sees possibilities everywhere and open to listening and adapting, particularly as a first time director. When filming finally resumed for “Tick, Tick…Boom!” Broadway was still dark. While that might have been discouraging for the acting community in New York City, it also allowed the cast and crew to film on the very room where Larson had done his unsuccessful musical based on Orwell’s “1984.”
Both Miranda and Oh were enthusiastic about Andrew Garfield’s casting in the role of Jonathan. “I love that Andrew says he wasn’t sure he could sing. We both were such fans of Andrew’s work on the stage.” Oh cited his performance in “Death of a Salesman” and “Angels of America.” Garfield played Biff in the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman” to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman. The production won a Best Revival of a Play and Best Direction of a Play (Mike Nichols) Tony Awards and Garfield was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. Garfield starred in “Angels in America: Perestroika” and “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and won a Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play. The play also won a Best Revival of a Play and a Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured role in a Play for Nathan Lane.
“Angels in America” is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning two-part play that examines AIDS and homosexuality in the US during the 1980s. The play premiered in 1991 and opened on Broadway in 1993.
Oh said, “He brings such emotionality and a complete commitment to his characters.” On the screen, Garfield has also been nominated for an Academy Award (“Hacksaw Ridge,” 2017) and Golden Globe Awards (“The Social Network” and “Hacksaw Ridge”).
At the world premiere of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” at AFI Fest, Garfield and Miranda appeared for a Q&A. Miranda credited Oh for getting the ball rolling on this project. Miranda is also credited as a producer as well as Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (Oscar-winning producer for “A Beautiful Mind”) .
Oh felt that Netflix was the best home for this film, saying, “We had so many different options to go with when we were thinking about the right home for the film. But the idea that the movie is out in the world and anyone can watch it over and over and over again, and has access to it regardless of where they live, regardless of whether a theater in their town is playing the movie, that was out greatest hope.”
Now that the film is finally out, Oh said, “I couldn’t be prouder watching the final movie now.” And that’s not just promotional talk. The film is getting a lot of buzz for award season. The film made its world premiere on 10 November 2021 and had a limited theatrical release starting on 12 November.
“Tick, Tick…Boom!” was listed on the Top 10 Movies of the Year by the American Film Institute Awards and the Hollywood Critics Association Awards has nominated the film for eight awards, including Best Comedy or Musical, Best First Feature and Best Actor. Streaming on Netflix began on 19 November 2021.