Ryan Heffington On Making Moves With Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Garfield for tick, tick…BOOM!

November 16, 2021

First performed in 1990 by Jonathan Larson as a mostly autobiographical solo show, tick, tick… BOOM! didn’t become a full-fledged musical until 2001, five years after Larson’s untimely death the day before his RENT opened off-Broadway. In his feature-film directorial debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda helms a new adaptation of BOOM! from a screenplay by Steven Levenson, the Tony Award–winning writer of Dear Evan Hansen. Choreographer Ryan Heffington developed movement for the film, available on Netflix starting November 19.

Ryan Heffington, a white man with sparse hair, an impressive salt and pepper mustache, and stubble, gazes intently at the camera with wide blue eyes. Taped to a wall behind him are dozens of neatly spaced sheets of paper with handwritten notes in multiple colors.
Ryan Heffington; Ryan Heffington

If there’s a choreographer people associate with Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s probably Andy Blankenbuehler. You’re a very different kind of choreographer. Where did you and Miranda find common ground?

Lin was very…gracious, is a good word, about allowing me to do what I do. He did send me some videos as inspiration and I could just take it from there. His library, of anything, is pretty in-depth. He’s an encyclopedia. The dance in In the Heights works great for that; what I created for tick, tick… BOOM! works great for that.

This film reunites you and Andrew Garfield, with whom you worked on Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” video.

And on Gia Coppola’s film Mainstream. We’ve always had a great connection. He’s so knowledgeable about the characters he’s working on, which informs me on a deeper level about what will or won’t work. One of the most beautiful things about collaborating with talented actors is the insight that they have. It’s really about listening to them.

To the extent that an actor like Garfield proposes movement material?

More in terms of impressions and moods. Andrew does actually dance a lot like Jonathan Larson did—they both can be really free-form. Andrew is so multidimensional in terms of physicality and speech, and he really did his homework. Some scenes he improvised, and I was like, “Great. I don’t even need to touch that.” But then we’d work together on something more specific because, as a choreographer, I thought a certain gesture needed to be in there.

And then there’s Susan, a character in the film who is a dancer, played by Alexandra Shipp. Did you try to set her apart from those in the film who aren’t playing dancers?

Absolutely. The amount of training that went into Alexandra’s character was much more extensive. We spent months on placement, ballet and modern, to inform her physically.

You’re a California kid and an L.A. artist, yet this film is such a New York story.

I’ve always been inspired by musicals and watched them growing up, so that was in my back pocket. I’ve done more music videos and commercial work, but, as an artist, you have to take off those blinders and gain inspiration from other kinds of art. I wouldn’t say there’s one “New York perspective” in dance because, yes, there’s Broadway, but there’s also downtown dance and all of that. I just tried to go with my gut.

Jonathan Larson was working-poor for most of his life. Were things ever that economically tenuous for you?

For at least a decade, I would say, I was working on the floor and sleeping on the couch in almost dilapidated squats, [laughs] spending my last dime on a drink for a friend. But those were also some of the richest years of my life, because my friends and I were in the same boat. We didn’t have a lot of resources, so we’d recycle things and make our own wigs and fix things with duct tape. It’s a great lesson: You don’t need much in life to create.