After its humble run at a regional theater in New Jersey, Joe Iconis sci-fi musical comedy grew legs on the internet, resulting in its improbable run in New York
When high school-set musical Be More Chill finished its month-long run at New Jerseys Two River Theatre three summers ago, composer Joe Iconis was already familiar with the sinking disappointment of putting a show to bed. Many times before, he says, a musical of his had enjoyed a solid run off-off-Broadway, or at a regional theatre, and failed to gain traction after attempts to woo producers. Its not like, all of us crying together, singing show tunes, thinking about what mightve been, he tells the Guardian, reflecting on the letdown. Its messier and sadder than that. Its everyone being bummed, thinking maybe something will happen but knowing nothing will. Ive just gotten better at compartmentalizing it.
Shortly after the show closed, Two River funded a cast album, which dropped quietly on streaming sites in 2015. As far as Iconis knew, that was that. But then, in early 2017, something strange happened.
Be More Chill the bombastic pop-rock, sci-fi musical about an anxious teenager named Jeremy who takes a mysterious black market drug to get popular (quite literally, a chill pill) experienced something of an e-renaissance, precipitated by the cast album recorded with little fanfare.
Book writer Joe Tracz began to receive messages on Instagram from fans whose social media avatars featured Jeremys vandalized knapsack or a photo of George Salazar, who plays the best friend and fellow outcast Michael. Teens who had never seen the show live made Tumblr pages and digizines. On forums they commiserated about their Squips, a reference to the computerized man the drug makes manifest in Jeremys head as a didact of chillness. It was the second most popular musical on Tumblr in 2017, right behind one called Hamilton. Inconceivably, from a little non-profit theater in Red Bank across the river, a veritable, impassioned online fandom had sprouted.
I was like, maybe somewhere three people discovered this cast album, recalls Tracz. Then those three people became 30, which became 300, which became over 150m streams on Spotify.
Fast forward to August 2018: Iconis, 36, effusive, and deeply literate in musical theatre, sits in the lounge area at the Signature Center, where Be More Chills off-Broadway engagement has been extended another week. Its original run sold out in hours, an unprecedented achievement for a show that idled in musical theatre limbo for two years. Surreal is how he describes the last several months. Im convinced its a dream and this entire phenomenon will dissipate if Im awakened, adds Tracz, his collaborator.
Adapted from Ned Vizzinis 2004 novel, Be More Chill is a comic and vaguely fantastical take on the trope of the neer-do-well high schooler, drawing not-unjustified comparisons to Glee and Dear Evan Hansen. Its humor is dirty and mordant, its songs energetic and maximal. Beneath the surface, though, is a strand of heavy pathos. The standout number, in which Michael lingers in the bathroom at a house party to deliver an aria brimming with teenage neuroses, is devastatingly relatable. But its countered by ditties like The Telephone Hour a humorous nod to Bye, Bye Birdie where landlines are replaced with iPhones and songs that casually reference suicide and masturbation.
People ask a lot if Michael in the Bathroom is a sad or a funny song, says Tracz, who tells them its both. When youre alone in the bathroom at a party, its the most traumatic, visceral, raw experience. And then you survive that and youre able to laugh, because you made it through what felt so huge at the time.