“Be More Chill,” currently in previews at New York’s Lyceum Theatre, is set to be Broadway’s Next Big Thing. And yet the pop-rock musical came close to never getting past its Red Bank, New Jersey run.
The show, based on a 2004 young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, opened at the Two River Theater in the spring of 2015. Reviews were mixed, and the production garnered little attention. It closed after a month, and “Be More Chill” seemed fated to be forgotten.
It’s perhaps fitting that a show rooted in technology and youth culture was revived thanks to YouTube. The cast album from that one professional run — “Be More Chill” was licensed to schools and community theatres before its rebirth — was shared online, and tracks often appeared in the “Recommended” column when young theatre fans would pull up songs from “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz, who wrote the songs and book respectively, had little to do with this phenomenon. More than a year passed between the New Jersey closing and the start of the show’s viral popularity. By 2018, “Be More Chill” had passed 100 million streams, nearly half that of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
With word of the songs spreading among theatre kids, and memes and fan art popping up online, an Off-Broadway production was announced. And on February 13, Broadway previews began.
The evening show I attended with my 14-year-old son — a theatre kid who had introduced me to the show — was more like a rock concert than your usual night at the theatre. The very young audience cheered ecstatically with the entrance of each performer, particularly George Salazar, whose song “Michael in the Bathroom” has been the biggest YouTube smash.
“Be More Chill” is energetic, its music catchy, and its story simple. Jeremy Heere, played by Will Roland (a “Dear Evan Hansen” veteran), is a high school geek who gets the chance to ingest a supercomputer in pill form, with the promise that it will reprogram him to… be more chill. The nanotechnology, called a Squip, shows Jeremy how to behave in order to win popularity.
The Squip speaks to Jeremy in the slick form of actor Jason Tam. Jeremy neglects his best friend Michael as he pursues his dream girl, learning the usual lessons along the way. But while the territory is nothing new, “Be More Chill” is vibrant and fun.
It’s also a joy to see Broadway dreams fulfilled for some members of the talented cast. While Roland, Salazar, and Tam are not new to the big stage, several others are. Katlyn Carlson and Lauren Marcus, playing popular girls Chloe and Brooke, originated the roles in Red Bank, and are now making their Broadway debuts.
We will be hearing a lot about “Be More Chill” this season, and perhaps for years to come. For more information, click here.