Midway into “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Jonathan Larson is wrestling with writer’s block. And losing. Badly.
“Here I am,” says Andrew Garfield, who portrays the composer-lyricist in the movie, now streaming on Netflix. “The musical to which I have devoted my youth is about to be put on public display for every producer in New York. I haven’t written a single note or a single lyric to the most important song in the show. I have no electricity. My best friend is furious with me, my girlfriend isn’t speaking to me.
“And there is only one thing I can think of to do: swim.”
The song that follows is “Swimming,” a structureless stream of consciousness about what Jonathan sees, thinks and feels during his midnight workout. A track once cut from Larson’s original one-man production has become the movie’s most conceptually ambitious and narratively satisfying musical moments.
“I love that song because it really is so perfect for that moment,” Garfield said ahead of the film’s world premiere at AFI Fest. “Water, symbolically, is all about the unconscious, the deep self and the mystery. He’s so lost in his own way, so he’s going to the pool to push himself down and down and down and get rid of all the obstructions in his mind until he finds this treasure of a song. There’s a ritualistic, mythical, magical aspect to that sequence that I find so beautiful.”
According to J. Collis’ book “Boho Days: The Wider Works of Jonathan Larson,” “Swimming” was initially part of Larson’s September 1990 presentation but was cut the following year. It was never added back into the three-actor version of the musical that was reconfigured after Larson’s tragic death in 1995.
Miranda immediately prioritized the song upon hearing Larson’s archival recording while at the Library of Congress. “It’s an incredibly cinematic song — even the way the lyrics work, it’s all so visual,” said screenwriter Steven Levenson. “But he’s swimming in a pool the entire time. You could see how, on a stage, that would feel static. In a movie, you get to see Jon in that pool and what it’s doing to him as he’s pushing himself to the limit and trying to find that song.”
Transforming “Swimming” for the screen began with amping up the guitars and drums and distorting the bass. “Most piano players who write rock music, like Elton John and Billy Joel, write very piano-centric rock music,” said executive music producer Bill Sherman, who managed the film’s orchestrations with Alex Lacamoire. “Lin said to us, ‘I want this to sound like the Nine Inch Nails song Jonathan never wrote.”
As for the vocals, Garfield focused less on trying to sound exactly like Larson and more on staying true to him as a character, pulling back or belting freely when it narratively made sense to do so. “There was no imitation happening,” said Garfield’s vocal coach Liz Caplan, who also helped Miranda prepare for a 2014 production of the musical. “That’s Andrew’s voice entirely, but through this lens of Jonathan and how a human voice would sound as a result of going through these deep emotions.”
The scene’s indoor pool was initially chosen because of its distinct tiling design, which immediately inspired the idea that its lane dividers can transform into a music staff. Yet it also happens to be the very pool that inspired the song’s lyrics, as it’s the same YMCA in New York’s West Village that Larson frequented daily. “‘Red stripe, green stripe,’ ‘50 feet, 60 feet,’ — there are lyrics in that song that don’t make sense unless you’re at that particular pool,” said Miranda.