BWW Interview: Joe Iconis On Bringing BE MORE CHILL To London
Be More Chill, a musical about a teenage boy who uses a supercomputer brain implant to help him fit in at school and get the girl, became a surprise Broadway hit thanks to its hugely dedicated fandom.
Now, the show is coming to London's The Other Palace - the first venue outside of the States. Creator Joe Iconis (music/lyrics) discusses the show's development, fan support, and why it's struck such a chord with young audiences in particular.
Are you excited the show is coming to London?
Oh my gosh, I'm beyond excited! The initial journey that we've had over the past year and a half truly been a dream come true. From a little kid who always wanted to be a musical theatre writer, to have a show on in New York, to be on Broadway and now in London - just the fact it's happening is surreal. And I never thought the London production would come together as quickly as it has.
Have you been involved with the development process over here?
Yes, I've been very involved - I'm definitely someone who wants to be as involved as I'm allowed to be with the theatre I've created! The fact that this is the first production outside of the States, which doesn't feature actors who've been with the show for years, we want to make sure it feels like its own beast - and a really world-class version.
I've been completely involved in casting and in London for rehearsal. It's so fun as a writer to get to work with artists who haven't encountered the material before and who bring a new perspective. Every rehearsal, actors are bringing new ideas, inspiring me, making me come up with new takes. That perspective shift is so helpful - it only makes the show itself stronger.
What kind of changes have you made?
Two things. First, there's stuff on the surface - so lines in the show about things like Hot Pockets, which are an American savoury snack. Clearly, the cast over in London is like "What the hell is that?". So you get a joke line where no one laughs! There's some stuff that doesn't translate.
But also, people have different life experiences. So they ask "Why does this character say this?", and I actually have to think about that moment and explain it, because it's not someone who's been developing this character with me for three or four years. So it's also the emotional lives of the characters, and getting really great new insights there.
What does it mean to you to have this level of fandom? There's already huge buzz about the show coming to London
I'm so bowled over by the fact that this show has touched so many people. The show was really discovered by (if you know what I mean!) actual human beings - the reason we got here, or got to Broadway, was because people fell in love with the show. It wasn't a newspaper telling them to see it, and it wasn't based on a popular franchise. As a writer, that feels like the greatest achievement.
Although, to know that the fandom carries over to London, that it's this huge global thing, is both comforting and also really scary! We're not an under-the-radar show - people are already excited and interested to see what we're up to, so there's a certain amount of pressure not to disappoint them.
I have to say, yesterday someone tweeted at me a song lyric from the show they'd tattooed on their arm. It's thrilling - I mean, what greater compliment? Awards are nice, obviously, but that kind of love is the greatest award you can get.
The show has particularly struck a chord with younger audiences - why do you think that is?
It's funny, I think it's because the show wasn't specifically written for young audiences; I wrote it as something I'd want to see. I wanted to talk about big themes like anxiety, depression, suicide, technology, drugs, but through the lens of this sci-fi comedy. It's writing in a genre and language that just happens to be American teenager. But it's not an adult writer writing down to young people - and I think that's why they gravitated towards it. It's just written as a funny, honest musical.
Also, the spirit of the show is that it's a celebration of people who feels different or like misfits - it says that everyone is struggling and going through their own thing, dealing with their issues. The triumph is not getting rid of those issues, "curing" mental illness or getting with the girl, it's being able to get on with it - to deal with this stuff and go on with your life. The show says you can be struggling and still celebrate, still find joy. There's not a lot of that messaging in art, so young people appreciate it.
What sort of responses have you had to the work?
I've been so lucky to encounter first-hand so many people who are really touched by it. I'm a performer as well, I do concerts, so I get to deal with people who are coming to the work quite a bit. The number one thing they've said to me is that they're so moved that there's something that has the complexity our show has, the heavy issues, without feeling like a tragedy - like that someone has to die at the end.
When you first encountered Ned Vizzini's novel, what made you think "This should be a musical"?
Actually, it really was that mash-up of genres that got me so excited. First, I loved how the characters felt like teen story archetypes - the loser, the jock, the popular girl - but then once you got into the story, they started behaving in ways you're not used to seeing. Of course people in real life are multifaceted; this is a teen comedy, but the characters still have dimension.
And then the sci-fi element - I immediately thought "Oh, this is a musical comedy". It's such a great genre to talk about these big issues in a way that's surprising, unexpected, fun. It made me think of Little Shop of Horrors or Damn Yankees - using supernatural devices to tell a story about something else.
Musically, I wanted to draw from influences like 1950s horror and monster movies, as well as 1980s sci-fi horror, like John Carpenter, Halloween, The Thing. Be More Chill premiered in 2015 with all those influences - and then Stranger Things came out in 2016 with the exact vibe I'd been talking about! I was so pissed off with Stranger Things - like, are you serious? This is what I was doing last summer, and no one cared!
Speaking of which, the initial critical response to the show probably wasn't what you were hoping for. Did you think that was it?
It was really challenging at first. There's a way the musical theatre business operates in the US - and in New York particularly - that for a musical like ours, in order to move ahead, you need something like that positive New York Times review. So when we didn't get it in 2015 at the Two River Theater in New Jersey, it felt like a death sentence. I've been in that spot in my career many times before and since, and it's just kind of done.
But the fact that, three years later, we were able to do an Off-Broadway and then Broadway production, because people fell in love with it - it genuinely feels like a miracle. That's something that's basically never happened before, so it wasn't something I thought was possible. It gave me faith that maybe there are other ways to do this - to get a musical onto those stages. I feel so, so grateful that people discovered and championed the show. It's their show.
How weird was it to then have James Corden spoofing "Michael in the Bathroom" at the Tony Awards?
That was such a surreal moment! I didn't know they were going to do it. The hilarious thing is that so many people didn't even know that song was from Be More Chill. Afterwards, I tweeted about it and James Corden very kindly talked about it, but at the time people didn't know. My brother called me the day after saying Howard Stern was talking about how he thought the best number from the awards was "that one in the bathroom". It was crazy!
And in terms of future plans, you've got a production coming up in Chicago? And a film adaptation?
Yes, Chicago is our next one, from April. And the film version is definitely in the works, so there'll be more info on that to come soon...
I'm also doing a concert in London on 6 February - that'll be songs from the shows and some standalone stuff too, so it should be a fun night.
Finally, for anyone interested in seeing the London production, why should they come along?
They're going to see themselves reflected in the story in a very surprising way. They're going to hopefully understand some new things about themselves and their loved ones. They'll laugh a lot, come away singing the songs - and buy a lot of merch! Seriously, even if you don't like the show, the phrase "Be more chill" looks great on a T-shirt. I get so many compliments on the title - which I did not write...
Photo credit: Stephanie Wessels