The Broadway-bound Be More Chill is a Black Mirror–meets–Mean Girls musical with a cult following that has propelled it from its 2014 premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., to an Off-Broadway run. The power of social media and an obsessive teenage fan base took this little-known show and made it the second most mentioned musical on Tumblr in 2017 (behind Hamilton).
Based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill is the creation of Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book). It tells the story of self-defined high school loser, Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), who, accompanied by best (and only) friend Michael Mell (George Salazar), buys a black-market pill from Japan in the back of a Payless shoe store. Will has been promised by a classmate, Rich Goranski (Gerard Canonico), that the “squip” will implant itself in his brain and effortlessly elevate his social status. Will hopes it will also help him win over his crush, Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu).
The Squip (Jason Tam) manifests itself in Will’s head as a Keanu Reeves lookalike wearing over-the-top costumes and doing his best to convince Will that he needs to change everything about himself (“Everything about you makes me wanna die”) in order to “be more chill.” This includes “optic-nerve blocking,” which prevents Will from noticing Michael at school.
It’s the classic high school story asking the question, “What’s the price you’re willing to pay for popularity?” with the added twist of futuristic technology that has an agenda of its own. Roland’s Will is lovable even as he selfishly pursues popularity. He’s self-aware enough to admit, “still I’m just a little scared, for who gets cut and who gets spared when I’m the cool dude, the hero, or whatever/If Christine likes me in the end, will I be able to pretend I didn’t fail my one real friend?”
Iconis’s songs are the true standout of Be More Chill. They create the scene, the story, the characters and the emotions, and they drive the story forward. The lyricist displays a deep understanding of the teenage experience, equipping his characters with lyrics that communicate their fears and insecurities while creating the quirks and personalities that bring them to life.
In “I Love Play Rehearsal,” Christine (Stephanie Hsu) explains her passion for theater and reminds audiences of what it was like to find your place in the overwhelming world of high school. Hsu lends Christine a wonderful sense of comedic timing and an endearing eccentricity.
Iconis writes about mundane high school experiences that feel anything but ordinary while you’re living through them. In “Michael in the Bathroom,” a standout soliloquy, Michael bemoans being alone in a Solo cup–covered bathroom at the party of the autumn: “But I’d rather fake pee than stand awkwardly, or pretend to check a text on my phone.” Salazar’s performance as Michael is raw and honest, and his voice is an absolute joy to listen to. He’s able to deliver lines that would typically make you roll your eyes in a way that instead make you laugh heartily.
Each song tells its own story within the greater plot and does its job to move the plot along. Even the slightly ridiculous “The Pants Song” ends up endearing in the end. Iconis shows his respect for musical theater with “Cellphone Hour,” a nod to Bye, Bye Birdie’s “The Telephone Hour”—but with characters on cell phones and social media.
The show is ripe with cultural references, some hokey and some side-splittingly funny. The Broadway transfer will be a good time for director Stephen Brackett to reassess whether the characters really need to dab in the first five minutes in order to elicit a laugh.
The costumes, designed by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, include recognizable pieces that have become fan favorites. Michael’s “Creeps” shirt can be bought at the show, and the Squip’s over-the-top black-and-white outfits seem to be characters all on their own.
Be More Chill has been wildly embraced by teenagers for a variety of reasons including the talented young cast, the relatable lyrics, the pop-culture references, and the technological tilt on a tale-as-old-as-time story.
It’s a breath of fresh air to walk out of the theater and think, “Wow, maybe I’ll go read the book this was based on” in a time when you normally see a musical or play because you already know and love the source material.
Be More Chill plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center through Sept. 30. The current run is sold out, with lottery tickets available on TodayTix. For last-minute tickets, join the cancellation line at the box office one hour prior to curtain for every performance or keep checking Ticket Central the day of the show. The show will begin a Broadway run at the Lyceum Theater on Feb. 13, 2019, with opening night set for March 10. You can buy tickets here.