In the span of one year, Be More Chill will have gone from Off-Broadway to Broadway. The show’s growing popularity on social media — including a YouTube video of one of the musical’s songs, “Michael in the Bathroom,” that has now been viewed more than 2.6 million times — may be one of the reasons for its fast track to success.
“People will be talking about this for years,” says actress Stephanie Hsu, who plays Christine Canigula, of the musical’s overnight popularity. In 2017, Tumblr ranked Be More Chill as the No. 2 most talked-about musical on their platform, after Hamilton. That was before it even opened in its New York premiere Off-Broadway this past summer, selling out the entire 10-week limited run.
Fans from all 50 states plus 18 countries on five continents bought tickets to see this cult phenomenon. “I was astounded every night to meet people from across the U.S., as well as from the U.K., Brazil, Japan, Australia, and dozens of other places who had often made incredible trips to see this show,” exclaims Will Roland, who stars as the musical’s protagonist.
The new sci-fi musical, with a book by Joe Tracz (The Lightning Thief) and music and lyrics by Joe Iconis (Smash), is based on a 2004 young adult novel by Ned Vizzini. It begins previews on February 13, 2019, at the Lyceum Theatre before an official Broadway opening on March 20. Be More Chill tells the story of a geeky teen named Jeremy Heere (Roland) who wants Christine (Hsu), a Barbra Streisand–worshiping girl in his drama class, to like him. So he buys a special pill, called a “SQUIP” that alters his personality to make him more outgoing and popular.
Roland has been working with Iconis on original material for more than a decade. He wasn’t originally offered a role in the initial 2015 production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, despite his involvement in several table readings of the musical where he played Michael. But the theater gods had other plans for Roland, who then got cast in the Tony Award–winning hit Dear Evan Hansen.
It was Roland’s birthday (March 5) when he found out Be More Chill was getting a second chance — this time Off-Broadway, at The Pershing Square Signature Center. He got a call from Iconis with what was to become life-changing news. “The opportunity to lead this production represents a real-life, honest-to-goodness dream come true for me. Best birthday present ever.”
Both of his most recent shows have resonated in a young fan base, with themes of high school social issues from suicide to peer pressure. Hsu, who was part of the Two River’s incarnation, didn’t realize how impactful the show’s story was until one day when she was eating lunch at a Red Bank restaurant in between shows and a group of fans recognized her. “That was truly the first seed that was planted that I was like, ‘Hello, this is really affecting some people.’”
For Hsu, playing Christine is defying Broadway’s starring stereotypes. “She is a 4-foot-11 tiny Asian girl. I am not the typical ingénue,” she explains of her quirky character, who wears a lime green dress and purple tights. “I know how ingénues have been portrayed: tall, skinny, and blonde. But that’s not real. I know that me being in the skin that I’m in is huge.”
“Christine Canigula is also the kind of character we need more of,” Roland describes of his costar. “She is a free-thinking, brave, weird young lady. But amid all her confidence and awesome weirdness, she has doubts.”
Both characters are not what some may consider traditional romantic leads, perhaps one reason why so many people have “reacted so strongly to the show,” says Roland. A scene in which Christine sings a song about how she loves play rehearsal really homes in on how Christine’s not your average leading lady, like Laurey in Oklahoma! or Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. “She’s all over the place — it’s such a comedic beast,” Hsu says of the “athletic” number.
Performing the role on Broadway is a dream Hsu never expected would come true. After the cast recorded an album of the show once it closed at Two River, she swam down to a pineapple under the sea to star as Karen Plankton in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Her castmates didn’t know that she only had a six-month contract so she could fly back home to California and spend some time crafting her career on the West Coast.
But during a short warm-weather weekend getaway during SpongeBob’s run in the dead of winter, an email popped up in her inbox from Joe Iconis that changed all her travel plans. It was news of Be More Chill heading Off-Broadway.
“I honestly felt a very profound feeling of relief. I kept having this feeling that I had so much work left to do in New York,” Hsu says. Then, when the cast learned during the Off-Broadway run that it was transferring to Broadway, Hsu felt more weight off her shoulders. “I was like, ‘Oh, wait. I don’t actually really want to go to California right now.’”
The cast all found out about the Broadway plans together during the Off-Broadway run, and their reactions were recorded. With a new theatre and increased budget, Be More Chill will see some exciting changes as it prepares for its biggest audience yet. There will be set enhancements, slight alterations in the script, but overall, “more epic-ness,” says Hsu, who has been busy during this hiatus filming a new project.
As for Roland, he just got engaged to his girlfriend, Stephanie Wessels. They’ve been on vacation overseas for some much-needed relaxation before he jumps into rehearsals. Once they begin, Roland says he’ll be “living like a monk” so his work and voice will be in their best shape every night for a show that he believes is changing the theatrical landscape.
“Bringing this show to Broadway represents, in my opinion, a major leap for our industry,” Roland adds. “I think we’re going to start to see more of those shows on the main stem in the years to come.”