How “Tick, Tick…Boom!” Pulled Off Its Surprise All-Star Musical Number
The song “Sunday,” a showstopper that comes early in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut, Tick, Tick…Boom!, lasts only a few minutes, but it packs in four decades of Broadway history. Directed by Broadway game changer Miranda and adapted from a musical by Rent composer, lyricist, and writer Jonathan Larson, who was in turn inspired by musical legend Stephen Sondheim, the number features cameos by over a dozen Broadway icons in a fantastical sequence packed with enough Easter eggs to keep theater nerds pausing and rewinding for weeks.
Larson died suddenly in 1996, on the morning of Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview show, and was never able to witness its enduring success. He’d also written Tick, Tick…Boom! as an autobiographical story about trying to break into Broadway, and performed it as a one-man “rock monologue” in the same years he was developing Rent. It was posthumously adapted into a full-fledged musical (with assists from Larson’s college friend Victoria Leacock Hoffman, a producer, and Tony-winning playwright David Auburn) and several companies have performed it Off-Broadway since. In 2014, Miranda—who has long been inspired by Larson’s legacy—starred in a special two-week run of the show in between the workshop and Off-Broadway debut of Hamilton. He played Larson’s character, alongside Leslie Odom Jr. and Karen Olivo.
Just as Miranda looked up to Larson, Larson idolized Sondheim. His song “Sunday” began as an admiring parody of another “Sunday,” the Act One closer from Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park with George. The 1984 musical followed French painter Georges Seurat as he worked on his seminal pointillist painting A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, of park-goers on the banks of the River Seine. In the original “Sunday,” Seurat guides his subjects in the park into a perfect composition as the chorus sings in harmony. Larson’s version swaps the Island of La Grande Jatte for the legendary Moondance Diner (a Manhattan haunt, since closed down, where Larson had once worked as a waiter), subbing in himself for Seurat.
So when Miranda began to formulate his version of Larson’s “Sunday,” he imagined a paean to the musical theater that inspired Larson and that Larson inspired. He began texting friends like Hamilton alumni Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo and Fun Home star Beth Malone (who appeared with Garfield in the 2018 production of Angels in America); original cast members of Larson’s Rent, such as Daphne Rubin-Vega, Adam Pascal, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia; and Broadway legends including Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, and, of course, Bernadette Peters. Much like in Sondheim’s version, a transformation occurs over the course of the song. As the patrons enter the diner, theater lovers will instantly begin to clock them as one Broadway legend after another. The diners then begin to subtly flash signature moves, props, and outfits from their iconic roles. A Sunday brunch becomes a can’t-miss Broadway revue. And by the time Garfield takes Peters’s hand in the same way Mandy Patinkin took her hand in the original “Sunday,” a feeling of joy begins to crescendo alongside the music.
Harper’s Bazaar assembled those stage icons along with Miranda and Garfield to retell the story of how a Sondheim song became a Larson song became a Miranda song—and then became one of the 2021’s most joyous movie moments.
“CONNECTED THROUGH TIME AND SPACE”
Before he could build out the call sheet, Miranda had to build his vision of “Sunday”—an homage nestled in a diner transformed into a theater-lover’s dreamscape—and sell it to his dream cast. Luckily, they were more than happy to buy in.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: My thinking was that this is a loving homage to Jonathan Larson’s mentor and hero Stephen Sondheim. And it’s his riff on the song “Sunday,” the greatest end of Act One ever written. My big thesis was that Jonathan only ever heard the song alone at a piano, and I’m in the position to stage it with a full company as George Seurat had in Sunday in the Park with George. So my responsibility is to create Jonathan’s dream choir. That was my goal: literally find the artists from the works that inspired Jonathan. Of course Bernadette Peters, but then so many other legends, like Joel Grey and André De Shields and Brian Stokes Mitchell and all the folks that I’m sure Jonathan saw and loved.
HOWARD MCGILLIN (Phantom of the Opera): I made my Broadway debut in Sunday in the Park with George. I had just landed in New York. I’d literally been in New York a couple of months when I got a part in the show. Singing “Sunday” every night was like going to church.
BETH MALONE (Fun Home): Sunday in the Park with George is my favorite musical. It got me through high school. I had that album jacket memorized. I played the vinyl incessantly. I never saw the show, but I felt like I had seen the show.
BERNADETTE PETERS (Sunday in the Park with George): Jonathan Larson’s idea was to rewrite the song “Sunday,” which I was in originally, but from the perspective of a waiter—a frustrated waiter, since he was really a composer—serving Sunday brunch at a diner.
PHYLICIA RASHAD (A Raisin in the Sun): What a great idea to take this song and change the lyrics in this way, to take us from a park in Paris to a diner in New York. In the song “Sunday,” people are just hanging out, seated on the grass, and here we are sipping tea and coffee, describing the colors of the seats in the diner.
CHUCK COOPER (The Life): Oh, it’s exquisite. Jonathan took the melody of the song and tweaked it just a little bit so that all of us theaterphiles know what it is, and we can hear what he’s doing with it.
RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY (Hamilton): I met Lin while doing the workshop for Hamilton, and in between the workshop and our Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, he did Tick, Tick…Boom! and I went to see it. It was the first time I’d ever actually seen the show, and I fell in love with it. I could see how important the show was to Lin, and I have a particular connection to Jonathan Larson, having had the privilege of being in the last Broadway company of Rent.
WILSON JERMAINE HEREDIA (Rent): The way Lin put it was that when our characters appear, we’re the seeds of the ideas that were growing in Jonathan’s mind. We’re in his psyche, just sort of hanging out in his medulla, and now we’re coming to life.
ANDREW GARFIELD: The scene is this kind of otherworldly moment where they all meet in an imaginary realm.
DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA (Rent): It’s set in this piece of old-school history, the Moondance Diner. That’s still my neighborhood, and it breaks my heart every time I see that fancy hotel in the place the diner once was. I’m trying to go with the flow, but the Moondance Diner is irreplaceable in my mind. Those are irreplaceable pieces of New York.
ANDREW GARFIELD: It’s obviously a very personal moment for Lin. It speaks to his pure imagination and to Jon’s pure imagination and the legacy that Lin is continuing for Jon through Tick, Tick…Boom! But also as a theater maker himself, Lin is absolutely a reincarnation, if you will, of Jon. They are absolutely connected through time and space.
“I WAS TOTALLY AMAZED THAT THEY HAD MY BLACK ASS UP THERE”
Miranda began outreach to the star-studded patrons of the Moondance Diner before the Covid-19 pandemic first touched down in the United States. What he found was a Broadway community more than eager to pay tribute to Larson, Sondheim, and the theater canon.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I was inspired by those cheesy posters you sometimes see where Amy Winehouse is sitting next to James Dean, who’s sitting next to Marilyn Monroe, who’s sitting next to Elvis and all these people who were gone too soon, who exist outside of time together in that moment. So I gave myself permission to put Rent cast members in with future “collaborators” of Jonathan from shows that were influenced by or direct descendants of Jonathan’s work. That’s why Beth Malone dressed as Big Al from Fun Home and [Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo as] the Schuyler sisters are in the diner.
RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY: It seems a little ridiculous to include me and Phillipa Soo in this scene, to place these characters that we were allowed to play on the level of all these incredibly talented theater legends. For us to be included in this scene was a tremendous honor.
BETH MALONE: I got this text from Lin, and he was very mysterious, very covert. It was like a fishing expedition. “Where are you? What’s your schedule like?”
PHYLICIA RASHAD: Everything was kept under wraps, all quiet on the Western Front.
BETH MALONE: He called me and described this idyllic scene in which all of these legends of Broadway are in this diner of dreams. And I just thought, “How in the world am…