Jonathan Larson died in 1996, years before today’s high school students were born. To commemorate the premiere of Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! on Netflix, students at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts, along with arts students around the country, honored the legacy of the Tony Award-winning composer by singing his work in a music video of “Louder than Words.”
The musical drama, tick, tick…BOOM!, is Larson’s autobiographical musical. Days before he turns 30, Jon is preparing for a make-or-break workshop of a musical he has been developing for years.
While he is hoping this will be his breakthrough moment, his girlfriend plans to pursue an artistic opportunity outside of New York City and his closest friend has chosen financial security over a career in the arts.
The musical references Stephen Sondheim’s influence on Larson and Sondheim’s mentorship of the young composer. “Louder than Words” is the musical’s iconic ballad that wraps up the storylines of the show’s characters.
Larson died at age 35 the night before the off-Broadway premiere of his masterpiece, Rent. The show premiered on Broadway in 1996, earning Larson three posthumous Tony Awards and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
The new Netflix film tick, tick…Boom! is Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut.
“I got my start in my school’s performing arts program. These programs are vital, not only to the entertainment industry but to our culture. It’s important for us to celebrate the next generation of actors, singers and performers. So, in the spirit of reaching for the stars and pursuing your dreams, we invited schools across the country to celebrate the debut of tick, tick...BOOM! on Netflix,” Miranda said in an introduction to the music video.
Preston Rossi, Ellie Sassano, and Aiden Valentine are the three students from the Dallas high school featured in the video. Valentine is the first performer to sing in the video. Students from Baltimore School for the Arts, The Chicago School for the Arts, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and TADA! Youth Theater in New York also participated in the video.
When the project began, Rossi, Sassano and Valentine did not know tick, tick…BOOM!
“It was exciting to me to bridge that generation gap and introduce them to Jonathan,” said Benjamin Doan-Stevens, Production Coordinator for the Dallas high school in the Dallas Arts District.
Over a couple of weeks, the students rehearsed with sheet music, working on the piece throughout or after the school day. They filmed their contribution to the music video on the stage of The Montgomery Arts Theatre at the school.
“We spent most of the rehearsal time on the music because it is pretty difficult. All three of the students are pretty good natural actors so we let them feel it,” Doan-Stevens said. “We let them perform it as themselves.”
While working on the song, certain phrases resonated. The main theme, “actions speak louder than words,” stuck with Valentine. “I feel like that really spoke to me. You can have many friends,” Valentine said. “But no matter what they say, it’s always what they do that shows what kind of person they are.’
“Cages or wings, which do you prefer? Ask the birds” reminds Doan-Stevens of the school’s mascot, the Pegasus. “It hits home to who we are as a school,” Doan-Stevens said.
“Fear or love, baby? Don’t say the answer” is a rhetorical question. “They already know the answer. You don’t even have to say it because it’s love. Always,” Rossi said.
“Why does it take an accident before the truth gets through to us” reflects the dangers of inaction. “We have a lot of political activation on social media, but sometimes, it takes a really big event before anything can actually start, before people really think, ‘Oh, this really is an issue.’ Even though they have seen all the posts and have all of this information, it doesn’t really click until they actually see it happen to them or someone they know,” Sassano said.
The students and Doan-Stevens were impressed with the final edit of the music video. “I found it was really cool how Netflix included all these different arts schools around America and to see how the schools put their ideas into the video where you had us standing on an empty stage with spotlights and different colored lights, but then you had another school who did a whole movie scene with posters,” Valentine said.
“I was expecting it to be awkward, but it felt like it transitioned really well and especially the contrast between us and the other schools and then all the schools together. It actually worked,” Rossi said.
“The blending of the vocals went really well where you had to go from solo to solo in weird sections. It was really well-balanced,” Sassano said.
The music video includes footage from the film. The students appear to be singing with Andrew Garfield as he plays Jon in the film. “I thought that was well-done,” Doan-Stevens said.
For the three juniors interested in pursuing musical theater as a career, the movie musical comes at a time when they are considering their future. “It’s kind of interesting to watch someone go through what we’re working on to do with our lives, the struggles that we might face along the way,” Sassano said. “It was a really good look at what it might really be like. It’s not all glitz and glam.”
With the recent death of Sondheim, the film is a reminder of the importance of mentorship in a tough industry. “With Stephen Sondheim’s passing and just knowing that without Stephen reaching out to the younger generation, we wouldn’t have Rent,” Doan-Stevens said.
Twenty-five years after his death, Larson offers a message to the next generation of artists. “It’s telling our generation, ‘Hey, you have the capability to do something. You have the resources, you have the social media, you have all these things so now it’s your time,” Sassano said. “I think it’s bringing us to the stage.”
“I think every generation needs to hear this call,” Rossi said.