By now the story of Be More Chill, “Michael in the Bathroom” and George Salazar has entered Broadway lore, so just a quick recap: Joe Iconis’ musical about high school theater geeks, teenage angst and a seductive new pill-sized technology that can turn a kid from nobody to popular in one gulp began its road to Broadway in New Jersey. Or on the internet. Or both.
After a 2015 production at New Jersey’s Two River Theater came and went, its cast album that went viral, with 170 million fans around the world streaming the music. Mostly, at least at first, they streamed “Michael in the Bathroom,” a cri de coeur performed by actor George Salazar as Michael, best friend of Chill‘s lead character Jeremy. Abandoned by his pal after years of us-against-them in the middle-school trenches, Michael takes refuge in a bathroom at a cool-kids party, hiding from the world and belting a song that gives voice to every self-conscious kid sacrificed at the altar of an old buddy’s newfound popularity.
Born and raised in Orlando, Florida, Salazar had his first taste of success at 24 in 2010, when he was cast in the second national tour of Spring Awakening. He made his Broadway debut a year later in Godspell, and stayed more or less busy until someone, somewhere first shared that digital file of a song from a little show in Red Bank, New Jersey from summer 2015.
Deadline spoke to Salazar recently about the show, the song and how his life has changed, a change that makes itself known every night on Broadway when “Michael in the Bathroom” is greeted with the kind of applause an outsider can only imagine.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: I’ve seen the show twice now and I’m still surprised that you’re 33. How do you convince audiences that you’re in high school?
George Salazar: The last thing I want to come across as is some geriatric who’s trying to pretend to be a teenager. On the inside, I’ll have you know, my body is crumbling, but on the outside I’m glad that it seems like I’m passably a young person. Joe often talks about the alchemy of when an actor and a character just walk in step perfectly. In real life I have a youthful exuberance, I guess I would say. It sounds douchey of me to say that, but I do and it translates. It’s actually an Achilles heel for me. I did the Off-Broadway revival of [Jonathan Larson’s] Tick, Tick…Boom! and I played a marketing exec who was over 30 – the same exact age I was. When the reviews came out, a lot of them said I was not passably a marketing exec. Like, I didn’t have the energy or the maturity blah, blah, blah. But the youthful and, like, explosive energy works in my favor with this role.
The show caught on with audiences much younger than Broadway is used to seeing. I imagine you get all sorts of letters – well, not letters, but emails, texts, however kids make contact. Burden or privilege?
I see it as a really full circle moment. It’s going to sound corny, but I genuinely cherish these interactions because…okay, a little context: I’m a first-generation American. I grew up mixed race. My mother’s from the Philippines and my father’s from Ecuador and growing up was incredibly difficult. I grew up in a time when like the census didn’t include an option for mixed race. When I took the SATs and had to bubble in which ethnicity I was, I raised my hand and asked the teacher, can you help me on this? Before I even flipped a page. Because it says choose one and there’s no option for mixed race. The teacher asked, well, what’s your dad? I said well he’s from Ecuador, and they said okay, well, bubble in Latin and I felt terrible for the whole rest of the exam, like I was completely negating my mother’s existence. I’m literally half Filipino and half Ecuadorian, and here I was choosing one over the other.
So growing up I did not see myself reflected in television, in movies, in theater. And I’m also gay, so throw that into the mix and it’s truly a buffet of confusion.
So doing this show I have been meeting young people who at 13 have their shit together in a way that I didn’t until I was, honestly, 28, 29 years old. I’ve been inspired by meeting them. Seeing that the work I do with my friends and this character that I play and I pour so much of my love and heart into is having such an impact and effect on young people is truly the greatest reward that I’ve experienced in my entire life.
If this show hadn’t come along, what kind of obstacles do you think would have presented themselves to you with regard to your ethnicity? I’m thinking of Darren Criss who said, after starring in the Assassination of Gianni Versace series, that he had never really come across any sort of barrier to his career because he presents with Caucasian features [Criss’ mother is Filipino].
I have been very fortunate to make an impression among people who I respect as artists and those people have been my saving grace both artistically and financially. I’ve been able to support myself as an actor and I fully admit it’s been very difficult, but I am grateful for those people because without those people it would’ve been a very bleak couple of years. If I’m going to be completely honest, there have been times when I would sit there and just wish that I wasn’t mixed race, that it would be so much easier if I was a white male, and that kind of thinking is really toxic. It starts to infiltrate your spirit and it makes you resent who you are and where you come from, and that’s like spoiling yourself from the inside out. So I try to stay away from that kind of thinking and rather than focus on how difficult it is to be mixed race in this business and so visually not Caucasian, I prefer to focus on all of the wonderful artists who have given me opportunities over the years because they’ve allowed me to compile a canon of work that I am really proud of – regardless of what the reviewers may have thought of me as a marketing exec.
The ethnicity and sexuality of Michael, your character in Be More Chill, is not specified. But are you hinting at his sexuality?
I have kind of modeled Michael from the beginning on myself in high school. I just made him the better version, like if I was able to do high school over again, I would do it exactly like Michael instead of trying so desperately to fit in and be liked by everyone.
Do you play at all that Michael is in love with Jeremy or is it purely platonic?
I will tell you that I am playing Michael without an attraction to his friend. When I was that age in high school I was figuring my shit out. I didn’t know what I was and I also wasn’t trying to rush into it. There was a fear of it. So when I’ve been creating Michael every step of the way, I wanted to make sure that his sexuality was not an issue. I don’t want to sexualize a 16-year-old.
But if people are coming in and seeing something in the character that they believe is him in love with his best friend, great. Draw your own conclusions. What’s exciting is that it feels like I’m part of a choose-your-own-adventure experience…I certainly had and still have tons and tons and tons of straight male friends who are just straight male friends, and then in high school there were definitely straight male friends that I had a huge crush on. But I feel I treated each of the friendships the same. As George, I pour the same amount of heart into each of my friendships. My story in the show is about someone who loves his friend and will do anything for his friend.
But there are young LGBTQ kids who are seeing the show and who have voiced that they feel represented by Michael, and I’m thrilled with that. In version 2.0 [Off Broadway] we threw in a line for Michael where he says “my mothers would be thrilled.” That one line changed the character kind of entirely because he’s now a little more complicated. Meeting young people who love our show – this is kind of where that line came from – I was meeting young kids who have lesbian mothers and their energy and their essence is completely different and I will tell you why: Because for so long gay people were not able to raise kids and were not able to have a family and so now that gay people can, they – and this is my experience – gay people love their kids in a way that is so special, in a way that is so unique and that kind of love when you’re a child and you’re developing and you receive that kind of love and attention from your parents, it makes you a different type of person. So that’s another kind of essence thing with Michael – he’s different from everybody else because he’s raised by different people.
Is the character still developing in any way?
I’ve sung “Michael in the Bathroom” well over 3 hundred times in performance and every single time I’ve done it, it’s felt like a different performance, a different song. I’m not trying to chase the feeling or the sensation of one performance that I thought went really well, I’m just in the moment, and so if something comes out of my mouth differently, there’s no reason to scurry back and lock into a delivery that I’ve done a hundred times. But it’s never in a detrimental, changing-the-story kind of way.
And that brings me to my last question. If “Michael in the Bathroom” hadn’t blown up online, if that first person who shared that song on the internet hadn’t shared it, do you ever wonder where you would be now?
I’ve never been one to play the what-ifs kind of game, but all I can tell you is the person who shared the song that first time, I am eternally indebted to. This show and this song in particular changed my life. It gave me a feeling of worth as an artist that I had not felt before 2015 in New Jersey. It opened up a world of collaboration between Joe Iconis and myself. It’s delivered a bountiful and fruitful collaboration, a series of collaborations with Stephen Brackett and with Joe Tracz. The person who did that changed my life forever. I meet young people and parents who feel inspired by my story and who feel inspired by my work, and so rather than wonder where I would be, I just like to think about how wonderful it is that it all happened – and that I get to share it all with my parents.
At opening nights my mother couldn’t stop crying. I mean, she literally cried through the entire evening, even at the party. I don’t come from a family that is steeped with money or a rich financial history. My parents moved here from the Philippines and Ecuador with literally nothing. My dad was sent up here without his mom when he was 4 and was raised by aunts and uncles, and he barely finished high school. He was able to work his ass off to provide a life for his family that has led me to this point, and my parents, I’m ashamed to say but I’m also proud to say, have bailed me out of so many financial pickles…
Nothing to be ashamed of there…
…and they’ve never stopped believing in me. When my mom came to the first preview she was, like, “Can I come out to the stage, George? I just want to see it.” And so she came out with me, my dad came to see the show and he came out as well, and they’re just beside themselves. Every little interview and every little feature and every little segment and every fan interaction they’ve…I can see them watching and memorizing it in their brains, and it’s really overwhelmed me. Because, you know, I do it for them.