By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 09, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
Maria Baranova

What if going viral could get you to Broadway? Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, with music and lyrics from Joe Iconis and a book by Joe Tracz, Be More Chill, which opened on Broadway March 10, is the winner of that unlikely digital lottery.

The musical — which follows a teen outcast (Will Roland) who implants a computer into his brain in a bid for popularity — sputtered after less-than-stellar reviews for its regional premiere in 2015. Its frank depiction of teenagers grappling with depression, social anxiety, and suicide has earned comparisons to Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansenand for a brief moment, they could have shared a trajectory.

Be More Chill premiered in the summer of 2015 at the Two River Theater in New Jersey, only a few months before Dear Evan Hansen’s own out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C. But while Dear Evan Hansen moved swiftly on to an Off-Broadway production and Tony-winning, sell-out run, Be More Chill quietly closed. “Dear Evan Hansen’s path began and ours was just over. We were just dead,” songwriter Joe Iconis tells EW. But then something crazy happened.

Two River Theater partnered with Ghostlight Records to record and release an original cast album and by summer 2018, the show’s scrappy cast album had mysteriously exploded, scoring 150 million streams online, numbers previously seen only by veritable hits like Hamilton. (The streams have now topped more than 300 million.) Suddenly, Be More Chill became the second-most-discussed musical of 2018 on the social app Tumblr.

While the show had failed to resonate with gatekeepers like critics and more traditional theatregoers, it was igniting something among its teenage fans, tapping into their experiences and struggles in a way fueled by fanatic devotion. “I don’t think of teenagers as a different species. All the same things I go through as an adult male are the things I was going through when I was teen. It’s just as an adult I’ve learned how to build up that wall so I’m not expressing things as aggressively and inarticulately,” Iconis muses. “So it’s amazing young people were the ones who discovered the show and immediately responded to all that stuff [that] was there under the surface.” Others had dismissed the show as a wacky sci-fi experiment with no real heft, missing the very thing that inspired fan devotion – the universality of a longing to fit in and what Iconis calls its “emotional authenticity.”

Producer Gerald Goehring echoes this, pointing to the show’s ability to merge heavy themes that connect with teens on a hyper-personal level with its light, comedic tone. “Students tend to look under the hood more than us adults do,” Goehring says. “They don’t have the filters we have as adults now and they’re looking for ways to express themselves and maybe they don’t have the emotional vocabulary to do it, and Joe’s work allows them to.”

“Even though it’s dealing with these moments that feel really private and vulnerable, and it’s dealing with these open wounds, it still feels like a celebration,” Iconis adds of what might have propelled the show to such heights. “Young people [are] like, ‘Thanks for having something that’s about depression where all the songs are bops.’”

And yet, Iconis found this youthful exuberance still wasn’t likely to lead to Broadway. At least, not initially. “It was impossibly hard to get anyone to take what was happening seriously,” says Iconis of his hope that the album’s rise would translate to a second professional production. “It was crazy because I felt like I had these numbers, it was data that didn’t lie…. It was challenging to get people to look at what that meant and to take a leap.”

Shortly after the cast album was recorded and the show failed to garner more professional interest, Iconis made the decision to license the title for amateur shows. Goehring, a self-professed supporter of rising young talent in musical theatre, was mounting one such staging in Connecticut in early 2018 when he discovered that audience members had traveled from Brazil and Canada. He’d been talking with Iconis about commissioning a new piece aimed for Broadway, but on the heels of its viral success and this audience turn-out, they decided to give Be More Chill an Off-Broadway run in the summer of 2018. It sold out before it opened.

Still, Iconis wanted to just savor the experience. “I’ve been disappointed so many times in my career,” he explains. “I’ve gone into this place of never being optimistic at all about anything because I’m so sick of being disappointed about things I should be happy about. I was like, ‘Let me enjoy the fact that this show is on a stage in Manhattan’ and don’t make me have to view this entire experience as a big disappointment when we don’t get to Broadway.” But against all odds, they did make it to Broadway, and the show’s dizzying success continued into its earliest days there, breaking house records at the Lyceum Theatre in its first week of previews.

Maria Baranova

How did the team and producers know this viral phenomenon would translate into ticket sales when the very people listening to it and writing fan fiction didn’t necessarily have buying power? “There has never been a commercial Off-Broadway production in New York City that happened because of the streaming numbers associated with a cast album,” responds Iconis. “There is no test; there is no graph; there is nothing that could stack up how this has gone through the course of history because this has never happened before.”

Goehring admits he spends every day thinking about this conundrum, waiting for the phone to stop ringing. But time and again, expectations have been exceeded, records have been broken, and Goehring notes that sales numbers are steadily on the rise along with the median age of the audience member indicating strong word-of-mouth. “We don’t want to believe our own hype,” he says. “We know that we have a lot of work to do to turn this into something that is not a flash in the pan the show because we believe it’s not. But sometimes the traditional routes of having something certified, having approval from a reviewer or a teacher or a parent, sometimes that is not the driving force for somebody in our culture to like something.”

Part of not believing their own hype has included putting the show through a standard workshop and development process, tweaking songs, lyrics, and more as they moved from one production to another. Iconis says this made it a unique and specific re-writing experience because the existence and popularity of the cast album meant portions of the audience would be going in expecting certain details. “It made it harder in that we felt like we couldn’t just change something to change it,” he explains. “This wasn’t a re-writing experience where you just make it different, not better. It was like we have to make this better.

But the internet means that all of the versions of Be More Chill can exist simultaneously, one never invalidating another. “It’s something that is amazing about this idea of theatre living on the internet,” marvels Iconis. “The cast album from Two River Theater doesn’t go away. It always exists. It’s always there. I love the idea that in 10 years, hopefully there’ll be a cast album from Broadway and hopefully, there’ll be a cast album from our London production and our movie. I love the idea of someone listening to all these versions of the show.”

Be More Chill is in uncharted territory, but now it’s clearer than ever that the internet and social media are a potent force for musical theatre – whether it’s artists like Iconis or Team Starkid (A Very Potter Musical) popularizing their music and shows solely through digital channels or the fervor for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamildrops expanding the musical tapestry of cultural phenomenon Hamilton.

Ironically, the potent force of social media has propelled a show to popularity whose very existence interrogates the role of technology in connection and isolation. “Social media is connecting us in a way that’s historic at the same time it’s keeping us apart,” notes Goehring. “At the end of the day, it’s how we relate to each other as people, as friends, and how we talk and don’t need technology to assist us because we’re people and we can communicate in ways that are real.”

But Iconis is quick to point out the show’s investment in both sides of the issue. “There’s a line in the show that says, ‘Technology isn’t evil, it’s just how you use it,’ and that’s the idea behind Be More Chill. It’s not about the actual devices,” he explains. “It’s a cautionary tale, but we’d like to believe that social media actually can be used for good. That’s what the show says and certainly is the reason the show exists.”

Be More Chill ‘s viral trajectory now stands out in this year’s theatrical crowd. For Iconis, it potentially democratizes Broadway in an unprecedented way. “Social media and the power of the people can and should play a part in how shows get to Broadway,” he says. “I hope more shows arrive in big, beautiful commercial productions in New York City because people actually want to see them as opposed to because the show is a brand because a famous person is starring in the show or whatever the reasons shows typically land on a Broadway stage. It’s really cool to me that actual human beings got excited about this strange, little musical based on a property not a lot of people knew, made by people not a lot of people knew. People responded to good, old-fashioned show tunes, and I can only hope there will be more stuff that arrives in the city like that.”

But is BMC‘s journey a new viable route to Broadway footlights, or lightning in a bottle? “It’s part of a new generational way of marketing and exposure, and for us to get the artists’ message out,” remarks Goehring. “Will it happen again? Absolutely. Can you plan it? Not at all.”

Be More Chill is now playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway.

A version of this story appears in the April 5/12 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available hereDon’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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