Teenage outsiders have not traditionally been considered ripe fodder for musical theater — heightened emotions like those expressed in, say, West Side Story notwithstanding. Be More Chill, the latest little show that could be poised for big Broadway success, tackles those subjects head-on, along with the increasingly complicated role of technology and other topical concerns for teens today.
The brainchild of two rising creative stars, composer/lyricist/performer Joe Iconis and playwright Joe Tracz — both making their Broadway debuts — Chill is based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel, in which an unpopular teenager’s life is transformed by a “Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor,” abbreviated SQUIP, ingested in the form of a pill. The musical adaptation began its life at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, premiering there in the summer of 2015.
Iconis and Tracz, who both had a relationship with the theater, had been familiar with each other’s work when their mutual agent introduced them and suggested they read Vizzini’s book, “thinking we both might respond to it,” Iconis recalls. “I loved the specificity of the characters, how Ned Vizzini used these archetypes of teen stories but intentionally made them messy and complicated, so you couldn’t just put them in a box. And I responded to the sci-fi element. I thought, ‘I know exactly how this turns into a musical.’”
That musical will arrive at the Lyceum Theatre next year — previews for Chill begin February 13, with an opening set for March 10 — as the result of a grass-roots campaign that any politician would envy. Following its run at Two River, videos and a cast recording of Chill began generating huge attention online, with social media providing the kind of promotion money can’t buy: The recording has been streamed more than 200 million times, and the show ranks as the second most talked-about musical on Tumblr, after Hamilton in 2017.
A limited Off-Broadway engagement of Chill last summer sold out, with tickets purchased by fans in all 50 states and in 18 countries. Oh, and if you haven’t yet heard, a film adaptation is in development.
“The whole journey has been surreal,” says Iconis. “Even with the movie stuff, we were sort of in talks with people, and it just happened. But that feels too fresh to say anything about it. I’ve been in theater for 12 or 13 years, and I’m cautious. I didn’t even think we’d make it to New York City.”
Both of Chill’s creators had faith, though, that the show would resonate with audiences everywhere if simply given the chance to do so. “The show begins with a character who thinks he’s the only person who feels the way he does,” Tracz says. “But while on this journey, he discovers his peers are all struggling with the same issues, and by the end of it they’ve all come together. It’s a comedy that deals with big issues in a way that feels inclusive and hopeful.”
That spirit of inclusivity extends to Chill’s company of performers, Iconis notes. “One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that we’re doing a new Broadway musical where the cast consists pretty much exclusively of character actors, who don’t look the way actors typically cast as leads in a Broadway musical look. It’s ethnically diverse, diverse in terms of body types, in pretty much every way. And I think that’s awesome.”
One central character in Chill actually has nonhuman inspiration: That would be the SQUIP, who initially helps Jeremy, our insecure protagonist, gain more confidence. “One of the things I love about this metaphor is that you think of antidepressants,” says Tracz, “but because it’s a computer chip, it also taps into our relationship with technology and the Internet, which allows you to be different things to different people. So we’re touching on different aspects of peer pressure, looking at mental health and drugs and media.”
Both Iconis and Tracz had earned attention for musicals focusing on the trials and longings of young people. The latter’s credits include The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, a well-received adaptation of the popular children’s book series. Iconis has garnered a following with works such as Bloodsong of Love and The Black Suits.
“I love writing for young characters,” Iconis says, “because they have these huge emotions, huge things going on inside them, but they don’t always have the vocabulary to articulate them.” Adds Tracz, “You don’t yet have the filters you’re going to build up, which means you can have this huge outpouring of emotional energy.”
Still quite young themselves, the collaborators are keen that the version of Be More Chill that fans see on Broadway in a few months will reflect their own growth, and acknowledge an ever-changing world.
“It’s impossible in 2018 to not have what’s going on in America influence your writing, especially with a contemporary story,” says Iconis. “Joe and I were able to interact with so many fans during the Off-Broadway run, and I know that so many people, like members of the LGBTQ community, were grateful to be represented in this show. We have to make sure we’re respectful of the people who have built up this show, and that every line and every lyric serve the story we’re trying to tell.”
Pictured above: Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz. Photo by Marc J. Franklin/Playbill.