How David Auburn Rescued Tick, Tick…BOOM! From Desk Drawer Obscurity
As Keen Company preps for a revival of Jonathan Larson's musical, the show's Pulitzer-winning script consultant takes us back to the birth of Rent's "little sister."
In 2001, the same year he won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 play Proof, a drama about a young mathematician dealing with the fallout of her father's death, David Auburn was knee-deep in a decidedly different project. The 32-year-old playwright had been tapped to adapt an all-but-forgotten autobiographical solo show by another Pulitzer winner, late Rent scribe Jonathan Larson.
It was a daunting undertaking. With Rent less than halfway to the end of its astounding twelve-year run, RENT-heads were at the peak of their Larson fandom. But rather than worrying about pleasing a rabid fan base, Auburn was chiefly concerned with honoring Larson's memory by creating an artistically valuable show of which the esteemed composer/playwright could have been proud.
As Auburn wrote in a 2001 New York Times piece about the experience, Larson's many drafts of Tick, Tick…BOOM! "return obsessively to his terror of growing older, to his feeling of being under so much pressure that his heart is about to burst in his chest," and Auburn was concerned that it would seem to audiences like he was trying to play up the facts of Larson's death (he died of an aortic dissection at the age of 35) for cheap emotional impact.
"I didn't want the play to sort of trade on our own feelings about the tragedy of what happened to Jonathan Larson," Auburn told TheaterMania in an interview about the musical's upcoming off-Broadway revival with Keen Company. "In fact I took out a lot of stuff that I thought would make it sound like we were rigging the show to be more prescient than it was…I was very concerned about that."
"I really wanted it to live on its own as a satisfying piece," Auburn continued, going on to share a candid look at how Larson's most personal show finally came to light more than half a decade after his death.
How did you get involved with Tick, Tick…Boom!?
I was friends with Robyn Goodman, who had been the producer at Manhattan Theater Club of Proof, and she had produced the workshop of Tick, Tick…Boom! when it was still a solo show…So she presented me with all the material.
I got this huge stack of drafts and a cassette tape of songs and I started just working through it…I guess I didn't really quite know what to expect, I didn't know if this was sort of an abandoned show or a bunch of outtakes, but it was immediately clear from the music on the tape that this was a complete and really good score. And then there were I don't remember how many drafts, there must have been at least four or five different versions of the monologues that he had performed at various times…So my job was to come up with a new version for performance that was also adapted to be performed by three people.
What made you agree to work on this project?
It was clear that this music needed to be heard…I think some of the songs are as strong as or stronger than Rent…And also I thought that the subject of the play was very moving. It's about being a young artist and being ambitious and frustrated and arrogant and insecure and all the things we all are. And I thought it was really beautifully handled. I especially liked the rawness of it. I liked how kind of brutal he was about his own feelings and how he didn't shirk from portraying himself as being sometimes a little bit arrogant, a little bit irritated. He put all of his warts on display as well as all his incredible gifts, which I thought was a brave thing to do.
How much adapting did you need to do?
I'd say that sort of 80% are Jon's words…The biggest contribution I made was the idea to interpolate a section of his musical Superbia into the show. In the original drafts it was all taking place, I think, after an unsuccessful workshop of Superbia and the whole show was sort of about his frustration over that. And I felt that you needed to see it. You needed to see him anticipating it and looking forward to it and having hopes invested in it and then share his disappointment when it didn't turn into what he wanted and then watch him come out of that. So I asked [producer] Victoria [Leacock] to go look through Superbia. And we found the song "Come to Your Senses." It was exciting…and at the time we had Amy Spanger playing the role and she's a dynamite but we didn't really have a showpiece number for her, so it solved a lot of problems in one swoop, getting that song.
That was the main structural change. Everything else was sort of making choices about what would serve this version of the story best.
Do you feel like you developed a relationship with Larson through the process?
A bit, yeah. I watched video of him performing it in the workshop…And this thing was so molten, like you could feel his feelings about the work changing as he worked on it. You could experience that as you went through the drafts, which was exciting.
How do you feel the show has aged?
One of the kind of neat things, which I realized when I saw the  City Center production [starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Karen Olivo], is it's become this period piece in a really nice way. I mean it was ten years old when we originally did it. Now, it's much further out and so it gives you this portrait of New York [that] is sort of quaint and touching. You know, of when, like, artists were living in Soho and complaining about, "Oh my god, we have to live on the edge of SoHo now. We can't afford it." It's a nice little window into a different era.
What are you most proud of having contributed to Tick, Tick…BOOM!?
We excavated it…If Victoria and Robyn and everybody hadn't gotten together to say let's do something with this, we wouldn't have it. It would just be sitting in a drawer somewhere and that would be a loss…I'm really glad that it's out there in the world…I think it's sort of taken its place as this kind of like little brother or little sister to Rent and that's great. [Jonathan] didn't have a large body of work so every little bit counts.
I like to think he would have been happy with it. I don't know for sure. But I like to think that.