Somebody wrote “NYC Loves BMC” in chalk on the sidewalk outside Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, the new home of Be More Chill, the high energy, high decibel pop-rock musical that stars Will Roland as a self-proclaimed high school “loser” who swallows a pill containing a supercomputer and becomes cool.
I tweeted a picture of the scrawled public love note; the tweet was retweeted nearly a hundred times. Be More Chill has some seriously devoted fans, most of whom seem to be 15 years old. It’s a thrill to see such teenaged enthusiasm for live theater. I wish I could share more fully in their ardor for this show.
Production photos and videos on newyorktheater.me
It’s fan zeal for Be More Chill that has brought it to Broadway. Based on the 2004 young adult novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, the musical ran for a couple of weeks in New Jersey in 2015, receiving lukewarm reviews. But the cast album for that brief run was streamed more than 150 million times, inducing a boatload of producers to resurrect it for a couple of months Off-Broadway last summer, where it again got mixed reviews – but sold out quickly.
If the full two and a half hours of Be More Chill is probably best appreciated by its niche audience, I found the Off-Broadway show in its best moments quirky and clever, with some memorable songs delivered by some terrifically talented performers.
The Broadway production of this teen musical features the same great ten-member cast, half of whom have been with the show since New Jersey; most of them are now in their 30s.
The same creative team and designers have put together the show on Broadway. The book by Joe Tracz, now making his Broadway debut, has been tweaked a bit, but it’s essentially the same. Will Roland is Jeremy Heere, tormented by the cool kids in high school, with only one friend, fellow nerd Michael (George Salazar), and an unattainable crush, Christine (Stephanie Hsu.) One of his bullies, Rich (Gerard Canonico) confesses that he too was a loser until he bought a “Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor” – a SQUIP – a big grey pill from Japan that, when ingested, sends a computer to your brain to make you more chill. Jeremy buys his own through a black market dealer at a Payless Shoe Store in the local mall. His Squip sounds like Keanu Reeves (and looks like Jason Tam, dressed the way Reeves did in The Matrix.)
Although he does help Jeremy become popular, it eventually becomes clear that his Squip doesn’t have Jeremy’s best interest in heart, and is part of an international conspiracy of Squips….
The story, a mix of satire, high school bestiary and sci-fi, serves best as setting for the loud, lively and often tuneful score by Joe Iconis, also making his Broadway debut. Iconis is one of the most promising young composers for the American theater.
Of the 20 songs in the show (one of which, “Sync Up,” has been added for the Broadway production), I still most enjoy stand-out George Salazar’s solo song “Michael in the Bathroom At A Party.” It is among the quietest in the musical, but it’s the showstopper, a rousing melody with moving lyrics about his humiliation
I am hanging in the bathroom
At the biggest party of the fall I could stay right here
and nobody’d even notice at all
Stephanie Hsu’s “I Love Play Rehearsal” is charming and fun. Salazar’s Michael is a sidekick to Jeremy Heere and Christine an object of Jeremy’s affection, but Salazar and Hsu grab and hold the center of attention whenever they’re on stage.
They are appealing because they give glimpses into the complicated, awkward and exhilarating lives of adolescents.
However, while there remains much to appreciate, the transfer to Broadway gives the musical a new context. The show has gone from a theater with fewer than 300 seats to one with more than 900. The design, already garishly pop-excessive and online-obsessive, has been turned up, and augmented with a couple of stage tricks; the Squip now descends onto the stage from above like Mary Poppins. The prices have gone up too; yes, balcony seating on the side is available at the Lyceum for as little as $49, but orchestra seats are generally priced at $165, and “Squip Zone Seating,” whatever that means, is for sale for as high as $325.
It no longer feels like the little show that could. It’s a noisy, high-powered commercial enterprise, selling itself largely to kids. So, what exactly are they selling?
In the show, the high school drama teacher Mr. Reyes (Jason SweetTooth Williams) is putting on a zombie version of Midsummer Nights Dream (which is just as unfunny as it sounds.) At one point, having also ingested a Squip, he explodes:
“You think I wanted to teach high school drama? In New Jersey? My Squip says I can go all the way to Broadway. I just have to make sure you don’t ruin my big night.” When the actor said this on a stage in New Jersey, it could be taken as the creative team’s self-deprecating joke. Even when the actor uttered this line Off-Broadway, it felt like a jab at the teacher’s pretensions. But now when the character says the line, the actor IS on Broadway. It made me wonder: Do the attitudes of the show’s producers differ from that of this character, for whom Broadway equals success, and success is all that matters? And is there a parallel here with what seems to be the unenlightened attitude of every high school character in the show? To them, popularity is all that seems to matter.
Near the beginning of the show, Rich the bully writes “Boyfriend” on Jeremy and Michael’s backpacks as a taunt. Not much later, Jeremy signs up for the school play, because Christine is in it, even though (in Iconis’s lyric) “ It’s a sign-up sheet for getting called gay.” One can take this as an acknowledgement of the actual attitudes of high school students. But I detected no effort to offer any perspective on these characters’ hateful viewpoint. The difference in this regard between the musical and Vizzini’s novel is instructive.
First of all, in the novel, Jeremy is a theater kid – not somebody reluctant to sign up for fear of being labeled gay, but somebody who’s performed eagerly in school plays for years. Ok, yes, the Jeremy of the novel does express some fear of the label when his Squip tells him to stand up straight.
“It feels gay,” Jeremy complains.
The Squip responds: “The gayer it feels, the better your posture.”
This passage in the novel might feel like a thin straw of support, but it’s more than I detected in the musical.
Shouldn’t Broadway be the one place where young gay theatergoers don’t have to feel left out and put down?
I don’t see Be More Chill as ill-timed or nearly amoral, the way I did Mean Girls. But I do regret the moments in the musical when the high school students feel one-note. The actual high school students we see regularly in the news are taking the lead in attacking such crucial problems as climate change and gun control — problems that have stalemated adults.
Be More Chill is on stage at the Lyceum (149 W 45th Street, New York, NY 10036).
Tickets and details
Be More Chill. Music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography by Chase Brock. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Ryan Rumery, projection design by Alex Basco Koch, musical direction by Emily Marshall; orchestrations by Charlie Rosen. Featuring Gerard Canonico as Rich, Katlyn Carlson as Chloe, Stephanie Hsu as Christine, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, Lauren Marcus as Brooke, Will Roland as Jeremy, George Salazar as Michael, Britton Smith as Jake, Jason Tam as The Squip, and Jason SweetTooth Williams as Jeremy’s Dad/Mr. Reyes. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.