How to explain the “Be More Chill” phenomenon? It seems that audiences can’t seem to get enough of teenage angst. “High School Musical,” “Mean Girls,” “Revenge of the Nerds” — the list goes on and on. Maybe the appeal comes from the little bit of nerd that’s in all of us, or the fact that it’s easy — and cathartic — to laugh at representations of our younger, stupider selves. The dweeby kids are the most comical, pitied and ultimately, cheered, because as surely as the robotics club president will have a crush on the head cheerleader, the propensity to revel in pubescent unhappiness knows no bounds.
“Be More Chill” director Stephen Brackett says the musical’s universal themes of alienation and longing are particularly relevant today. “It speaks to a very current moment,” he says. “We’re addressing a condition that’s been around forever. High school is such a time of discovery when you’re trying to formulate yourself. That’s hard. Adolescence is huge. Some of the things we felt in high school, we also feel as adults. It’s a pretty brutal environment. I practice radical positivity: We’re not only talking about painful, real things, we’re advocating for a kinder place.”
“Be More Chill” arrives on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre on March 10, with a reputation that precedes it. The joyous, infectious score of the musical’s cast recording has streamed more than 200 million times since 2015 when the production, with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz based on the Ned Vizzini young adult novel, first played at Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J. Tumblr ranked it the second most talked about musical after “Hamilton.”
In the play, Jeremy Heere (Will Roland) can’t stop staring at a cute girl at school, Christine (Stephanie Hsu), but he can’t work up the nerve to speak to her. Jason Tam plays the Squip, short for Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor, a pill that implants itself in Jeremy’s brain. Tam, who bears a striking resemblance to Keanu Reeves — Jeremy’s idea of cool — convinces the high schooler that he can help him then morphs into darker sci-fi-inspired characters as the show progresses.
Taking the Squip turns out to be a bitter pill. “As the show progresses, the Squip becomes more complex, and with machine-learning his programming becomes more robust,” says Tam. “The costumes get more sleek and complex and dangerous. There’s a moment where the Squip suggests Squipping the entire school. After all, even the popular kids have all these inner struggles and demons that they’re dealing with.”
Cast members, who are reunited from the musical’s Off-Broadway run, bought very different experiences to their roles. “I’ve self-censored my own ability to step into a leading part,” says Roland, who left his role as Connor in “Dear Evan Hansen” to join “Chill.” “A lot of the lyrics and text in the show are about Jeremy stepping out. I think it’s the first of many leading roles.
“I love playing a high school student,” he adds. “They’re people who haven’t developed a coping strategy. They’re learning before our very eyes by getting it wrong. I think about the play in relation to the world and [Trump] administration. We’re growing a little weary of earnestness. This show packages it in a more fantastical way. It’s escapism and it’s smart.”
“I struggled to fit in in high school, so I would shape-shift a lot and shift personalities with each social clique,” says George Salazar, who belts out a heart-wrenching ballad, “Michael in the Bathroom,” after best friend Jeremy dumps him for the cool kids. “I came out to my friends at 16. I took an amazing friend, Jill, to the prom. I feel like, if only there was a musical that made me feel proud of who I am, I might have been confident enough to ask a dude to the prom.”
Hsu says she was inspired by Emma Gonzalez, and other Parkland, Fla., teens, who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school last February. “A lot of young people in this country are using their voices to speak up. They’re really smart and have powerful messages. What I love about our musical is that it’s telling you bullying is bad and being weird is hard, but it celebrates the youthfulness of figuring it out.”
The musical’s overriding message is to let your freak flag fly. Nobody knows that better than costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley 2nd. “There’s diversity of body type and ethnicity,” he says of the cast. “The actors come in and bring things to the table. It’s a family, and I love what we’ve all accomplished.”
Many characters are revealed through their costumes. Christine’s childlike dress with a flower on the front and tights says she’s covering herself up, and closed. Yet she wears punk-rock shoes and the pins and patches on her backpack say she wears her heart on her sleeve. Another student, Jenna, tries to get people to notice her, but the only way she can do that is to gossip. Her costumes are covered in sequins and scream, “Look at me!” but no one pays attention to her.
“Christine started as a little weirdo and throughout the years, I said, let me see how weird I can make her. The world is so ready to hear these stories,” says Hsu, who starred in “Spongebob Squarepants” on Broadway. “For a long time, producers weren’t ready to take chances on these shows. Now it’s been about celebrating something more than the status quo and about spreading joy.”
“Chill” is upping its visual game for its new venue. A version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the play-within-the-musical that Jeremy and Christine sign up for, will feature Elizabethan-meets-sci-fi jumpsuits, and dresses in 30 shades of green and covered in sequins. “When you’re off-Broadway, you have to make do,” says Tilley, who attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked for Isabela Toledo before designing for the theater and films. “Broadway is great because it gives you a certain amount of freedom, but you’ve ratcheted up expectations. Audiences are paying more per ticket.”
So what’s the answer for a cruel, cruel adolescent world? For Jeremy, and his fellow Squipped classmates, it’s Mountain Dew Red, a relic of pop culture that was launched and discontinued in 1988. Like “Be More Chill,” Mountain Dew Red has a rabid fan base; members post messages begging PepsiCo to reissue the soft drink. Some even reference “Chill,” saying they’re hoping for “a Michael to enter the room” as he does in the musical when he saves Jeremy.
“My hope for everyone on this planet is that we all realize what makes us special,” says Salazar, who admits, “I really still hide in bathrooms at parties.”