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BWW Exclusive: Joe Iconis- Broadway's New Pied Piper- Talks BE MORE CHILL, BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, More  

BWW Exclusive: Joe Iconis- Broadway's New Pied Piper- Talks BE MORE CHILL, BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, More
 Following a sold-out, critically acclaimed run at Barrington Stage Company, a re-imagined, brand-new production of Joe Iconis' Broadway Bounty Hunter is ready to take over New York City with a killer cast of singing, dancing, karate-chopping characters and a powerhouse band. Get ready, 'cause here she comes. Broadway Bounty Hunter starts performances July 9th at the Greenwich House Theatre.

It's three in the afternoon, and the chairs at The Laurie Beechman Theater, the basement cabaret of the West Bank Café, are stacked atop tables awaiting rearrangement by the night staff. But that doesn't stop the proprietor of the place, Steve Olsen, from offering the use of the hall--plus two chairs--so Joe Iconis can get a roots-level interview on his blossoming career.

This room, after all, has been Iconis' home base since November of 2007 when he starred (or at least started) as the only singer-pianist on the premises. Additional musicians filed in over the years, forming the The Joe Iconis Band. Then, Iconis started writing his own words and music and, eventually, whole shows, which have played around town and regionally. Currently, he's contending for awards in those first two capacities from the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle and sweating out the possibility of an all-mighty Tony for his social media-savvy musical, Be More Chill.

"Tense is a great word for it," allows the 37-year wordsmith when he is asked exactly how he is feeling these days. "As long as I've been doing this, I've dreamed of having a show on Broadway with people I've been working with so long. That's my dream of dreams, and so I'm completely thrilled that that's what's happening these days."

At present, Iconis is on the cusp of stardom or not, wondering if the Tony nominators--like those for the Lortels and the Drama League-will count "Be More Chill" among the best of the Broadway season just ending. It's not a particularly new sensation for him since he has been on this cusp more than a decade. This is just the first time he has had a genuine and realistic shot at The Big Time.

All this he finds confirming and slightly exhilarating. "I definitely feel in the last year I've gotten-if not over the hump-at least close to the hump. I've been on the line for so many years. As soon as I was starting out, I was immediately pegged 'emerging' or 'the next big thing.' Now, I feel I'm kinda there and, with a little more pushing, I could get to where I'd really love to be."

This journey started when he was six years and five days old. That's when he saw his first musical-"Little Shop of Horrors" at the Orpheum-and, when the leafy vines fell with the curtain at the finale, the dye was indelibly cast. A musical theater life for him!

"The thing that I took from it wasn't 'I want to go into plants or puppetry.' I immediately felt, 'Oh, I love musical theater. I love people singing in a dramatic story, on a stage, live.' There was this physical thing that touched me at the end. It gave me the thrill that I've been chasing to this day. It's something I try to do in my own work--surprise an audience, do stuff that feels both aggressive and warm."

"Be More Chill" was his way to this warmth, a bunch of song-and-dance about teen angst and depression (do you feel the surprise?), based on one of the Young Adult books of Ned Vizzini. "I never met him, but I had a few conversations with him on the phone, and he was really supportive of the project," recalls Iconis. "He was very upfront about the fact that he didn't know anything about musical theater and had no interest in actively taking part in adapting his book for the stage-Joe Tracz took on the task-but Ned made us feel we could do anything we wanted."

Tragically, Vizzini knew too well what he was writing about and committed suicide at 32 before a single performance had been given, making his Broadway bow now something of a bittersweet triumph. Still, Iconis has no apologies for turning high-school anxieties into an entertainment. "Why not? That was what Ned was doing in the original book and in his subsequent books," he reasons. "Ned was looking at these really heavy issues through the lens of teen comedy. As a literary genre, Y.A. was looked down upon or not looked at, at all. It was typically thought of as 'The Babysitters Club' or, in a different era, The Hardy Boys, and he gave this market heft and substance. And he loved the idea that we were going to do the same thing."

Iconis' "Some Enchanted Evening" is something curiously called "Michael in the Bathroom," and who does he throw his hit pick-of-the-litter to? Surprise, surprise: Not to our hero, Jeremy (Will Roland) but to this main character's sidekick, Michael (George Salazar, who takes it and makes it the most memorable moment of the show).

Explains Iconis: "Our show is populated with second bananas-our leading man would be a second-banana in another show [and, indeed, was: "Dear Evan Hanson"]-so I felt like our actual second banana should get a song that a supporting character would never, ever get. Anyone looking at this script and score would say, 'It should be "Jeremy in the Bathroom." You should give that song to your leading man. Why would you ever give this to the best friend?' But, to me, that's the whole point-to say, 'No, this is a show where you are to take a harder look at people who don't know how to get that harder look, who normally don't get the opportunity to bust out.' I wanted to write something that felt enormous and came out of a very tiny, very mundane situation."

BWW Exclusive: Joe Iconis- Broadway's New Pied Piper- Talks BE MORE CHILL, BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, More
Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

In addition to Roland and Salazar and Jason Tam, the show spotlights a whole raft of Iconis recruits who have ridden it to their Broadway debuts: Stephanie Hsu, Katlyn Carlson, Tiffany Mann, Jason "SweetTooth" Williams and Mrs. Iconis (Lauren Marcus).

Iconis added book writer to his songwriting resume by virtue of being an inveterate moviegoer and, therefore, having easy access to all sorts of storylines and plots. "On each project, I tend to draw on a very specific cinematic inspiration that work for the story I'm telling. 'Be More Chill' is a crisscross of types-John Hughes' teen comedies coupled with John Carpenter's sci-fi horror movies and '50s monster flicks like 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' and 'Invaders From Space.' With 'Bloodsong of Love,' I was looking to the Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns."

You can even find movie allusions in his stand-alone songs. Case-in-point: "The Goodbye Song" was half-inspired by the "E.T." finale and half-inspired by a cousin who had a very young son at the time he died. "It's this idea of someone knowing they are going to leave forever and trying to make it OK for the person he's leaving. The dialogue from that final scene in 'E.T.' is in the lyrics. In the movie, E.T. says 'Come,' and Elliot says 'Stay,' and then E.T. touches his heart and says 'Ouch.'"

It was also movies that inspired Iconis' well-pronounced collaborative instincts. "Robert Altman was such a huge presence in my artistic life when I was forming who I was," he confesses. "I just loved this idea of having a company of actors and behind-the-scenes people that you make art with. This is the way to do it."

His own personal stock company-billed as "Joe Iconis and Family"--has grown so that he can no longer put a number on it. "Oh my goodness, there are so many. It's a freeform thing. Sometimes we do shows when ten of us are on stage. In our last Christmas show at 54 Below, 60 participated. We had guys caroling in the john. Everyone hopes for something immersive, so we had a fully rehearsed performance in the bathroom."

He and his artistic Family just performed a couple of gigs at Feinstein's/54 Below-an anticipatory victory lap perhaps, or maybe a refresher course. "What connects the material to these events is that I wrote the music and lyrics for all of it. Some of the songs performed are stand-alones that feel like musicalized short stories where the characters only exist in the songs. Then, I preview songs from my new musicals."

BWW Exclusive: Joe Iconis- Broadway's New Pied Piper- Talks BE MORE CHILL, BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, More
Photo Credit: Nella Vera

Right now, he's hatching a half-dozen shows-no kidding--and, for the majority of them, he is doing the book as well as the songs. Few music men before or since Meredith Willson have managed to keep those three balls in the air at the same time.

The first show to lift off is a musical called "Broadway Bounty Hunter," which he wrote expressly for his good friend, Annie Golden. The actress will play a down-on-her-luck Broadway star-really down-on-her luck: hasn't had a role in years, can't pay her electric bills, still dealing with the death of her husband ten years before--so she answers a real-life ad to track down and capture a badass South American drug lord.

Golden is a charter member of Iconis' creative clan, having starred in his musical-thesis reading at NYU. "The woman casting it asked me to write down the ideal person I'd like to star in it, and I wrote down Annie. She said, 'Annie's never done an NYU reading before, but I'll ask.' She did, and Annie did, and our collaboration began."

"Broadway Bounty Hunter" starts previews July 9 at the Greenwich House (nee the Barrow Street Theater) and will run July 23 to Sept. 15, co-starring Alan H. Green from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and Brad Oscar from-well, just about everything. Its score is rich in R&B and funk, with a splash of '80s rock 'n' roll, and its narrative inspiration can be traced to '70s exploitation films like "Shaft" and "Enter the Dragon."

Come fall (specifically, Nov. 9-Dec. 1), his "Love in Hate Nation" will test the water at Red Bank, NJ's Two Rivers Theater, where "Be More Chill" got its water-wings in 2015. The 1960s-set rock musical is prompted by that period's classic "bad girl" flicks.

BWW Exclusive: Joe Iconis- Broadway's New Pied Piper- Talks BE MORE CHILL, BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, More
 Next year his musical on Hunter S. Thompson will premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, with its artistic director, Christopher Ashley, whipping it into shape. "I always thought that Thompson would be a great subject for a musical because I was such a fan of his," says Iconis, "but part of me also thought, 'This is a terrible idea for a musical. His life story is so messy, and he was so conflicted and full of contradictions, with a recognizable speech pattern that is kinda unmusical.' Then, I thought, 'Oh, it's just bad enough that I think it's a great idea, and I think that I should be the person to do it.'"

That won't be the only Iconis project going on in California in 2020. "Be More Chill" should be hitting the movie cameras by then. "Not a whole lot of work has been done on it yet, but I'm really excited about it because all of the influences for 'Be More Chill' were film influences so it only makes sense to me that it would be turned into a film."

Don't worry that Iconis has "gone Hollywood" on us, however: "Obviously, I'm very excited about the movie happening, but I want just to keep making musical theater. I think there's no part of me that is wanting to parlay my theater career into film or TV."

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From This Author Harry Haun