Nathalie Tomada – The Philippine Star

November 24, 2021 | 12:00am

Being part of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film Tick, Tick…BOOM! had Vanessa Hudgens looking back on her long and deep love affair with musical theater.

In the adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, the Filipino-American Hollywood star is Karessa, the musical muse of the late composer, playwright and theater wunderkind.

Tick, Tick…BOOM! follows Jon (Tony Award winner Andrew Garfield), a young theater composer who works as a waiter in a New York City diner in 1990 while working on what he hopes is the “next great American musical.” But in the days leading to a “make-or-break performance” to showcase his work, Jon is feeling the pressure from all corners. He finds that his girlfriend wants to pursue an artistic life beyond New York. His best friend has given up his dreams for a life of financial security. And the artistic community is suffering from the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is confronted with the question: What are we meant to do with the time we have?

Sadly, Larson died of aortic aneurysm in 1996, just before the first Off-Broadway preview performance for his revolutionary rock opera Rent. While he never lived to see its eventual success on Broadway and impact on modern theater, his music endures 25 years after. Tick, Tick…BOOM!, which marks the movie directorial debut of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel, is the latest homage to Larson’s genius.

Vanessa was first introduced to Larson’s music when she played the female lead Mimi in the staging of Rent at the Hollywood Bowl. Later on, she was cast in the role of Maureen in the Fox TV production of Rent: Live.

In the Tick, Tick…BOOM! press notes, film producer Julie Oh said that they always knew Vanessa was going to play the person whom Larson writes music for. “He writes a new song knowing that she’s going to sing it. We couldn’t think of anyone to do that better than Vanessa,” she said. “She is just so watchable and talented, and has an incredible voice.”

During a recent one-on-one with The STAR, the 32-year-old actress said it was an immediate yes to be part of Tick, Tick…BOOM!.

“I grew up doing musical theater. I feel like I found myself through musical theater. It’s the thing that I love doing most — performing and being on the stage,” noted Vanessa who broke into Hollywood in 2006 via the wildly popular High School Musical film franchise.

“So, to know that I could do that and to have that captured on film is really unique because you don’t get to capture that on film. Normally, it’s on a stage and it’s a moment of time. And you do it and then it’s over. That’s it.”

With the movie version, she pointed out that the musical gets to live on.

Vanessa disclosed that she’s also a fan of its director, In The Heights and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel. “I’ve been such a big fan of Lin for so long. When he called me and asked me if I would do this with him, I was like, well, it’s a no-brainer, of course, that I will.”

Ultimately, she wanted to be part of a project that celebrates Larson. “I’ve been such a fan of Jonathan Larson’s ever since I was introduced to him and his body of work is just so enormous,” she said. “And to be able to share this story with the world through the eyes of Lin, who is another musical genius, it just felt so special.”

Vanessa further noted that “no one did it like Jonathan did” — that is, to be able to produce Tick, Tick…BOOM! “which is his autobiographical, one-man show, and (to) pull back the curtain on his life and what it looks like to be a struggling artist in the ‘90s at the height of the AIDS crisis.”

Below are more highlights from the virtual interview with Vanessa.

On why she fell in love with Jonathan Larson’s work:

“I was first really introduced to him via Rent. The first time that I did it was at the Hollywood Bowl and Neil Patrick Harris directed it. And I played Mimi and I just fell in love with his stories and his music. You know, he was so groundbreaking and was doing musicals in a way that had never been done before for the MTV generation, as he would like to say. So, that really just captured my heart and my mind.

“When I found out that I could do Rent again and play yet another character, that just felt like I was being embedded almost into the Larson family because his sister and his dad came out and visited. It really just felt like his spirit was with us through his family.”

On how she connected with the film’s theme about the struggles of starting out in showbiz:

“Yeah (I had Tick, Tick…BOOM! moments). I mean, I am very fortunate and blessed to have had successes at such an early age. But that didn’t just happen overnight. I started doing musical theater when I was like six or seven years old, and was auditioning and auditioning for bigger things and being told no, because you are told no a lot in this industry. And as a child, it was hard to wrap my head around. But I just knew that I loved it and I wanted to do it. I would tell myself the next thing that comes along will be bigger and better. And here we are.”

On revisiting her musical theater roots via Tick, Tick…BOOM!:

“Yeah, for sure. I mean, musical theater is what I grew up doing, it is the thing that I fell in love with. I remember watching West Side Story for the first time. It was the first musical I ever saw. I was probably four years old and my parents had the VHS and I popped it into the TV and sat down on the floor inches away from the screen. And I was just so captivated by a world in which people can break into song and dance to express how they’re feeling. I think it really informed me the way that I look at the world. You know, you can kind of choose to create your own reality.”

On working with and having Lin-Manuel as director:

“So, I met Lin for the first time when I went to see Hamilton. I had just done Grease Live and Thomas Kail directed it and he also directed Hamilton. And I went backstage and Lin was standing there with his T-Birds Letterman jacket on, with open arms ready to pull me in for a hug. And I was just like, hey, this is so wild because (A) I am such a fan, (B) the humbleness. Like, I came to see his show and yet he’s wearing a costume from a show that I just did. And I feel like it really speaks of who he is. He is such a supporter and so generous and so giving and he’s so inclusive and he makes everyone feel so seen. And he’s a genius. That was my first encounter with him.

“Then, I did In The Heights at the Kennedy Center. And he would come and bring his son, and just sit in on rehearsals and watch. And you know, he’s such a family man. While he is this musical theater genius, he’s also so grounded and such a kind human being at the end of the day. His family is everything and I always really respect when people have those priorities.”

(Tick, Tick…BOOM! is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.)

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