• The San Juan Daily Star

In ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!,’ Robin de Jesús knew he could do it

In the film “Tick, Tick … Boom!” the queer Puerto Rican actor gets to showcase his range, stepping into a more mature role as Michael.

By Laura Zornosa

The T-shirt says it all: “This body was built on arroz con gandules.”

Arroz con gandules, or rice with pigeon peas, is a Puerto Rican classic, and Robin de Jesús wears the shirt with pride under a burnt orange jacket. When mounds of maduros (fried sweet plantains) arrive with our entrees, each is topped with a tiny Puerto Rican flag. De Jesús, 37, approves.

The actor’s family is from rural Puerto Rico, and he grew up in a working-class community in Norwalk, Connecticut. Known for larger-than-life roles like a gay teenager who dabbles in drag in the movie “Camp,” a spirited maid in the Broadway revival of “La Cage aux Folles” and a boisterous interior decorator in both the play and film versions of “The Boys in the Band,” he wanted to diversify his work.

Then along came “Tick, Tick … Boom!.” De Jesús was deeply intentional in auditioning for the role of Michael, an actor turned advertiser, in the film, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“What kept coming up for me was, ‘I want a quiet performance.’ I want a quiet, subtle, nuance,” de Jesús said at lunch. “And I know that, if I do that, I can showcase maturity.”

The movie (in theaters and on Netflix) is an adaptation of a musical about the writing of a musical. The original “Tick, Tick … Boom!” was written by Jonathan Larson — who would later go on to write the rock musical “Rent” — and first performed in 1990. The film tells the tale of an aspiring composer (also named Jonathan and played by Andrew Garfield) pouring himself into yet another musical, this one called “Superbia.” It takes place in the early ’90s, against the stark backdrop of the AIDS epidemic.

As his 30th birthday looms, Jonathan’s anxiety manifests as a persistent ticking. He worries about the upcoming workshop of “Superbia,” upon which everything seemingly hinges — and about whether he can succeed in the performing arts at all.

Michael, his former roommate and best friend since childhood, has tapped out of the threadbare artist lifestyle, opting instead for a plush career in advertising and a glittering high-rise apartment. He was tired of waiting for hours in line for an audition, just to be cut off after six measures of a song and called the wrong name: “Juan, Pedro, Carlos, lo que sea.”

That’s not to say that Michael has hardened into a formal shell; he stays playful and supportive of Jonathan’s dreams. We first meet him visiting Jonathan at work in the Moondance Diner, where he drops off copies he made of the “Superbia” script.

“Boo-boo, you need to ask yourself,” Michael tells Jonathan, “In this moment, are you letting yourself be led by fear? Or love?”

De Jesús said, “I knew that Michael did not have to be pulled and buttoned up, that he was someone who navigated being an artist, a creative, someone who was down and hip, and cool with also doing advertising.”

“It didn’t have to just be one thing,” he continued.

Although de Jesús has appeared in many major movies, he assumed some other, bigger film star might snag the role of Michael. So he took a risk in his audition. Miranda was impressed.

“I’ve seen a lot of productions of ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ and a lot of the time the guy that gets cast as Michael is someone who looks very at home being a business guy, very dapper, very smooth,” Miranda said in a phone call. “What’s fun about Robin as a choice is that you 100% believe this is an artist who thrives in this world. It’s an artist with a business suit on.”

Miranda and de Jesús go way back. (So far, in fact, that de Jesús sang at Miranda’s wedding.) In 2005, de Jesús made his Broadway debut in “Rent” as a member of the ensemble and an understudy for Angel, a young drag queen. That same year, he joined the original cast of “In the Heights,” Miranda’s first musical, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes.

“Quiara and I realized every time he had the ball, he just put a crazy spin on it and knocked it out of the park,” Miranda said of de Jesús. “I am mixing my tennis and baseball metaphors, but so would Robin.”

De Jesús earned a Tony nomination for his role as Sonny in “In the Heights.” He received subsequent nominations for “La Cage aux Folles” in 2010 and “The Boys in the Band” in 2019. This year, he presented at the Tony Awards with Andrew Garfield.

But so many of his roles came across as youthful or outsize. De Jesús was ready for something fresh.

“My other characters are like two-liter soda bottles that you shake up and you open,” he said. “Michael, you shake, but you leave closed. And I don’t get to play that often. I’ve always known I’m capable of it.”

He was just waiting for someone to give him the opportunity — like many Black and brown artists, he points out.

“The fact that I’ve been in New York since 2002, and my first month in New York, I repeatedly heard, ‘It’s a good time to be a person of color in theater,’” he said. “And here we are 20 years later.”

And yet, to be Black and brown in New York’s arts and entertainment industry is a thing of beauty, he said, in “the way we’ve created our own cultures, and the way we uplift and promote joy for one another.”

De Jesús’ best friend, his “nonsexual lifetime partner,” Dominic Colón, is part of that group of artists, too. Both men are gay and queer Latinos who live in the Bronx, so close they can see each other’s apartments (intentionally). After “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” de Jesús hopes to act in Colón’s play, “The War I Know,” a working-class, Puerto Rican story that mirrors their own.

“I think he is a teacher,” Colón said. “I think he is a valuable lesson for artists of any age to trust in the journey. And it may not look exactly how you thought it was going to look when you were 18, but it works out in the way that it needs to, and it will continue to.”

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