The promise of popularity and getting to date the cool kid are what most high schoolers dream of, and if there was some sort of magic way to achieve them probably very few would refuse it. In Be More Chill, the Faustian device comes in the shape of The Squip, a tiny, but powerful computer that offers young Jeremy (Will Connolly) the chance to conquer Christine (Stephanie Hsu) and achieve popularity in his New Jersey school. But as most heroes willing to sell a part of them to please societal expectations know, there will be a price to pay. With music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, and a book by Joe Tracz, Be More Chill is one of the most endearing (although that’s definitely not a chill word…) musicals about high school students made. Iconis’ combination of genres and his inventive use of rhymes make for one delightful experience.
Young audience members and listeners (the cast recording is now available on Sh-K-Boom records) will most likely identify with the colorful characters from Ned Vizzini’s novel, given exciting new life by Iconis and Tracz. In fact, part of the musical’s appeal is how it might inspire others to become creators themselves. Those who take on the challenge of coming up with a music video for “Michael in the Bathroom” for example, can enter a contest to win a free license, plus a chat with Iconis and Tracz. I spoke to Iconis about giving voice to young people through his work, and an assortment of other musical theatre geekery.
Listening to Be More Chill it struck me how much of a nerd Jeremy is, and given how you often mention your own nerdiness, did you put a lot of yourself into the character?
Yeah, absolutely! I feel like most of the characters I’ve written are just versions of myself to certain degrees. I certainly see a more than usual amount of myself in Jeremy, I like people who feel like misfits and outcasts because I’ve felt that way myself at certain points in my life, and probably I always will. As far as like the specific nerdiness of Jeremy, my version of that is growing up I was the ultimate theatre geek, I loved musical theatre, it was my thing. I was obsessed with it, so the obsessive fandom in general is something I really understand. Fixating on this thing you love regardless of whether it can further your social status in life is something I’ve always done and continue to do. I loved the idea of having a musical where the leading man is a weirdo, who’s also given the gravity that comes with being the lead.
If there were real life SQUIPs when you were in high school, and they’d given you the voice of someone else, who would you have chosen?
I feel like I don’t know who my SQUIP would’ve been like in high school, but now I go back and forth between Martin Scorsese, Kermit the Frog or Stephen Sondheim.
Even those are pretty nerdy! I thought you’d go with Superman or The Karate Kid.
That’s not even intentional, it’s my brain! It’s just my idea of a cool person, maybe in high school I’d chosen someone stupid who I thought was cool, but now I own my nerdiness enough that of course I’d want my SQUIP to be Sondheim.
This isn’t the first time you’d turned a beloved YA novel into a musical, what do you find so fascinating about this age bracket?
I love writing teenage or young characters because I love the access they have to their emotions, even though they don’t always have the vocabulary to express them. As you get older you find this ways of covering things up, we find these tactics to deflect, but when we’re younger we don’t have those tools. There’s an honesty that comes with writing characters who don’t have the tools to be cagey, they express it in a sort of unfiltered way which I think makes for good musical theatre. People think characters in musicals only sing when their emotions are too big, which is true sometimes, but other times I think characters sing to figure out what the hell their emotions are. They sing so they can try to find the words to express what they’re feeling inside. They sing from a place of confusion and wanting to sort everything out. I think because I write about young people, they tend to gravitate towards my work, it’s an easy in for high school or college students who want to see people their age. I hope I’m not talking down to them, I think high school students are people, they’re smaller people, but I give them the same dignity I do older characters. Young people are pretty smart, they can sniff a mile away when an artist doesn’t relate to the young characters.
You’re also creating characters they can play at their age. I love A Little Night Music for instance, but it’s always odd to see a 17 year old singing “Send in the Clowns.” What’s it like to create a canon of characters for younger actors?
I love the idea of people being able to see themselves. Like you said so much of classic musical theatre is about characters who fighting in the French Revolution, or cats. So it’s nice when people don’t have to go through the trouble of finding out how they can relate to Jean Valjean and rather seeing the million things they can relate to with someone like Michael Mell in Be More Chill.
Were there any specific musicals who helped you become who you were in high school?
I was a total geek, so I was inspired by the musicals that didn’t have young people in them necessarily (laughs) I loved Cabaret, Assassins, which I think is the one that really turned me on because it felt so dangerous, hip and edgy. I’m a big movie fan as well, so Assassins felt edgy in a way movies did but musicals never did. I also loved it was a musical written by a guy who was a titan of the field and had such a career before he wrote it, he wasn’t some young upstart writing this crazy musical, but rather one of the most established composers. The show that blew my mind and made me think musicals could be cool and visceral in the way rock music could was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I saw it as a senior in high school and it was my show. I thought I wanted to do my own version of it, to have people in a room together sharing an experience that felt seedy, but was also a musical that succeeded as theatre. What’s funny is I only listened to cast albums through high school, Hedwig was the first album I thought sounded cool in a way real people would think was cool. I used to play it in the speakers of my computer at the school newspaper office, specifically so other people could hear me and ask me what it was, and I could be like “they’re pretty cool, I saw them in New York City.”
So is your ultimate dream a film version of Assassins directed by Scorsese with John Cameron Mitchell as John Wilkes Booth?
(Laughs) I think it is! My ultimate dream would be Assassins, directed by the late Robert Altman, he directed Nashville which is my favorite movie. I feel his version would’ve been pretty amazing.
He would’ve had Shelley Duvall as Booth probably.
Now that is my dream right there.
Did you have a chance to speak to Ned Vizzini before he passed away?
I did, I spoke to Ned a couple of times. We had a few calls with him and he was great, he was a really cool, for lack of better words, chill guy. He liked my work a lot, he said he trusted us and we should do whatever we wanted with the book. He was concerned we’d remain true to the spirit of the characters, so we talked a lot about that. As far as the music went, the only conversation I had with him was about where some of my influences were coming from. I told him there’d be a rockiness to the score, but it wasn’t going to be heavy, it would be more Weezer than Green Day. He loved that. He suggested I should find out if Rivers Cuomo wanted to work on the music, so I was like “well, no, I want to do this, let’s not have Rivers Cuomo” (laughs) The sad thing is Ned never got to listen to any of the finished material, because he was so cool we worked under the idea of doing a full draft before showing it to him. He wasn’t a theatre guy at all, so we wanted to show him the whole thing, but he died before we had the chance. It was such a terrible loss.
In terms of rhymes, was it hard to find words to rhyme with terms like “quantum,” “processor,” and “masturbator”?
No, it was fun! The hard part is trying to tell a story and get from point A to point B in three minutes, trying to cover so much intellectual and emotional territory through the characters, and all these other wheels you have to keep spinning while having a satisfying musical. The rhymes are fine. I hate musical theatre writing that sounds self-consciously clever, I hate when it sounds like writers are patting themselves on the back. I prefer to be more reliant on the content than on how clever the rhymes are, I’m happy you noticed the goofier rhymes. I love when people discover the rhymes after the show, rather than have them be on the surface.
Be More Chill is part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein family now! So to celebrate, if you could have other musical characters play Jeremy, Michael and Christine, who would they be?
I feel like Charlie Brown from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown would be an incredible Jeremy, for Michael I’d love to see Effie from Dreamgirls. For Christine there are so many choices, but maybe Gloria from Damn Yankees in that she’s such a great secondary character in that show but I’ve always felt there’s a whole other show they could’ve done about her. The idea of her being Christine and getting to be explored more, rather than being on the sidelines is cool.
For more on Be More Chill click here. To enter the contest enter here.