Joe Iconis Breaks Down Be More Chill Track by Track

Cast Recordings & Albums   Joe Iconis Breaks Down Be More Chill Track by Track
 
The composer of the cult favorite musical takes listeners on a deep dive into his process, starting with Act 1.
Be More Chill Stephanie Hsu & Will Connolly.jpg
Stephanie Hsu and Will Connolly in Be More Chill T. Charles Erickson

Hey, hi, hello. My name is Joe Iconis. I’m a writer and performer and, most notably, the person to blame for the music and lyrics of Be More Chill. I wrote the show, a musical adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s novel, with Joe Tracz and it premiered in a production at Two River Theater in New Jersey in 2015. A cast album was made and was enjoyed by the amount of people you’d expect to enjoy a cast album of a musical that played for six weeks in New Jersey. Then suddenly and without warning, after two years of release, people, in particular young people, discovered the show and became obsessed. One hundred million streams of our cast album later, the show is making its Off-Broadway debut this summer at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street!
Before we launch into the madness of a track by track breakdown of the Be More Chill OCR, let’s talk about the Be More Chill score itself, shall we?

The first thing that excited me about adapting Ned Vizzini’s gorgeous book into a musical was the opportunity to write about the issues teenagers face through a sci-fi lens. I’ve written plenty of teens before. I love that they wear their emotions on their sleeve but don’t always have the vocabulary to properly articulate those emotions. But here was an opportunity to not only delve into the minds of young people, but to tap into some of my favorite genre influences: monster movies of the 1950’s, Sci-Fi/Horror flicks of the 70’s and 80’s, and Teen Comedies of the 80’s and 90’s. In short: John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) meets John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing.)

READ: Be More Chill Will Play Off-Broadway; Will Roland to Star

Be More Chill is a classic musical comedy in disguise. It reeks of technology and is filthy with moderns sounds, problems, references, etc. But make no mistake about it: The show is as traditional as they come. Well, sort of.

The songs themselves are total showtunes; it’s the orchestrations that place us firmly in the genre world.

As I’d write the tunes on piano, I’d dream about what they’d sound like when given the full 80’s sci-fi treatment, and Charlie Rosen’s orchestrations satisfied my darkest, quirkiest musical fantasies. We worked closely on the specific sounds of this score. Our holy grail (especially when it came to underscore) was John Carpenter film scores. John Carpenter has directed countless horror classics, but he’s also famous for writing his own film scores. He was an electronic music pioneer and his work is immediately recognizable.

Other sonic influences included Oingo Boingo, Bernard Herrmann, Weezer, Tangerine Dream, The Offspring, and contemporary musicians with a retro flair like Sky Ferreira, Kavinsky, and Johnny Jewel.

“Jeremy’s Theme”
Written at Joe’s 16th Street Apartment 2012/Two River Theater Library, during rehearsals 2015
I’ve always thought of this as the music that would accompany the production logos in a horror movie. The “American International Pictures presents… A Roger Corman picture…” cards. It immediately places the audience in an unsettled place. Something bad is going to happen and that bad thing is going to be otherworldly.

We’re actually cramming a lot of information into 30 seconds. Up top you’re getting the beep-bop-boop of computer circuitry. It’s the technological equivalent of a scary thunder storm in a creature feature. Next, our first synth line arrives. Hello, synth. Nice to meet you. Won’t you please overstay your welcome for the next two and a half hours? I drove Charlie slightly crazy in regards to the specificity of keyboard sounds I was looking for as I desperately wanted to be faithful to the Carpenter/Alan Howarth collaborations that inspired much of the score.

The track culminates with The Squip theme, played gloriously on Theremin by Danny Jonokuchi. The Theremin is a vintage electronic instrument played by the Thereminist moving his hands through the air to control pitch and volume. That instrument was used most often in 1950s sci-fi movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still, usually to accompany the visual of an alien presence.

We’re one of the only musicals to ever use a Theremin in its orchestration. Be More Chill is a show about kids obsessed with all things outdated and unloved and the show itself is obsessed with all things outdated and unloved! How very! (Heathers reference.)

“More Than Survive”
Written in Joe’s 16th Street Apartment, 2012
After our eerie mini-overture, the audience expects to be confronted by a demon or a triffid or worse. Instead, we jump cut to the shockingly mundane sight of an average high school kid staring at his computer in his undies. I’m proud that the first event in the musical is our leading man being caught with his pants down. It establishes Jeremy us a decidedly unheroic hero and also kick-starts a theme of pantlessness that continues throughout the entire show.

The “C-c-c-c’mon” motif was one I came up with early on in writing the song. I wanted a repeated phrase that expressed the frustration of wanting things to move at an accelerated speed, and one that could also sound like the chorus of a pop song. I love immediately subverting the expectation of what Jeremy’s waiting for to load—“Is it a major homework assignment? A college application?” Nope, it’s porn! That moment establishes the spirit of Be More Chill right off the bat. It also makes for awkward car rides when kids listen to the album in the car with their parents. Sorry, not sorry.

In the actual show there are even more mini-scenes between Jeremy and the people in his life. I wanted this whole opening to feel cinematic and sweeping and place Jeremy in the center of a world that is swirling around him. Kind of like the “Head Over Heels” sequence in Donnie Darko.

The first person who connects with Jeremy enough to actually earn sung musical material is Michael. Michael brings his own music with him because he’s confident and, quite literally, marches to the beat of his own drummer.

Will Connolly’s voice just kills me on the album. He sounds like the love child of Michael Jackson and Billie Jo Armstrong.

Notice the little synth line underneath the lockers scene with Chloe, Brooke, and Jenna. It’s a quote of “Rich Set a Fire.” The little synth line underneath the first part of Michael’s scene? “Michael in the Bathroom.” The guitar line in the second part? “The Pants Song.” That audience has subconsciously heard so many melodies from the show before the first number is even over! Underscore is sneaky.

It should be noted that “More Than Survive” was the first song I wrote for the show. After sending it to Joe Tracz, I sent it to Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who is now one of our producers of Be More Chill Off-Broadway. She wrote back:

“I tried to listen to the Be More Chill song, got 60 seconds in, and got furious at everyone for all of the noise/ questions/ distractions at work... so I'm gonna go download these on my phone and sit outside or hide in the bathroom to listen. BRB!!!”

Hiding in the bathroom. That’s so Be More Chill.

“I Love Play Rehearsal”
Written in Joe’s 47th Street Apartment, 2013
After hearing so much about her in the opening, this is the first time we actually get to hear from Christine herself. Charlie and I wanted her song to sound different from the angular computerized vibe of the rest of the score. Enter recorders!

Everyone associates recorders with elementary school music class and/or Renaissance fairs. That felt correct for Christine, who is warm, strange, confident, free-spirited, and literally dresses like an authentic Renaissance Princess at the Halloween Party in Act II! So much of Stephanie Hsu’s performance informed the song itself—she’s a brilliant actor and a soulful singer and it’s impossible to not conjure up images of her live performance when listening to her on the album.

The placement of this song moved around a whole bunch during our writing process and the eureka moment was realizing that the song’s not literally about play rehearsal. It’s a song about passion and freedom. It’s not the typical way to be introduced to a leading lady in a musical, which makes it perfect for Christine and for Be More Chill, in general.

The original second song in the show was an internal duet for Jeremy and Christine called “Touching My Hand.” It was about Jeremy pining for Christine and Christine wondering if she should go on a date with Jake. There was some nice character material for Jeremy, but it gave us information we already knew and it made the show feel like some cute romantic comedy. It also felt antithetical to the character to have Christine’s first real song moment be about a guy. That’s not her and we needed to respect that.

Note that the original full title of this song was “Why I Love Play Rehearsal By Christine Canigula,” which is very fussy and precious and I loved it but it’s too cumbersome and I knew that someone would inevitably make me change it so I just did it myself. (RIP Fussy, Too-Long Title That Joe Loved.)

“The Squip Song”
Written at Joe’s 16th Street Apartment, 2012
It begins as a retro-sounding “cool kid in a ’90s movie” rock song (with some Oingo Boingo horns added in for good measure) and then turns full blown sci-fi/horror fantasia. And it all goes down in a bathroom. There are a lot of bathrooms in this musical.

This song is the first time we hear the “It’s From Japan…” refrain, which repeats ten million times over the course of the show. Gerard Canonico is a powerhouse of the highest order and he turned this song from a serviceable musicalized scene into a show stopper. The optional octave up jump on the second “It’s From Japan” is all Canonico’s doing. We had to add the big ending (including a toilet flush on the final button) just because it was so clear people wanted to clap after Gerard finished doing his thing.

Props to Josh Plotner on the vocoder, yet another retro instrument that’s rarely used in theater orchestration. It’s what makes the weird digitized voice sound. People usually think that it’s a mic effect but it’s all done live! Old school, baby.

For those who care: Gerard’s pronunciation of the word “correctly” is a nod to The Shining’s scary bathroom encounter between Jack Torrence and Delbert Grady.

“Two-Player Game”
Written at Joe’s 47th Street Apartment, 2013/Rewritten during rehearsals at Ripley Grier Studios, 2015
I enjoy writing songs where characters have to work through some major personal issue while doing an unrelated task. (Ahem, “The Answer.” Ahem, “Ammonia.”)

Here, the boys talk about self-worth and the desire to be somebody else while playing a video game. Of course, the video game is actually telegraphing the journey they are about to go on but to Michael and Jeremy it’s just another nothing-special hang sesh. When I wrote that little 8-Bit “Apocalypse of the Damned” theme that threads through the song, I was inspired by being a kid and plunking out the melodies to grandiose John Williams orchestral scores on my Casio.

The original version of this song was titled “Level Up” and it did a lot of what “Two-Player Game” does, just not as well. It also sounded exactly like a particular song by The Clash and once I realized how similar the two songs were, “Level Up”s days were numbered.

It should be noted that I am the world’s biggest stickler when it comes to rhyme. I’m super old-school in that I believe things either rhyme or they don’t; none of that “half rhyme” garbage. I think rhyme makes theatre songs easier to understand and actually heightens the dramatic intention of the lyric. Disgustingly, “Two-Player Game” contains an accidental fake rhyme. By the time I realized, it was too late to change the rhyme. Every time I hear it, I cringe, and you can pay me a million dollars but I won’t tell you what it is.

“The Squip Enters”
The grand entrance of our antagonist: The Squip. It was important to our radiantly talented director Stephen Brackett that The Squip’s entrance feel larger than life. His staging of the moment was dazzling, and I needed to write a cue that rose to that occasion. The Squip enters to music that is tastelessly huge, appropriately so.

It should be noted that I wrote The Squip with Eric William Morris in mind and I’m so glad his iconic performance of the role is preserved forever and ever on the album.

“Be More Chill – Part 1”
Written in Joe’s 47th Street Apartment, 2013
I had a lot of trouble figuring out the musical style of The Squip. First I went down a computer-y road, but that felt too in line with the sound of the rest of the show. Then I tried a sort of 1950’s Dick Dale Surf Rock take. (Mike Rosengarten’s nasty, relentless guitar line is a remnant of that version of the song.)

Eventually, I settled into what currently exists. There’s a timeless cool, laid-back quality to The Squip’s music. It’s approachable and sexy but never too scary or affronting. This is seduction music. The moments where the vocoder is adding the spooky digitized element the melody line (“don’t freak out and don’t resist…”) is where The Squip’s true colors are peeking through the façade just a little bit. By the time we get to “The Play” he’s given up on trying to seduce and is just trying to conquer, so his music sounds different.

The whole “Be More Chill” section is really just a classic “make-over montage” sequence (it’s even set at The Mall!) so I took some musical inspiration from make-over and training sequences as well. Think Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing, The Breakfast Club.

A lot of people are bothered by the harshness of the “everything about you makes me want to die” line. To me, that’s the whole point of the show. The tone may be comedic, but the characters in Be More Chill are actual teenagers struggling with actual problems. I don’t think being depressed or suicidal is a laughing matter, but I do think sometimes people feel like there is a voice inside their head telling them to hurt themselves. It would be insulting and untruthful to pretend that a kid like Jeremy wasn’t struggling with these thoughts.

The humor, the fantasy, and the harsh reality co-exist in every moment of the show. And, in my experience, in every moment in life. It’s about learning how to deal with it and knowing which of the many voices in your head you’re supposed to listen to. But we’re not at that particular song yet.

“Do You Wanna Ride?”
Written in [memory temporarily scrambled]
I have no memory of writing this mini-song, it just happened. It didn’t exist and then it did. Look, I made a spicy song about stopping for frozen yogurt where there never was a spicy song about stopping for frozen yogurt.

Lauren Marcus’s interpretation is a gift from the theatre gods and is a testimony to her brilliance as an actor, singer, comedian and all-around magic person. The yodel, the riff at the end, all Marcus. She’s the Goldie Hawn of musical theater.

“Be More Chill – Part 2”
When I stumbled upon the idea of the “Everything about you is going to be wonderful” section, that’s when the song really clicked for me. After being berated for all the things he isn’t, Jeremy finally gets teased with the promise of unadulterated love and adoration. It’s the false promise of spam emails about penis enlargement pills or the aspirational Instagram accounts of the Kardashians. The idea of: “If you just do This, everything will be Perfect.” The musical equivalent of “Make America Great Again.” Cheerful, optimistic, secretly sinister. The writing and performance make me think that it’s a theme song for an awful 1980s sitcom that never existed in the first place. “Everybody Loves Squips!” maybe.

Props to Dan McMillan for aggressively hitting that gong at the end for a big finish.

“More Than Survive” (Reprise)
Restart! The show essentially begins again and we fast forward through another day at school, this time with notes and instructions from Mr. Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor himself.

The chorus goes into a reggae feel for a few measures at one point. The idea there is that sometimes things are the same but feel a little different and you can’t quite put your finger on why. The familiar feels unsettling. Reggae is a style of music associated with Michael, so I like thinking that maybe Jeremy has Michael on his mind in that one instant before Squip wipes the slate clean.

“A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into”
Written in Ripley-Grier Studios 2015, during rehearsal
This was the last song I wrote for the show. I wrote it very quickly on a rehearsal break after not being able to nail this moment for years. I love that Christine gets this unexpected jangly little rock song as her second big number.

Have you ever noticed how the female lead in musicals is often saddled with the most drag-ass songs? Part of my mission in musical theater is to never subject my female lead to an unmotivated obligatory ballad.

It should be noted that Christine ends both this tune and “I Love Play Rehearsal” with an unexpected non-rhyme. Christine is a character who subverts our expectations of her at every turn. Gosh, I like her.

“The Squip Lurks”
I’m eternally grateful we got to include this taste of underscore on the album. I’ve heard rumors that this plays in theme parks during the Halloween season. That’s the highest honor I could ever receive.

The track name is a reference to “The Shape Lurks” cue from the Halloween soundtrack. And, yes, “Jeremy’s Theme” is also a nod to “Laurie’s Theme.”

“Upgrade”
Written at a Two River Theater writing retreat, 2014 // Re-written at Ripley Grier Studios 2015, during rehearsal

The line “this is my favorite place behind the school” is one of Joe Tracz’s great creations, delivered incomparably by Ms. Marcus. I don’t know why I find it so funny but I laugh every time I hear it. I think it reveals so much about Brooke.

The notes of “Upgrade-upgrade-upgrade” in the first part of the song are the same notes as the pattern that begins “More Than Survive.” They are just a little scrambled up. The melody of “I already know what it’s like to be the loser” is the “Apocalypse of the Damned” theme song melody.

This song is notable as the first time the character of Jake sings in the show. Poor Jakey D. This is the only musical in history where the classically good-looking Prince Charming-type gets the least amount to sing. I still like the guy, though. It’s another testament to the brilliant Joe Tracz that a character like Jake, who could’ve been a one-dimensional asshole jock, is actually a kind, well-meaning popular kid. Dude can’t help that he’s pretty! Jake Boyd’s vocals are so sensitive and approachable and kind of remind me of Mr. Peanut Butter from Bojack Horseman.

The final chorus of the song is the same melody but we lose the swing and make it more of a driving rock. Damn. Things got not cute quick.

This song used to end with a long minor version of the “Na Na Na” theme from “More Than Survive.” It was very musically exciting and too long and did nothing to service the story and was cut.

That's it for Act 1—check out Act 2 of Be More Chill here!

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