How an Anxious-Adolescent Musical (No, Not That One) Found Its Fans

Will Connolly (center) as a high school student who takes steps to turn cool in the Two River Theater production of “Be More Chill.”

Before “Be More Chill” even starts previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center on July 26, it will already be one of the most popular new musicals in America, with a passionate fan base that dwarfs the number of people who have ever seen the show.

All this after a barely noticed monthlong run in New Jersey three years ago. And a little cast album that could.

When the show’s songwriter, Joe Iconis, and co-star, George Salazar, did a joint cabaret evening at Feinstein’s/54 Below this month, audience members flew in from Paris, Berlin and London. A dad got behind the wheel to ferry his daughter from Michigan. A pair of friends drove from Florida.

Annalise Heffron, 13, and her mom, Amy Cobb, spent 17 hours on a bus from their home in Cincinnati. “She picked that over the school trip to Chicago,” Ms. Cobb said by telephone later.

Still, even musical-theater aficionados may be asking: What exactly is “Be More Chill”?

Based on a 2004 novel by Ned Vizzini, the pop-rock musical, with a book by Joe Tracz, tells the story of a high school junior, Jeremy Heere, who ingests a pill-size supercomputer that makes him cooler.

Its only professional production came in June 2015 at New Jersey’s Two River Theater, which commissioned the show. The New York Times review was tepid, and despite Mr. Iconis’s spirited score and growing track record — he contributed the cult classic “Broadway, Here I Come!” to the TV show “Smash” — no commercial producer came knocking. The chill looked like rigor mortis.

And yet less than three years later, the cast album has passed 100 million streams in the United States. This, of course, is nowhere near the 2.3 billion clocked by “Hamilton,” but just under half of the streams for the vastly more established “Dear Evan Hansen” (211 million), and a lot more than another teen-oriented show, “Heathers: The Musical” (23.4 million), which ran Off Broadway and has had numerous regional productions.

So it’s not a total surprise that on Friday, a producer announced a commercial Off Broadway run, only the second professional production so far. “Knowing that people in such large numbers are connecting to it felt like a perfect opportunity,” said Gerald Goehring, whose credits include “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”

Most of the original cast will be back, and in a neat connection, Will Roland, who originated the role of the acerbic Jared in “Dear Evan Hansen,” will take on Jeremy in “Be More Chill” during the summer run, slated for nine weeks.

It’s hard to tell what ignited the frenzy, but about a year and a half after “Be More Chill” closed, the sci-fi-tinged story of the teenage dork and his friends somehow started getting traction.

Newbies would discover videos in the “recommended” column on YouTube, usually after they’d clicked on “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen” videos, and the internet helped link fans all over the world.

“I was getting tagged in fan art, then I started noticing people were writing fan fiction about my character and Jeremy,” Mr. Salazar said by telephone. “I was dumbfounded by all of it.”

Nowadays, even a show with a short run outside New York can get a cast album that may go viral. “For shows that don’t have productions, it’s a very easy way to get to a wide audience,” said the producer Ken Davenport, whose “Once on This Island” is now on Broadway. “And then the licensing companies respond.”

Indeed, Rodgers and Hammerstein picked up “Be More Chill” in July 2017 and made it available as a licensed show to schools and amateur companies.

The fan phenomenon was picking up velocity. The recording entered the Billboard Cast Album chart’s Top 10 a whopping 97 weeks after its release, by Ghostlight.

Illustrations and stories connected to the show spread on Tumblr, where “Be More Chill” inspired the second biggest musical-theater fandom of 2017, just behind the following for “Hamilton.”

Animated storyboards known as animatics popped up on YouTube; the most frequently rendered is the tour-de-force song in which Mr. Salazar’s character has an anxiety attack.

“Right after I discovered ‘Michael in the Bathroom,’ I decided to try drawing an animatic for it, even though I still didn’t know what the musical was about,” Claudia Cacace, a 22-year-old who lives near Naples, Italy, said by email. “I just related to the character so much that I felt the need to draw the scene.”

In turn, Dove Calderwood, 27, discovered Ms. Cacace’s art and commissioned her to animate the entire musical.

“It was something I wanted, and it was something I knew the fans wanted, because we didn’t have any visuals for the show,” Ms. Calderwood said by telephone from her home in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Another popular take on “Michael in the Bathroom” is an inspired cosplay performance (that is, lip-synced in character and in costume) by a 20-year-old who goes by “Jack or Aless, depending on the situation” and hails from Toronto.

“Everyone I’ve ever talked to about this musical has told me that they’ve been in the situation Michael was in,” Jack said in an email. “Being in such a vulnerable moment in your life, and then listening to a song that has a character that knows what it’s like to go through it, it really does make you feel that you’re not alone in this.”

Ms. Heffron, the Cincinnati teenager, prefers the score’s “The Pitiful Children” and “The Squip Song” to “Michael in the Bathroom,” which, she said, “is really good but a little overrated.”

Still, she made sure to seek out Mr. Salazar during a meet-and- greet after the 54 Below concert that went on longer than the show itself. She had brought him a Pac-Man toy because his “Be More Chill” character has a Pac-Man tattoo. (The show, “Two-Player Game,” has a few more performances through the end of May.)

There is no denying that fans are committed. They turned up in droves for an amateur production of “Be More Chill” in November at New Jersey’s Exit 82 Theater.

“It was the most insane attention any of my shows has ever received,” said Mr. Iconis, still sounding slightly stunned. “We needed security for a talkback at a community theater. Security!”

In Other News

© 2020 US News. All Rights Reserved.