When Alexandra Shipp auditioned for the role of Susan in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut, Tick, Tick...Boom!, she thought she was doing way too much to get the part. “Knowing that it was for Lin, I was like, I’m going to put as much sauce on it as I possibly can and make this an R&B song,” she explained one afternoon via Zoom from her home in California. “I don’t have your conventional musical theater voice. I might do too much, but I love a pullback note. The worst note you can get is ‘more.’”
Being a little extra in the audition room worked in her favor, and she was cast as Jonathan Larson’s (Andrew Garfield in the film) girlfriend, Susan, a professional dancer. (The real Susan was also white and blonde, Shipp explained, but that didn’t deter her from auditioning: “Whenever I see that in a script, I’m always like, I don’t think I’m going to get this, especially if the character was a real person—but I’m going to try and sell it.”)
The film Tick, Tick...Boom! is based on a musical written and performed by the late Jonathan Larson, that centers Larson’s struggles writing a rock opera (that eventually flopped) and his anxieties about turning 30. Larson’s production of Tick, Tick...Boom! is what eventually led him to writing the musical RENT, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème (and according to writer and activist Sarah Schulman, is essentially a straightwashed ripoff of her novel People in Trouble—but that’s a story for another day).
Susan arrives in the film as Jonathan’s super-talented girlfriend, who just received a job offer to work at a studio in the Berkshires. Jonathan, however, continues to brush her off—until he realizes just how much of his relationship he has jeopardized for his career. But the film revels in letting Susan show just how talented she really is as a dancer, and that it is Jonathan’s loss if he can’t see that. “I think the world is losing its interest in the cis hetero white male perspective when it comes to TV and film. There is much more that’s interesting about a BIPOC female’s perspective of the world; I’m trying to get to a point in my career where I can push those narratives forward, whether it’s from a directorial or producing perspective,” Shipp said. “We need that in our industry. That’s where it’s headed. That’s what people are hungry for. Let’s stop talking about the colonizers.”
Following her audition for Tick, Tick...Boom!, it wasn’t long before the next challenge hit Shipp—the actress can act, and she can certainly sing, but she did not consider herself to be a dancer, and definitely not in the professional sense. She trained for two months, dancing for up to seven hours a day, before beginning filming in New York. “If I’m representing an entire group of people, I want to do it as much justice as I possibly can, and I am proud to say I did all my own stunts,” she said.
“I was not a dancer before I started this job, but with the amount of effort and time that I put into figuring that out, I do consider myself a dancer,” Shipp said. “I’m not a professional dancer. But now, I’m like, Hey, make some space—because I might throw a couple of elbows and it'll be...cute,” she went on with a laugh.
Then Covid hit and Shipp packed it up to go back home to California for about six months. Eventually, she flew back to New York to film the rest, but during that downtime between filming—and even while she remained in her own isolated Covid-safe bubble during the final months of the shoot, Shipp started to feel what many of us felt: restless. There was endless creativity at work, but a dearth of inspiration at home. But watching Garfield’s interpretation of Jonathan Larson made something click. There’s a scene in the film in which, while working through a fit of writer’s block, the playwright tells an agent he often writes about the most quotidian items around him, like a packet of sugar, just to challenge himself to see if he can write a song about anything.
Shipp thought she’d give it a try. “I wrote a song about a Band-Aid. I wrote a song about a tampon, a PlayStation, dating trash cans, everything I possibly could,” she said. “I’d romanticize these inanimate objects. I call it ‘inanimately objectified.’ That’s what I was feeling inside and my little Limerick to it.” One of the songs, “Dirty Long Sleeve Shirt,” was just released, and Shipp has plans to release more of the pieces she wrote as part of a compilation. “I think there's a relatability there for people to be like, oh yeah, I was crazy alone too,” she said.
Shipp explained that she’s always been a writer (she even wrote a song a couple years ago about a chair, inspired by “one of my love affairs...about wanting to be someone’s favorite chair and being that thick chocolate corduroy cushion”) but the pandemic changed her relationship to writing songs as a creative and cathartic outlet. “A lot of what I was writing about had to do with the civil rights movement coming back into this swell. It’s always been there. It’s always moved in waves, but it really felt like it was overwhelming,” she said. “A lot of my songs were about that and how overwhelming it felt to be a woman of color.”
“Not being able to protest and march was really hard for me. As a Black woman, I was out there in the streets in L.A. when I had the time off,” she said of returning to work in New York during the height of the pandemic. Shipp was feeling stressed about her limited involvement in protests because she had to remain Covid-free for work: “If I couldn't march, I was on the sidelines, handing out waters and granola bars and Gatorades and those little packets of milk. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to have a voice.”
“I felt like my voice has always been so stifled, and this was a moment when we could really scream,” she went on. “I wasn’t able to do that because I was in this bubble and I was racking my brain about it because I really wanted to do this movie, but I was just like where is my activism? What does that look like for me?”
Then, during a call with her therapist, she had an a-ha moment. “My therapist was like, Well, Alex, you occupying a space that was originally written for a white woman is a form of activism. And it totally changed my perspective,” she explained. “It’s about representation—and we say it all the time, but I really got it in that moment with this job. I really understood that this was not a space that was meant for me.”
“I was put in this position, in which I can flourish and I was going to take full advantage of it in every way, shape or form.”