Robin de Jesús made his Broadway debut 16 years ago as Angel in “Rent,” and returned two years later to originate the role of Sonny in “In the Heights.” Fittingly, his new film is an artistic union of those musicals’ respective creators, Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The actor and singer can now be seen in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” ― an adaptation of Larson’s semi-autobiographical 1991 “rock monologue,” and Miranda’s feature directorial debut. It was streaming online on NetflixFriday: Larson (played here by Andrew Garfield) as a struggling New York artist on the cusp of turning 30, years before he would write “Rent,” his creative opus.
De Jesús plays Michael, a former roommate of Larson’s who gave up the bohemian life to take a lucrative job in advertising. De Jesus, a gay Latino character, struggles with being both a member the LGBTQ community as well as a person of colour during peak HIV/AIDS.
Speaking to HuffPost, de Jesús described Michael as “exactly the kind of character I’ve been waiting for.” The role gives him a chance to showcase his singing and dancing prowess, most notably in “No More,” the film’s centerpiece number, which features an unexpected pas de deuxGarfield
“As someone who plays larger-than-life, high-intensity characters who often have a consistent punchline, I’ve wanted to play something a little more subtle,” de Jesús said. “There were so many ways to play with that which wouldn’t be expected of me and the role. I knew there was something about the character that would diversify my work in a way that wasn’t expected.”
Though “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is his second major project for Netflix, de Jesús is best known as a Broadway performer, having received Tony nominations for “In the Heights” and the 2010 revival of “La Cage aux Folles.”
Last year, he appeared with Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto in “The Boys in the Band,” Netflix’s adaptation of the 1968 stage play that showcased the lives of gay men in the years just before the Stonewall uprising. De Jesús played Emory, a sassy decorator who provides much of the film’s comic relief, at least until its devastating second half.
Though “Tick, Tick… Boom!” takes place decades after “The Boys in the Band,” both projects gave de Jesús the chance to embody queer men of color in a bygone era. Michael, in particular, isn’t a victim, but an upwardly mobile character that can afford a BMW or a high-rise apartment.
“Gay culture has, at times, been problematic and excluded certain people of color, transgender folks and gender-nonconforming folks,” de Jesús, who is Puerto Rican, said. “I mean, how often do you get to see a queer Latino man in a suit, with a New York office job, in the 1990s? It is rare that we get to see those who work in economics. This was so cool. It’s humanizing, it’s important, it does matter.”
De Jesús, a Connecticut native, said his association with Larson’s work predates his “Rent” casting. He cites the iconic poster for the original Broadway production of “Rent” ― which featured intentionally distressed portraits of actors Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Daphne Rubin-Vega ― as being pivotal in his decision to pursue a career in the performing arts.
“I immediately saw myself,” he said. “I’m the son of a factory worker. My father is a middle-school graduate. My mother has high school diploma. To see these wonderful people of color who looked just like the working-class, taking a square was amazing. I will never forget that feeling.”
Originally conceived as a solo piece for Larson, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is set in 1990 and thus does not depict the creative process behind “Rent.” The composer died in January 1996 on the day that “Rent” was slated to debut off-Broadway, and never got to witness its global success.
More than 25 years after Larson’s death, his impact on musical theater is indelible. Hence, de Jesús is hopeful that “Tick, Tick… Boom!” will serve as a testament to both Larson’s artistic legacy and his allyship to people of color and the LGBTQ community, especially as the discourseTheater inclusion reached a new volumeDuring the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There have been conversations around diversity and equity within theater, and unfortunately, I’ve found that far less people have actually grown than I’ve wished,” he said. “But Jonathan was such an amazing ally. Many people of color had a good life because of him. He gave jobs to diverse folks.”