Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
“Be More Chill,” a Broadway musical written by Joe Tracz and scored by Joe Iconis, explores the emotional rollercoaster of growing up -- with a magical twist. The show’s release comes on the heels of several other successful musicals about teen angst, but its viral path to popularity sets it apart. Jeffrey Brown reports on how the story achieved unexpected success and why it feels so relatable.
Finally tonight, there's a Broadway hit that's broken many of the conventional rules of how to make it on the Great White Way.
Jeffrey Brown visited the stage of "Be More Chill" recently and reports why this coming of age musical is hitting high notes with a certain audience, even while failing to win over many critics.
It's part of Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture series.
The stress, the awkwardness, the sheer horror of high school, in the musical "Be More Chill," the very unhappy and uncool Jeremy ingests a pill-shaped supercomputer that changes him into a popular kid. Mayhem and magic ensue.
The story itself may cover familiar ground, but the story of the musical is anything but. "Be More Chill" could be creating a new model for Broadway; 37-year-old Joe Iconis wrote the music and lyrics.
I was shocked by what happened, because it's not something that's ever happened before.
In 2015, the play opened in a New Jersey theater and received a less-than-enthusiastic review by New York Times critic Charles Isherwood. That, thought Iconis, was that.
When we closed in Jersey, I thought the show was dead. But I thought that because it was. No one wanted it, because the way that our theater business works — or has worked up until now — is that you need that New York Times review, if you're a little show like ours, in order to come into New York.
But you went a different route.
We went a different route.
But not by plan. The play was no more, but the cast recording of its music, including the song "Michael in the Bathroom," became a huge viral sensation, with its themes touching on the anxieties and pressures of teenage suburban life.
It inspired social media memes and fan art, clubs, online and then live performances. To date, the recording has been streamed some 300 million times.
Will Roland plays Jeremy, and George Salazar is his friend Michael.
Well, a couple of people found this album, found out about the show, told their friends about the show, shared the album.
It's like a multilevel marketing scheme in a way. It's what they sell you. They're like, oh, if you tell five friends and you tell five friends, then, suddenly, you will have a million friends.
And that is literally what happened with this show.
With a built-in fan base, the play got an Off Broadway run, and then opened in the Grand Lyceum Theatre in March.
People feel kind of represented by this. And it's a cast of people who look like the people you would see on the street. It's a cast of 10 incredible actors, incredible singers and OK dancers…
… who are representative of society, you know? It's not like 10 Instagram models in a musical. You have people of all shapes and sizes, all colors and backgrounds.
And so I think the success to the show is, you know, is the show.
And I think the thing that's really worth noting here is that this is not an adaptation of a blockbuster film. There are no world-class celebrities in it. There's nothing in this that is trying to say like, oh, well, this will get butts in seats.
But it does.
And outside the theater, patrons told us why; 23-year-old Lauren Hugh arrived early in the morning to buy a matinee ticket and stayed to get autographs afterwards.
The thing that I think is really cool about this show is that it's not some big money backer that brought this show to Broadway. It's purely the steam that came through phenomenon of all the fans. Without the fans, like, this show wouldn't be here on Broadway right now.
And Miona Williams on a school trip was brought to tears when she saw the actors.
I like that his friend came back, even though he treated him like crap.
For their part, the critics have continued to howl, with headlines like "'Be More Chill' is dopey, shrill and somehow very popular," and "This coming of age musical is a real pill to swallow."
I think the show is pitched at a very particular frequency, which is to — like some dog whistles to the ears of people who are under the age probably of 21.
New York Times co-chief theater critic Ben Brantley had some harsh things to say in his review, but also respect for a production that seems to be critic-proof.
It kind of refreshing to have a show for whom critics are absolutely irrelevant.
The first time I saw it in New York, Off Broadway, it was like what going to a Beatles concert or a One Direction concert must have been like. I hope this will be a gateway drug for kids who have never experienced theater before and say, hey, I had a swell time.
"Be More Chill" comes on the heels of several successful musicals about teen angst, including "Dear Evan Hansen." Will Roland was an original cast member there too.
But those plays followed a more traditional route to Broadway, where production costs run high and ticket prices regularly top $100.
Do you see this as a potential new model for the way theater and Broadway can work, or is this kind of a one-off?
I certainly hope it's a potential new model. The idea that a show, a little show, can make it to Broadway because actual human beings love it, not because it has name recognition, brand recognition, that's, I think, a dream.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
Ilana Bernstein is an executive assistant for the PBS NewsHour.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: