By John Schilling
Published: March 27th, 2019
One of the most hyped, unprecedented musicals of all time, Be More Chill, opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday, March 10. The curtain rises to a teen boy muttering to himself: “C-c-c c’mon, c-c-c- c’mon go, go.” These words are not just the opening line of the show, but they are also what many eager theatergoers have been muttering for almost the past four years, awaiting the show’s arrival.
Unlike any other show, Be More Chill started in 2015 as a small, four-week production at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, where it seemingly died. After producing a cast recording of the show and streaming it on Spotify, the power of social media kicked in and Be More Chill was resurrected in the summer of 2018 at Pershing Square by popular demand. But it doesn’t stop there! The Off-Broadway run not only sold out immediately, but it also made one message very clear: Broadway was ready for an UPGRADE!
Be More Chill tells the story of Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), a seemingly insignificant high school junior who is sick of being a “loser geek whatever” and wants to be noticed by his crush, Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu). With the help of his friend Michael Mell (George Salazar), a school bully named Rich (Gerard Canonico), and his failing relationship with his father (Jason “Sweettooth” Williams), Jeremy decides to “be more chill” and enlists the help of a supercomputer pill, known as the SQUIP (Jason Tam). The plot of the show revolves around how this decision goes all wrong and reinforces the theme of embracing who you are.
While the musical is seemingly beloved, the public opinion of Be More Chill is far from clear cut. The show is often praised for its coming of age, tone, and unique approach, but also criticized for just about everything you could think of, including sexism and homophobia. In addition, the show is compared to already established staples on Broadway, such as Dear Evan Hansen or other highly regarded new arrivals like The Prom. This could be considered flattering if it was for the purpose of promoting Be More Chill, but these comparisons are often drawn to show how inferior it is to these shows. Having seen the show myself, I can say that Be More Chill is imperfect, but not the abomination that critics have made it out to be.
One of the highest praises I can offer to Be More Chill is the casting. The cast, which was significantly white in 2015, is now made up of different races and is a prime example of the diversity that theater lacks nowadays. Aside from being diverse, the cast is also immensely talented. The show is led by Dear Evan Hansen original cast member, Will Roland, who shines as Jeremy. Roland is tasked with making the audience feel sorry for a character who seemingly makes bad decisions and brings the resulting consequences upon himself. This is challenging and should not be overlooked. Roland has also improved his vocals significantly, since starting the role in July 2018. From what I can see, Roland has transformed from playing a character to becoming the character, and this makes his performance more authentic. George Salazar makes it “a two-player game” as Jeremy’s stoner best friend, Michael Mell. Salazar truly steals the show and grabs the audience’s attention whenever he is on stage. This is seen especially in Act 2 when Salazar delivers an emotional, gut-wrenching ballad called “Michael in the Bathroom.” His performance of that song alone should warrant him a TONY nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Salazar brings the heart and humor the show could not survive without.
In addition to the cast, Be More Chill offers a refreshing, unique perspective of what some might consider an overdone story. The idea of a character wanting to “fit in” is often met with criticism because it has been done so many times before, but this should not discredit Be More Chill. In fact, I think it is praiseworthy that the show takes on this story, but of course, adds a unique twist of a supercomputer pill telling you what to do. While watching the show, I never thought for a second I was watching something that I had seen before. Be More Chill creates an interesting dynamic in that it feels very real, but is very much based on fantasy. Not to mention, the show is extremely funny and true to what it is portraying: teenagers in high school. This is where the criticism often comes in, and I think this form of it is unjustified.
Be More Chill is often criticized for promoting stereotypes, homophobia, and sexism. The problem is that this criticism is often formulated by critics, who are looking through the lens of conservatism. Admittedly, the stereotypes were profound in the show’s 2015 production with one-dimensional female characters who were simply meant to serve as “the mean girls.” However, the show we see on stage now has been drastically reworked to give these characters personality. They still are “the mean girls,” but the show now explains why they are the way they are, and this gives them unique identities in the story that audiences can relate to.
As for homophobia and sexism, these criticisms are often mentioned because of scenes and/or lines in the show that portray characters in certain ways with feelings of prejudice or objectification. Again, this is a musical about teenagers and irrational, immoral behaviors are necessary to make the show seem real. Not to mention, it is important to distinguish between the characters and the show as a whole. Just because something is said by a character, it does not indicate the show’s narrative or qualify as promoting it. By that logic, we could criticize Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for being a racist book/play, but these racist words were necessary to make the story seem real and true to the time period.
Lastly, the critics exemplify further hypocrisy by calling the songs of the show “repetitive” and “poorly written.” Ben Brantley of The New York Times referred to the song structure by saying, “The rhymes in Mr. (Joe) Iconis’ lyrics feel like they might have been improvised on the spot by class-cutting stoners behind the gym,” while mentioning “fake pee” being rhymed with “awkwardly” as an example. I really struggle to see why this is criticized and I question what Brantley’s expectations were towards this show. The show is clearly about teenage social structure taken to a whole new level, and he is concerned with how the songs rhyme? Granted, the songs may not be the cleanest forms of poetry, but this is because most of the songs are written to be sung by teenage characters in the way teenagers typically talk! It would not make sense for Jeremy Heere to sound like the dramatic, ex-convict Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, which is another show with “repetitive” songs; Unlike Be More Chill, it is free from this criticism somehow.
To be clear, I am not saying this show is free of error, but rather suggesting that it be criticized appropriately. From my experience, I found the pacing to be a bit of an issue with various low points where the show slowed down, and I found the conclusion to Act One to be underwhelming. Usually, the end of Act One is used to tease something big coming in Act Two, and this really is not the case. However, I think both of these things are due to the show being “stretched out” to fill time. The show is two hours and 30 minutes long, but could probably be told in less than two hours. In one respect, I appreciate the “stretching out” of the story and can overlook it not only to give me my money’s worth but to expand on these characters and give them depth. My only wish, in this instance, is that it was not so apparent.
Overall, Be More Chill will continue to do “more than survive” these undeservingly negative reviews, as tickets have now been made available through October 2019 by popular demand. The show is not like anything that has been on Broadway before and should be taken as a new phenomenon. It is evident from these harsh reviews that the critics may need SQUIPs for themselves to “be more chill” and criticize the show appropriately. It is only fair to hold Be More Chill to the same standard at which other musicals are reviewed, a courtesy that has not been granted. I hope Be More Chill gives the other musicals hell at the TONY Awards in June, and I will laugh when these critics jump on the bandwagon like they did when Dear Evan Hansen beat Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 in 2017 for Best Musical. When taken exactly for what it is, Be More Chill is a fun time at the theater filled with exciting, original songs and a story that everyone can relate to in some way, despite its unorthodox plot. I give Be More Chill four out of five stars.