Be More Chill breaks character archetypes and Broadway records
Based on the cult YA novel by Ned Vizzini and inspired by campy cult film classics, Be More Chill the musical has become a cult hit of its own. The original six-week production at Two River Theater in New Jersey, has spawned an Off-Broadway run, a transition to Broadway, two cast recordings, fan art and fan fiction galore and even a podcast called “How To Be More Chill.” Something about the story persists and speaks to fans, especially young ones who identify with the insecure teen characters.
Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Joe Iconis can relate. He immediately responded to the characters.
“You have this leading nerd. But he was more complicated than your typical leading nerd. And you have the stoner best friend, but he had more depth and complexities than I would ever normally see the stoner best friend ever have,” said the Garden City native. “That’s what initially hooked me in.”
The show revolves around ‘leading nerd’ Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), his best friend Michael (George Salazar), his crush Christine (Stephanie Hsu), and the cool kids that populate the school.
Enter the Squip, a Japanese supercomputer embedded in a pill that implants in the brain and delivers customized instruction on how to, well, be more chill.
Played by Jason Tam (If/Then, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert), the Squip happens to embody the persona of Keanu Reeves, a detail from the book Iconis and writing partner Joe Tracz (The Lightning Thief) considered changing.
“When we were first adapting, we thought, ‘should this not be Keanu Reeves? Is that writing us into a corner?’” Iconis said. “This was before the John Wick movies and I feel like Keanu was kind of in a between spot in his career.”
Little did they know that by 2019, Keanu would become the internet’s official boyfriend, with meme after wholesome Keanu meme filling social media channels. Needless to say, they made the right choice.
“We purposely want the show to feel current, but we don’t want to get hung up on references that tie it to a specific era,” Iconis explained. “And we sort of just lucked out with Jason Tam…He just has this really magical…Keanu-ness to him. It seems like the perfect match of actor and part.”
Iconis calls the collaboration with playwright Joe Tracz the easiest collaboration he’s ever had in his life because they set ego aside and always go with what’s best for the show.
“We both love to talk about stuff before we actually put pen to paper,” he said, describing countless conversations the two had about story arcs, what scenes to use and what characters were most important to include. By the time they started writing, they already had much of it mapped out, and a few moments in the show came directly from those conversations.
“We were having the most impossible time cracking [a moment in Act 2] and I couldn’t figure out what the song wanted to be,” Iconis said. “I asked Joe, ‘what is his dad actually trying to say in this moment?’ And he said, ‘I think he’s trying to say if you love somebody, you put your pants on for them,’” which became the hook of “The Pants Song.”
The team behind BMC, as cliché as it sounds, operates like a family. Many of the key players have been involved in the show since its inception in 2012, some go back even further having worked with Iconis on past projects, and some are literal family, like actress Lauren Marcus (The Jonathan Larson Project, Company), who plays Brooke and happens to be Iconis’ wife.
When Iconis finds someone he likes working with, he’ll work with them time and time again. Charlie Rosen (Prince of Broadway, 8-Bit Big Band), the music supervisor and orchestrator for BMC, also orchestrated Iconis’ Long Island-set musical The Black Suits and the upcoming Broadway Bounty Hunter, which opens July 9 at Greenwich House Theater. The collaboration between the two results in a unique sound that fits the work at hand.
“On Be More Chill, sonically, I was really inspired by John Carpenter film scores of the ’80s. I was inspired by 1950s invaders from space film scores, which is where the theremin [electronic musical instrument] came from. I was inspired by classic musical comedy scores, like Damn Yankees, Little Shop and Bye Bye Birdie,” Iconis explained. “Charlie is the one who is actually taking the musical idea and putting it in the hands of musicians…And all of those influences mashed up together and created this very, very, very unique sound that’s specific to Be More Chill.”
Every song stands apart, from quirky to heartfelt, from “I Love Play Rehearsal,” the ode theater kids have been waiting for their whole lives, to “The Smartphone Hour,” which perfectly encapsulates the way the modern rumor mill works.
Besides having a unique score, BMC is in a league of its own because of the groundbreaking path it took to get to Broadway. Since it was not based on a well-known brand, didn’t have a big producer or corporation backing it, and didn’t receive a rave New York Times review early on, it had to blaze its own trail.
“There aren’t shows that have ever gotten to Broadway before just based on social media love,” Iconis said, referring to the cast recording discovered by and adored by fans online long after the original production closed. “It’s wild. It’s something that only could have happened in 2019 because of social media, but the real reason we got here couldn’t be more old school. It’s just word of mouth. It’s kids listening to these songs saying to other kids, ‘oh, you gotta hear this song, it’s awesome.’”
The love, though emphatic and loud, was not universal. Though the show deals with accessible themes and relatable characters, not everyone has jumped on the BMC train. Some old-school theatergoers, particularly Tony voters, don’t connect with it the way that so many others do.
“It’s such an easy show to dismiss. It’s so easy to look at Be More Chill and be like ‘oh, it’s some stupid sci-fi thing about kids, blech, I don’t care,’” Iconis said. “I think if people would look even the slightest bit harder at the actual material, they’ll see that there’s a lot going on there…What really matters is that actual human beings respond to it. I feel great about the work I did on Be More Chill and I feel like history will be very kind to my musical.”
All signs indicate he’s right. “Michael in the Bathroom,” the emotional anthem of the show whose popularity is responsible for the show’s Off-Broadway revival, has inspired parodies including “Elphaba in the Bathroom,” a Wicked version sung by Ciara Renée in a YouTube video, and “Hosts in the Bathroom,” sung by James Corden, Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles at the 2019 Tony Awards.
In true Squip fashion, the show is well on its way to taking over the world. Late last year, BMC announced a film adaptation was in the works with Shawn Levy (Stranger Things, Arrival) and Greg Berlanti (DC’s Arrowverse, Love, Simon).
“It’s really exciting,” Iconis said. “We’re starting the developmental process for that and a movie is a totally different beast.”
Unlike the Fathom Events and PBS specials that film a stage show and play it in movie theaters and on television, Iconis plans to reimagine the musical for film.
“The cool thing is our biggest influences for Be More Chill the musical were film influences, so it kind of feels full circle,” Iconis said. “It makes a weird kind of sense that Be More Chill would find its way to the screen because we kind of feel like it was always destined to do that anyway.”
See the funny, joyful and exciting Be More Chill through Aug. 11 at the Lyceum Theater, 149 W 45th St., NYC. For tickets, visit bemorechillmusical.com or call 212-239-6200.