There’s an amazing lesson for writers in Tick, Tick … Boom!
Sure, there’s good advice in the “never give up on your dreams” message running throughout it, but there’s an even better lesson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terrific film adaptation of Jonathan Larsen’s famous off-Broadway musical:
Failure is always the best teacher.
Indeed, falling flat on your face, taking a wrong turn—hell, making a huuuuuuge mistake—is where an artist will genuinely learn the most. Such blunders, not the wins and successes in life, are the best teachers because they clearly show us where not to go. They can also teach us about subjectivity and that not every producer or benefactor is going to buy, even if we have talent. Failure shows us sometimes that which we create is maybe not showcasing our best potential.
In Tick, Tick … Boom! Andrew Garfield plays Larson as a desperate young man wanting to write a musical of merit before he turns 30. The film is particularly clever in its ‘story within a story within a story’ framework. It presents Larson telling us about his experiences and showcasing some of it through straight-forward film narrative, but also showcasing an off-Broadway musical he wrote and performed entitled Tick, Tick … Boom! which chronicled his difficulties in writing a musical based on George Orwell’s 1984.
So, why was that Orwellian musical he entitled Superbia, which took almost a decade to write, such a laborious slog for Larson?
Well, for starters, Orwell’s dystopian tale was not exactly the kind of material easily lending itself to song and dance. Granted, many composers before Larson and since have made successful musicals out of very difficult material. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s smash Evita, about Argentinian dictator Juan Peron and his wife Eva, springs instantly to mind. But generally speaking, most musicals that succeed don’t contain stories that are such downers. The genre was called musical comedy for the better part of a century for a reason, after all, and upbeat musicals usually sell better than heavier ones.
Finally, after a decade of struggles, Larson was finally able to get his 1984 musical completed and workshopped in NYC in 1990, but two rather amazing things happened. First, despite all his flop sweat and panic, the musical was well-received. Second, despite such a good reception, no producer emerged from the showcase ready to put up the money to turn Larson’s dream into a reality.
Was his musical actually a dud despite the good reception? Or were potential backers worried about the commercial viability of such a tough sell as Larson’s dystopian piece? No matter, Larson’s dreams for it died. It would take the off-Broadway success of Tick, Tick … Boom! to tee him up for success and the true breakthrough he was clamoring for. That would be a few years later when he penned his legendary musical hit Rent. Sadly, Larson died of an aortic dissension on the day of the first off-Broadway performance of Rent, but even though he didn’t live to see it become a phenomenon, he had an idea how loved it would be from its workshop.
Before his death, Larson learned some tough lessons about creating that would behoove any writer. For starters, just because something is well-received, it doesn’t mean a sale will follow. After all, how many screenwriting contest winners have seen their scripts made into movies? Additionally, how many scripts on the Black List are still waiting for a green light even while sitting on that tony dais? Work that is well-received is one thing; work that gets produced is a whole different animal.
Remember, too, that some out there may not get you or your work at all. They may reject your talent or what you’re "selling" because it’s not their cup of tea. Larson’s work was liked, but no one was buying, so somewhere along the line, even though they were impressed, that didn’t move them to open their wallets. The world of artists and writers is filled with such varied forms of rejections.
And many have experienced even worse doors slamming in their face. Walt Disney was told by Hollywood producers that he lacked imagination. J.K. Rowling had loads of rejection slips sent back with her first transcript about a boy wizard. Twenty-seven publishers didn’t like Dr. Seuss’ writing style or his cartoons. And Stephen King’s first draft of Carrie was rejected thirty different times. Like them, Larson learned that good efforts don’t always lead to great successes.
The main lesson Larson seemed to have learned, however, was that if a story isn’t coming and it takes almost a decade to write, perhaps such efforts are misguided; that such a path is actually a mistake. Through all his writer’s block, churning, and burning, Larson probably realized that adapting 1984 as a musical was a bit of a fool’s errand, and that his own life was far more interesting for him to explore. Still, if it wasn’t for a decade of struggles on Superbia, Larson may have never realized how rich his artist’s experiences throughout it all genuinely were. And how universal his story really was.
Ultimately, not only would such stories from Larson resonate far more as a musical in Tick, Tick … Boom! but his own biography would inform his greatest work Rent, where he chronicled all of the ups and downs that happened to him and his fellow artists, friends, and lovers in the Big Apple. In many ways, Larson took the most cliched advice ever given to any writer—write what you know—and hit paydirt with it.
That’s not to say artists can’t write science fiction, or period pieces, or try adapting dank stories like 1984, but if one writes something that represents more of his or her passions, actual experiences, or a more personal POV, the creating process will likely be more liberating rather than stultifying. The fact that Larson struggled so much over Superbia, and for so long, suggests that creating really should never be so agonizing.
Still, would Larson have written new musicals from his heart and own experience that did become successful without his failure in adapting Orwell into a stunning success?
And that is why the lesson of failure is so crucial. It’s in human nature to dread pain and failure, but when we do get burned, the best salve is often in the lessons we walk away with to now avoid such stoves.
*Feature Image: Tick, Tick ... Boom! by Jeff York