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She Believed She Could: Stephanie Hsu Is Ready For This Upgrade

She Believed She Could: Stephanie Hsu Is Ready For This Upgrade
Photo credit: Jenny Anderson

Origin stories are a weird thing, and nowhere on Broadway right now is there an odder origin story than Be More Chill. After a moderately-reviewed regional run in New Jersey in 2015, the sci-fi teen musical seemed to have fizzled out - and then it took off, going viral seemingly out of nowhere and eventually landing on Broadway four years later. That's not an origin story that most Broadway shows have.

For star Stephanie Hsu, it started with a fake lemonade ad skit in the third grade.

"We had an assembly, and they picked a volunteer from the audience to do a fake lemonade ad, and we just read words off of a cardstock poster," she remembers, with a laugh. "I remember thinking to myself, 'oh, this is really fun, but I should probably do something more practical with my life! And so for a really long time, I resisted theatre... so I started comparatively late. I didn't want to be a 'theatre geek,' but then I did my first play when I was in high school."

She never looked back, moving on to college for theatre. She calls her trajectory "a series of guardian angels who keep opening doors," noting that her path to being on Broadway eight shows a week has been pretty unconventional from the start.

"I feel like I'm having dreams for the first time," she reflects.

Hsu's story has another layer, too. She describes herself as "between first and second generation" American, from a family of immigrants. Her family's story is fundamental to who she is as an artist, but it also makes her another kind of "first generation," and she's fully aware of how meaningful this is.

"My mom was so focused on making sure there was food on the table, art wasn't really an option," she explains. "No one was thinking about being an actor [when they were immigrating to escape war]... so it wasn't really until the last few years, where the shifting in our country and the kind of art that is being told right now - I feel, for the first time, so overwhelmed with honor and gratitude that I get to do this with my life. I get to tell stories and transfer energy in a way that inspires people to open up valves of compassion or to think differently. Art is so freaking important."

She Believed She Could: Stephanie Hsu Is Ready For This Upgrade
Photo credit: Jenny Anderson

For Hsu, who has roots in the world of off-Broadway and experimental theatre, Be More Chill has become a sort of perfect storm at the intersection of "seriously weird" and "Broadway." The show is part of a Broadway season that Hsu calls "downtown taken uptown," with more unconventional shows (such as Hadestown and the revived Oklahoma!, alongside Be More Chill) hitting the mainstream.

"New voices are the pulse of American theatre," Hsu says - and she's not just talking about new voices on the stage.

"If there's something here that [fans] are gravitating towards, then there's something here that needs to be shared... It's easy to discount work that is made for young people, but young people are literally our future! These are the people who will be the theatre makers and the artists, even just ten years from now. We have to honor them and provide them with something to celebrate."

Be More Chill has most certainly spoken to younger theatre fans above all else; it was their passion and intense devotion that took the show from the cast album of a mostly-forgotten regional show to a buzzy Broadway player. Hsu has played Christine, the show's whip-smart female lead, since the very beginning. Talking with her, you get a sense that she's very protective of Christine and her place in the story and the phenomenon.

"Christine is such a totem of truth in this show. Everyone wants to be someone else, and there are all these tropes, but she is so weird, and she honors that weirdness and her journey in that weirdness! And she is a really strong-minded woman!" Hsu is thoughtful about the legacy the story and character will leave behind, too, especially thinking towards the future when others will be playing Christine and putting their own stamps on her.

She Believed She Could: Stephanie Hsu Is Ready For This Upgrade
Photo credit: Maria Baranova

"With the story we're telling with Christine, we're leaving shoes that, when I leave, someone will fill, and they will be able to live inside of her with power and joy as the type of woman we want to put into this world... She's firmly her weird, young, feminist self! It's been a great macro-collaborative effort, in terms of the audience and the fans and what's happening inside the [rehearsal] room."

Along with the rest of her castmates, Hsu is getting some serious notices for her Be More Chill work. Only hours before we spoke, news broke that she'd been nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for her work in the off-Broadway production. Even as the show's rising tide takes everyone along with it, Hsu stays grounded, and that's evident in the advice she offers to young artists.

"Who you are is extraordinary. I want young people to know that they have the capacity to change the world. Art is powerful because it gives us space to feel empowered. You have the capacity within you to make great shifts. So may you serve your community to the best of your ability and find your people."

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