“There are roadmaps in the theatre, and people like to follow those roadmaps,” says Joe Iconis of the familiar ways shows arrive Off-Broadway, such as a successful regional debut that precedes a commercial run. Iconis, a writer and performer with a handful of productions under his belt, is familiar with the path. But in this moment, he’s found himself off course. Iconis’ musical Be More Chill, which debuted at Two River Theater in New Jersey in 2015, is debuting Off-Broadway after steadily amassing an enormous fan following online for the past three years. For him, bookwriter Joe Tracz, and everyone involved, this is new territory.
When Iconis first read Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill, he immediately saw the potential for a musical. The coming-of-age story follows Jeremy Heere, an average teenager who, tempted by the prospect of popularity, takes a pill purported to make people more easygoing. “It made sense to me as a musical,” says the composer. “The story was using this Faustian idea of selling yourself to the Devil but populating it with these characters that felt very human.” A story about teenagers, it used the science-fiction genre to look at very real issues impacting adolescents and adults.
When Be More Chill premiered at Two River, which commissioned the musical, the cast and creative team immediately noticed an “extraordinary audience reaction.” The show resonated with people in a way that Iconis had never before experienced, with theatregoers returning three or four times. And yet, despite the positive momentum, the production did not get picked up by an Off-Broadway theatre or commercial producers. And Iconis, familiar with the industry roadmaps, believed the life of the show to be over. “We were all heartbroken,” he says.
But then a “surreal and insane thing” happened. Two years after the world premiere, Be More Chill suddenly gained traction online without any effort from its creators. The cast album, a brainchild of Two River in an attempt to preserve the show, had found a solid digital fan base, approaching 100 million streams and becoming Tumblr’s second most talked-about musical.
Thanks to what Iconis calls the “miracle of the Internet,” Be More Chill is finally receiving the second life the composer feels it always deserved—as do much of the cast, who return to the Off-Broadway premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center where the production runs through September. This may be the path less trodden, but it isn’t any less sweet.