by Adam Cohen
In the vast theatrical pause of 2020, online get togethers have thrived. One gets a perspective of theatrical performers, creators, and producer’s creative process. The audience is allowed to get even more intimate with their favorite. This is inherently true about a recent interview with the actors, producers, and writers of cult favorite musical Be More Chill hosted by Dori Berinstein on the Deep Dive Broadway podcast network.
In 2011, Joe Iconis’ (composer) agent gave him a copy of Ned Vizzini’s novel “Be More Chill.” Iconis thought the novel had things he loved like “specific characters and sci-fi elements; cool subject matter and felt traditional like a 60’s musical comedy.” Paired with writer Joe Tracz who also read the book and thought it had musical bones also “with specific generational voice and wish fulfillment. I loved the specificity of voice and keyed into my high school experience plus sci-fi heightened elements. I loved the supernatural elements telling a super human story.”
Both Iconis and Tracz admitted that collaboration can be challenging, fraught and dramatic. This one appeared too easy with songs coming together in the rehearsal room as the actor’s shaped the roles. Stephanie Hsu and George Salazar in particular were with the show from early readings and influenced their songs and characters as the show evolved into staging at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ and on to off-Broadway and later Broadway.
Michael Hurst and John Dias nurtured Be More Chill at Two River. Thanks to the theater and the generous producers like Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Jerry Goehring a cast album for the production spurred viral videos (lip sync) and animation that propelled the show to new heights creating licensing demand at high schools, camps, and colleges.
Director Stephen Brackett signed on early after meeting Iconis and Tracz and being “blown away and moved by storyline especially Jeremy’s arc.” Choreographer Chase Brock invented a movement varied language for the show including the “heartbeat of hallway as kids move through school, a wholly sinister technical vocabulary for the Squib of squibs – the most fun and unexpected choreography for a pill from Japan that’s a super computer.”
After the New York run, a London one was set. Due to the Coronavirus, London opened and closed quickly. However, the creative team allowed the show to evolve as they were all “interested in continued growth.” To Iconis, the show “never felt done. So amazing to further (its) growth and in London (it) is more intimate and story characters closer (to the audience in a theater of 300).”
Brackett added the “space is radically different in London and made us reinvestigate things tried and true about show and adapt for space. It felt lovely for that audience and to keep exploring.”
Actress Morgan Siobhan Green joined the conversation and talked about how Black Lives Matter and show fans should use “radical change and allies can come forward…Use this space for legacy of show to revive and connect and encourage and empower fans who felt alone to feel powerful and become change that can be for this world.”
George Salazar, who occupied and defined the role of “Michael” through a creative process of standing “on a piano and singing through the song, landing on a key that was emotionally charged and felt at ease and comfortable to collaborate” with Iconis. After being so long identified with the role, “George made him weighty and gave gravity. There’s so much of George in Michael and in a way that makes” Iconis proud. He has a fatherly gravitas when talking of his characters and most especially his actors who are like family, participating in many concerts, especially during the holidays at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Salazar added he “was trusted with character, with highs and lows heavily featured in show which changed my life and made an insecure artist feel he could do it and I’m forever indebted to our crew and cast.” He continued “Thank you to our fans. I want to make sure the fans felt seen by actors. I got to be someone I didn’t have growing up. That makes art satisfying and something you can spend your life doing.”
Iconis, growing up as a boy on Long Island, dreamed of Broadway. The journey for the show included an array of actors like Stephanie Hsu whom he “met in audition room and there was a very magical explosion where she became Christine.” Jason Tam knew Iconis for awhile and has found his way to broadway in other roles through labs and workshops. For Be More Chill he found his way when another actor was committed to another show and he accepted Iconis’ offer with a texted wedding ring emoji. Will Roland, knew Iconis from NYU and various labs and workshops, auditioned and didn’t get the role. However, as the show evolved from Two Rivers, he was cast as the lead character Jeremy.
The rituals of the cast are varied…Roland brushes his teeth, Hsu does pre-show handstands, while Tam and Hsu improvised conversations for the props.
The London cast joined the conversation. Actor Scott Folan (Jeremy) “hadn’t seen the show in New York City. I heard about it when I got the audition and it broke my heart for not finding it before. I had no reference and it was nice to create something new and different.”
For Iconis, the remounting in London for an “audience that didn’t experience it in USA was exciting. To come to London with fresh eyes and ears was exciting. This insane cast gave me a jolt of inspiration. With amazing actors it would be foolish to not collaborate and I felt like making it over from scratch. We had a unique change to wrap around actors who weren’t like their counterparts.”
The power of Be More Chill lies in its universality. We were all in high school and had moments of insecurity and a desire for popularity. As Berinstein commented, the “show galvanizes fans, no matter where in the world, because it is so relatable.”
Blake Patrick Anderson (Michael in London) remarked the show is a “massive family and felt like I stepped into it with automatic acceptance. Michael is such a favorite, lovable character. The audience wants to like me and love what I do. This is not always the case as you step into a role. This is an iconic role with wonderful fans.” Folan added “The first night was incredible. The audience roared and I’d never felt anything like it. You can’t not smile at that moment. There’s no stage door (in our London theater) so fans are at entrance as we leave. “It’s so nice to be instantly accepted.”
And that is the remarkable thing about theater and this time. Audiences get instant behind the scenes access to actors and creators being honest about their process, thoughts, feelings, and pouring their hearts and souls into entertaining. There’s a lovely grace to the familial feeling engendered by Berinstein’s engaging conversation with the team on stage and behind Be More Chill.
The podcast is available at Deep Dive Broadway podcast network.