At first, it seemed as if the current Broadway phenomenon Be More Chill was going to be condemned to regional-theater status. “We only had a four-week limited engagement in New Jersey,” says music and lyrics writer Joe Iconis of the show’s initial run in 2015. “For us to go beyond that, we’d need a good review from the New York Times.” Instead, the Times panned the production. “That meant we were done.”
Then the Internet had its way.
Iconis, who won a Jonathan Larson Grant in 2006 and has a following in the New York City theater scene, was ready to move on with his life. But in 2017, two years after the show closed, a cast recording that had been intended only to preserve the music for posterity found an audience via social media. “It wound up getting more love than anything I had ever done,” says Iconis. The recording has now been streamed more than 150 million times.
It stands to reason that a musical rooted in contemporary issues facing adolescents–including the horrors of social media–would earn a trip to Broadway in such a modern way. With a home in the historic Lyceum Theatre, the show opened March 10 and is on track to be one of the breakouts of the season in the same vein as the Tony-winning smash Dear Evan Hansen.
The comparison is especially apt given that Be More Chill shares with Dear Evan Hansen a high school setting, themes of fitting in and even a cast member. Will Roland, an original member of the Hansen company, shines as lead Jeremy Heere, a depressed nerd who pops a risky pill that conjures a personal life coach only he can see. In his dressing room an hour before a matinee, Roland says, “I hope people come expecting to laugh, but I think they’ll be disarmed by the way things affect them emotionally.”
Herein lies Chill’s trick and the likely reason for its resonance. Below a surface of up-tempo musical numbers, buoyant energy and candy-colored costumes is a layered commentary about depression in the current age. One of the show’s early viral tracks, “Michael in the Bathroom,” is about hiding, alone and nervous, at an otherwise fun party. “Teenagers can sniff out when something is fake,” says Iconis. “We wanted to explore these deep themes and then do the total opposite. That was something that initially was hard for people to wrap their head around, but young people got it immediately.”
Poignantly, the 2004 book that Chill is based on is by popular young-adult author Ned Vizzini, known for the novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which was inspired by his stay at a psychiatric ward. He struggled with depression and died by suicide in 2013. “My agent gave me the book and said, ‘I think you’d like this. It reminds me of you,'” says Iconis, who spoke to Vizzini by phone before his death. Although they knew the late author would never hear a song from their show, the cast and crew found that handling his legacy gave them an extra layer of responsibility. “Every single person in this building has endeavored to make our story as true as possible, while creating a world that’s more fantastic than our own,” Iconis says.
It’s a world more people may get to experience; a film adaptation is in the works thanks partly to prolific TV producer Greg Berlanti (Riverdale). This is despite the fact that unlike Dear Evan Hansen, the show has garnered mostly mixed reviews. Four years after panning the initial production, the Times ended up panning the Broadway version too, with theater critic Ben Brantley noting, “For better or worse, this may be the only show on Broadway that a tween could see and think happily, ‘Hey, I could do that at home.'”
Iconis acknowledges that the modern-day themes that generated Be More Chill’s organic teen fandom aren’t exactly meant to impress critics. “I never would have thought so many young people would have thanked me for making a musical for those who have struggled with suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, and still have a dance party at the end,” says Iconis. “You can be depressed about something and still make jokes with your best friend.”
This appears in the April 01, 2019 issue of TIME.