Theater producers are asking Joe Iconis how he did it. How did the composer turn a low-profile musical with the tween-friendly title Be More Chill, originally staged to little fanfare three years ago at a New Jersey regional theater, into a sold-out Off Broadway wonder?
Iconis, a writer and performer most widely known for songs he wrote for NBC’s Smash (“Broadway, Here I Come,” “The Goodbye Song”), has his theories about how a fairly traditional musical – albeit with a sci-fi twist and a certain high school glee – inspired millions of people around the world to post Be More Chill fan art, stream the cast album more than 150 million times and become Tumblr’s second-ranked “most talked about” musical following Hamilton, and all before singing its first note in New York?
In short, how did a musical go viral?
Deadline spoke to Iconis about this uncommon – unique, more accurately – theatrical journey, and where it goes from here.
But first, the show: With music and lyrics by Iconis, a book by A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix) writer/producer Joe Tracz (based on the Young Adult novel by Ned Vizzini), choreography by Chase Brock and directed by Stephen Brackett, Be More Chill follows high schooler Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), a more or less invisible “loser…geek…or whatever” (as he describes himself) who silently moons over his theater club classmate Christine (Stephanie Hsu) and takes abuse from various bullies and mean girls.
Until, that is, he discovers The Squip, a mysterious, illicit super-computer in pill form that provides each taker with an invisible avatar-type being who provides all the right things to say and do in every social situation. (Each avatar is suited to the user – Jeremy’s bears an uncanny resemblance to Bill & Ted-era Keanu Reeves).
Things go wrong for Jeremy, of course, as Be More Chill satirizes conformity (and non-conformity) in the age of social media.
The very social media, ironically enough, that has kept the show sold out through its recently extended (to Sept. 30) run at the The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center. (The production offers a limited number of daily lottery-style tickets).
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Deadline: For those who still don’t know about Be More Chill, could you trace a brief history?
Joe Iconis: It started in 2015 as a commission from Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, and basically what that means is myself and my collaborator, Joe Tracz, had the idea to adapt Be More Chill, the novel, into a musical. We both had a relationship with Two River Theater and they said Hey why don’t we give you guys some money to develop this show and if we like it we’ll do a production. Which is what happened with the world premier production in the spring of 2015.
Deadline: You already knew the book?
Iconis: The book was given to me by my agent. He had read it and basically just thought, Iconis might might be inspired by this in some way. I immediately loved it. I responded to the complexity of the characters, how they were stylized, which felt real and messy in a really appealing way. And I loved the sci-fi twist. It was an immediate, I know how to make this a musical.
Deadline: What do you think your agent saw and thought, Yeah this is Joe.
Iconis: I hadn’t adapted any young adult novels, but I’ve written a lot of musical theater about young people. I have this show called The Black Suits about a high school garage band, and I’ve written a lot of standalone songs from the point of view of teenagers or younger. There’s a scrappiness to the characters in Be More Chill, they’re young people who don’t really fit into molds. They’re like archetypes, but messier. My agent said it just kind of felt like me when he read it.
Deadline: Okay, so Two River does it. The show closes. Flash-forward. Something starts happening.
Iconis: Everyone involved in the show was hoping that after the production at Two River we would go on to another production. Everybody’s dream is always coming to New York with a musical like ours. Sadly, that didn’t happen and everyone was pretty bummed. It was a special show that was touching audiences in Jersey and we felt like, oh man, if this thing has a chance to be seen by a larger number of people we bet it would connect, but it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen.
But the theater was really proud of the show so they paid for a cast album. We made the cast album right after we closed. It didn’t set the world on fire because no cast album sets the world on fire anymore.
Deadline: And then?
Iconis: Two years pass, and in spring of 2017 I started noticing all this social media action revolving around Be More Chill. I’ve done quite a bit of musical theater work, I do concerts all the time, and I have a pretty healthy following for a musical theater writer in New York. I’m used to people online writing about my stuff or tagging me in stuff, but this was all so out of the blue. There was a lot of Be More Chill stuff for no apparent reason, particularly involving a song called “Michael in the Bathroom” that’s sung by George Salazar.
So I contacted Salazar and I was like, dude are you doing something with Be More Chill? Are you singing the song in a concert or something? He was like no, but I’m noticing all this social media stuff.
Over the course of maybe a few months it just grew, and grew, and grew. Then over the summer it became really apparent that something insane was happening. We were getting tagged in pieces of art and fan fiction and all of this stuff everyday for no apparent reason. I contacted our record company and said, hey something’s going on with Be More Chill. At first they were like, Oh that’s cute, someone’s tweeting about your show and you think there’s a movement happening. Very sweet. But as soon as people started actually buying the album, they were like wait a minute. What’s going on with Be More Chill? Are you doing something? I said no, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s a real, real thing.
By the fall of last year it was reaching a fevered pitch, hundreds of pieces of art being created every week about the show. And then the cast album hit Billboard’s Cast Album Chart for the first time in its two years of release, which never happens. We were the best selling album of a musical that never had a run in New York.
With all that, I started trying to see if any producer would be interested in putting the thing back on a stage. It took a really long time because that’s just not something that’s ever been done before in theater – a show getting a fancy commercial production Off-Broadway because of its fan base. It was really, really hard for theater people to wrap their heads around streams and tweets and all these things that feel very ephemeral but are an actual thing that then can lead to people buying tickets.
So I finally hooked up with this producer, Jerry Goehring, who is a guy I’ve known for a little bit, he’s been a fan of my work and we’ve worked on some projects in the past. He said okay, I really believe in the show and I believe in you and let’s take a chance and see if all of the people who are clearly in love with the show will actually buy a ticket and come to New York City. And the answer was yes, clearly.
Deadline: Have you done any detective work to figure out exactly what it was that caught fire? Is it possible to determine who was the first to start tweeting about it?
Iconis: There are a lot of patient zeros in the march of the fandom – but really, as much as this is a life-is-crazy 2018 phenomenon, it’s actually just very old-fashioned word of mouth. I think there was some perfect storm stuff like Dear Evan Hansen becoming so popular, and last year there was an Off Broadway musical with a book by Joe Tracz called The Lightning Thief based on the Percy Jackson books and Joe also wrote the book for Be More Chill. And George Salazar, who sings “Michael in the Bathroom,” was in Lightning Thief, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination between these things that are super-popular with a certain type of theater fan. And then also Ben Platt and Will Roland from Dear Evan Hansen were in a show of mine years ago, and they were in The Black Suits.
So I feel like maybe it was the kind of thing where someone would watch a Dear Evan Hansen video on YouTube and then they’d get a suggestion about “Michael in the Bathroom,” and then they’d come across our show and tell their friends, and it just kind of grew, and grew, and grew.
The craziest thing is that when this thing blew up, there was no producer attached. The record company wasn’t doing anything at all to promote it. It all just happened because these kids were digging it.
Deadline: You have to be out of the Signature Theater on September 30. What then?
Iconis: We’re all really hopeful that the show will go on to another life, hopefully in New York City, but it’s not solely up to us. So many things have to fall in place for a show like ours to have a more permanent home in the city. But that’s certainly what we’re really hoping for. The show’s surprised me and everyone around it every step of the way, this underdog, this little engine that could.
Deadline: I’m guessing producers have been asking how you did it, how do you make a show go viral. Do you know the answer?
Iconis: No. I think the answer is that it happened organically. I’m sure people will try to sort of fake it now, and I’m sure a lot of money is going to be spent on trying to make shows catch on, but the real answer is, I wrote a show that I was really proud of. I didn’t write Be More Chill with the hopes that it would go viral. I wrote Be More Chill to make a show that would connect with an audience and that was an entertaining and illuminating type of theater. I’ve been asked by so many people for tips I might have. I’m, like, the tip is write a good show. There was nothing cynical about the creation of Be More Chill.