How a viral sensation about high school, friendship, and an evil singing algorithm hopes to become Broadway’s next big thing.
At the center of the Lyceum Theatre, a Broadway house built in 1903, the Be More Chill set pro trudes into its filigreed Beaux-Arts surroundings with concentric frames resembling the beveled outlines of an iPhone. The set has the sheen of a giant video screen, rigged with projections that display the circuitry and computer code essential to the musical’s plot and themes. You might wonder if a technologically advanced alien race had decided to build a headquarters at a historical landmark in midtown or if the internet itself has been made manifest in here—which, in a way, it has.
Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel of teenage suburban sci-fi discontent, Be More Chill first premiered at the Two River Theater in New Jersey in 2015. It ran for four weeks and then closed. But the internet latched on to the show’s cast album, which in turn inspired art and fan fiction. The album has since racked up hundreds of millions of streams. Be More Chill was the secondmost-popular musical on Tumblr in 2017 and 2018, just behind Hamilton. Fans have rendered the songs in myriad styles of animation, including stop-motion Lego.
That attention propelled Be More Chill to run Off Broadway late last summer, when it sold out, extended its run, and sold out again. This month it opens on Broadway. Along the way, the producers made time for the musical to be retooled and rebooted: The book was tweaked, a new song added, the costumes and set re-designed. They call it Be More Chill 3.0.
On January 30, cast members arrived to see this set for the first time. A few weeks of technical rehearsals had just ended. The performers entered the theater oohing and aahing and reintroduced themselves to the creative team and crew, who were already manning desks of sound, video, and lighting equipment that resembled NASA mission control. There was Will Roland, late of Dear Evan Hansen, playing the show’s geeky hero; director Stephen Brackett, enthusiastic behind thick glasses and a beard; and “the Joes,” book writer Joe Tracz and unassuming composer Joe Iconis, who got the biggest cheers. George Salazar, who plays the fan favorite Michael, started to tear up. He was on the lip of the stage, where smartphone abuts dusty old theater.
Here, how it all came to be.
A Phenomenon Reimagined
THE WORK ON the Broadway version of Be More Chill begins at the rehearsal space in midtown with a several-day workshop. Brackett, Iconis, and Tracz present a new version of the script and ideas for new music and feel out which aspects of the show need reexamining. “Everybody knows that this show is wild and fun and loud and raucous,” Brackett explains to the cast. “But we want to make sure that we’re finding the moments where the show can breathe.”
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