The Magical Way Netflix's 'tick, tick...Boom!' Recreates an Iconic New York Diner
The legendary Moondance Diner lives once more in this Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed musical.
The area on 6th Avenue in Soho where the Moondance Diner once stood is now nearby multiple luxury hotels, a Tracy Anderson fitness studio, and as many cute coffee shops one could ever want from a single Manhattan neighborhood. What was once a hip beacon in a fairly desolate area is now entirely fashionable.
By the time Jonathan Larson—the man who wrote the musicals Rent and tick, tick...Boom!, now a movie starring Andrew Garfield on Netflix—quit his waiter job after nine years, the forgotten corner where Tribeca and Soho meet was already evolving into the hotspot it now is. "In 1986, when I first took the job, The Film Forum was across the street," he wrote in a draft of an essay titled "Giving Up My Day Job." "Now, there's a seventeen story union office. The entrance to the A Train tunneled from the diner's front door under Canal Street. It's been permanently sealed off. To the east, once-vacant Grand Street is now The Left Bank of Soho, with wall-to-wall bistros and a hotel on the way."
The Moondance itself, once a haven for brunching artists and celebrities as well as a late-night haunt, was moved, sign and all, to Le Barge, Wyoming in 2007. It closed in its new Western home in 2012. But it lives again in tick, tick...Boom! where the old days of the Moondance are recreated in tribute to the place where Larson toiled before his rock musical about East Village bohemians became a sensation just after his untimely death from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. In tick, tick, directed by Larson devotee and fellow composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Moondance is a symbol of the inertia that Larson was trying to overcome. It's also the setting for one of the musical's most fantastical numbers, where legends of Broadway convene playing patrons and sing an ode to brunch conceived by Larson as a parody of his idol Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George.
"The diner was so central to his life," screenwriter Steven Levenson tells Thrillist. "There was a real push and pull within him. He loved working at this place. From all accounts he was a great server and enjoyed the work to some extent. But, of course, he didn't really want to be waiting tables at a diner. And also obviously [felt] a lot of antipathy and a lot of regret that he was spending his time working here and doing this."
Larson first performed tick, tick...Boom! as a "rock monologue" when he was still working at the Moondance. After his death, it was staged as a three-person musical off-Broadway. Though the protagonist could ostensibly be any struggling artist turning 30 in the year 1990, fretting over the workshop of a musical that will never happen, it's a deeply autobiographical piece. And though Larson fictionalized elements of the story, Levenson and Miranda have chosen to stage it as an almost biopic, introducing the character not just as "Jon" but as "Jonathan Larson" himself. "A challenge that we had throughout was balancing how much we know about the story versus how much a general audience knows about the story, and how much a general audience needs to know about the general story to really appreciate it," Levenson explains.
To research, Levenson, Miranda, and theater historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper combed through Larson's papers at the Library of Congress. It was there they found multiple versions of his "Giving Up My Day Job" piece, which Tepper then shared with me. "One of the main things that I learned along the way from talking to so many of Jonathan's friends was they would go there often to chat with Jonathan while grabbing an omelette or something," Tepper explains. "He would always feed his friends when he could at the end of a shift."
In his own words, Larson describes meeting customers who would eventually provide him with gigs, including a producer who hired him to write music for a junior high school production. Larson didn't want to put his creative efforts into writing jingles to help make rent, but the Moondance was not an entirely uncreative place. "I've spent many hours jawing with Ed, the contemplative sculptor, Bill Number One, the ex-cop who loves the Metropolitan Opera, and Other Bill, the graphic designer, with many a caustic quip on any topic from the price of the O.J. to the O.J. Simpson verdict," he wrote. "I'll never forget Steve and Pamela, founding members of The Living Theater, who've somehow managed to hang onto the jazzy mindset of Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, and Wavy Gravy."
The Moondance's former owner and creator Larry Panish always had the intention of making it a hot spot. Panish, a Culinary Institute graduate who had worked in fancy kitchens like Le Plaisir, bought what was formerly known as the Tunnel Diner in 1981 to turn it into a destination with staples made with fine dining techniques. He named it the Moondance after his love for the Van Morrison song.
"Every movie star you could think of—including John Jr.—they were all there, man," Panish tells me. "They all came through the diner. They loved the place. It was right on the edge of Soho and it was a cool place. And I had a cool staff because I was an easy guy to work for. That's why the Jonathan Larsons lasted for 10 years." He remembers being in the kitchen late at night when Larson was sitting at the counter, working. When Larson finally quit, Panish says he gave him a watch.
Tick, tick...Boom! is certainly not the first time the Moondance has been a pop-culture touchstone. The exterior was used in Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man and Friends housing the fake diners where Mary Jane and Monica, respectively worked. Panish was eager to send me a photo of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas filming Miami Vice outside. When Panish was alerted to the existence of tick, tick...Boom!'s trailer, he was thrilled, but also a little regretful. "I sold it to a developer who then put up a big hotel," he says. "I look back and go, 'I wish I never sold it.' It will be 40 years in October. I was 23 years old. That thing would still be standing."
For the purposes of tick, tick...Boom!, production designer Alex DiGerlando knew early on he couldn't use an existing diner, both because of the realities of production and because of the specificity of the Moondance. "As so many things in the movie, the lyrics line up with that space," DiGerlando says. "He's singing about that diner and about the color of the stools and the color of the diner. It was important that we matched the lyrics." So he and his team recreated it and the streetscape around it at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn's Navy Yard.
To figure out what the Moondance looked like before Panish sold it and it was renovated into a more generic-looking space, DiGerlando poured through negatives donated to the New York Public Library picture collection from a retired location manager for film shoots. Those, along with a video of Larson's last day, became crucial references. DiGerlando found himself not only under pressure to do right by the audience and Larson, but by members of his crew who remembered visiting the place. "So much of the crew had memories there, I didn't want to let them down," DiGerlando explains. "I wanted to service their memory of that diner."
Those memories were of a place that existed at a crossroads between an old and new version of the city. The Moondance that Larson worked at and Panish ran was slightly upscale in a neighborhood that was on the verge of gentrification. "It was in what was then a little bit of a grittier part of the city, but it catered to artists," DiGerlando says. "It's a funny thing. Artists are always a little bit on the vanguard. The neighborhood might be a little rough, but the places that they hang out at are usually pretty cool." Levenson says that while he and Miranda wanted to recreate the creative energy of late '80s, early '90s New York, they also didn't want to romanticize it to the point that they ignored the uglier side of the Reagan years, including the AIDS crisis.
There's a lesson to be had there about the perils of looking backward, one of which Larson was all too aware. In tick, tick...Boom!, the pressure of the passage time is near constant. The movie can take audiences back to the Moondance Diner, but not turn back the clock. Larson, in his writing, knew when it was time to only move forward.
"In the theater, they say, 'You can make a killing but you can't make a living,'" Larson wrote. "In the diner, you can make a living and it won't kill your creative drive. If anything, working in a restaurant can make you hungrier. Time indeed marches on, and after nine managers, one thousand brunches, ten thousand hours, forty thousand eggs, one hundred thousand cups of coffee and about two hundred thousand customers, I'm ready, too."