When the New York Times slated his show, Be More Chill composer Joe Iconis thought his dream was dead. But lead producer Gerald Goehring was not ready to give up. The pair tell Mark Shenton how, despite critical disappointment, the viral success of the show’s cast album swept it all the way to Broadway
It used to be that a negative review in New York’s ‘paper of record’ could wipe out a Broadway show’s prospects. And yet, Be More Chill, a musical that premiered in New Jersey in 2015, survived not only to see a second production last year at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, but also, despite a second less-than-glowing review, is transferring all the way to Broadway.
The New York Times’ Ben Brantley succinctly described its history and its appeal in his review of the 2018 Off-Broadway run: “First staged to lacklustre critical response at New Jersey’s Two River Theater three years ago, Be More Chill went on to become a disembodied hit with an audience that discovered the show online (via videos and a cast recording that has been streamed more 150 million times worldwide) with little or no prompting from its creators. This is a grass roots success story that could only have happened in the age of social media.” Brantley was not a fan himself, though.
The show’s composer and lyricist Joe Iconis, who is making his Broadway debut, admits he was disappointed by that reaction: “It’s hard for me – I write in a very traditional musical comedy way and I value structure. If you take a hard look at my songs you will find quite a bit of integrity to the writing. It just doesn’t wear its issues on its sleeve and you have to dig a little bit deeper even though it seems at face value that it is fun and zany. I’m never writing for a critic, but I hope they will meet me halfway and feel my work is worthy of a deeper glance.”
The first negative review in 2015 nearly killed the show. “When it got the review it did, it wasn’t anything you could hide from. It was a show-killer,” says Iconis. “Every producer who was coming to see it cancelled their tickets. I had no reason to believe there would be a life for it after New Jersey. With that immediate stamp of disapproval, it seemed unlikely it would find a life in New York. There wasn’t a path for it.”
But then something else happened: social media took over and people started ‘adopting’ the show, after streaming the original New Jersey cast recording.
Broadway lead producer Gerald Goehring, who wasn’t involved in the original production, says: “People were hearing the music only and were filling in the story in between the songs for themselves – whatever was going on in their life, they were overlaying that on to the songs and imposing themselves on them and relating it to their own lives. They started taking ownership and spreading the word.”
• Let the talent lead the way.
• Embrace your investors, as they are family.
• Make sure you are connected to the audience and get their feedback.
He had started working on another project with Iconis, who told him this was happening – so he set up a run in New York last summer, hiring out Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre. For Iconis “the fact we were able to have that production was the most remarkable thing – I had truly written off a New York life for the show in every way; it was never something I thought could have happened”.
After Brantley’s review, Iconis was once again convinced the show had gone as far as it could. But Goehring didn’t agree: “I never thought we were dead. When I took a step back and watched the audience, I could see the connections Joe had written that people were relating to – it started to spread to different demographics, and people were even counterfeiting tickets because they couldn’t get in. Something magical was happening that we couldn’t control, except to keep guiding it and protecting what was on that stage. So the Times review had no part in that. Of course, I’d love good reviews, because it speeds up the exposure. But now we live in a time where word of mouth will do that.”
Not that he’s being overconfident: “We’ve all had to take a breath and ask: ‘Are we in a bubble? Is it just an audio phenomenon that won’t translate once we get out of the bubble?’ We’ve had 250 million streams – but does that mean they’re going to buy tickets to a Broadway show? At the same time, does that not give us an indication that it is connecting at some level with different ages?”
• Consume as much art as you can – it’s important to know what’s out there and what the rules are, then you can decide whether or not to break them.
• Don’t be afraid of collaboration.
• Sondheim is the best. He just is.
We meet the morning after the show’s first Broadway preview. As I left the theatre, I overheard one middle-aged woman tell her companion: “It’s going to rock the world.” This would appear to prove Goehring’s point that the show is connecting with not just young audiences.
It seems to have turned into a zeitgeist moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, for musicals about high-school students and the challenges they are facing – from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in the West End to Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen (transferring to London this autumn).
“Be More Chill premiered at Two River in New Jersey three months before Dear Evan Hansen premiered out of town,” says Iconis, “so there was no part of its development where we were aware of these other shows, which have made it to New York before us.”
Iconis is particularly pleased to finally be playing to a younger audience than ever before in his career. “My theatrical life before this has really existed either in the cabaret world or in regional theatre, and no matter where you go in this country, that mainly means older audiences. My usual experience has been performing to audiences who are over 60, but now that Be More Chill has been embraced by kids, we’re having to combat the idea that it is only for them.”
Goehring says all the major Broadway theatre owners came to see it at Signature. “They were all very generous, and they’re all just wonderful people,” he says, adding with a smile, “I need to say that politically, officially.”
The largest and most powerful is the Shubert Organization and after a representative saw the show, Goehring got a call: “They asked me to come up and talk about the landscape of the coming season, which I found was code for ‘we’re going to offer you a theatre’. They saw the demographics and the numbers, and they recognised that it is an asset not just for their theatre, but for the industry. We are entering into this new golden age of musical theatre that is being led by this young talent that will also bring new audiences.”
What was your first job?
Goehring: I got the owner to save an old vaudeville theatre, the Orpheum in Wichita, and helped restore it. The grid had become a pigeon roost – the stage had 2ft of guano and I spent two weeks shovelling it off the stage.
Iconis: I was musical director and played piano for the Garden City Community Players on Long Island.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Goehring: You can’t do it by yourself.
Iconis: To be patient, but I wouldn’t have listened.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Goehring: My wife.
Iconis: The family of artists I surround myself with.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Goehring: We’re rooting for you.
Iconis: I love people who are strange, quirky and confident – embrace your weirdness.
If you hadn’t been a producer or composer, what would you have been?
Goehring: I would have bagged groceries.
Iconis: I would have worked in film. I’m a big movie fan.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Goehring: Many, but I’m too superstitious to tell you.
Iconis: I’m a theatrical pessimist when it comes to my work, so I don’t like to talk about wonderful things that might happen until they do.
Alongside Broadway, the show is already being licensed to be performed by high schools and colleges around the country. “We believe it will act as a feeder tube to the show on Broadway, so that people who are in it or see those productions will want to see the professional one. It’s not like I’m going to go to a Little League game and not buy a Yankees ticket as a result.”
The Broadway production is capitalised at $9 million. “It’s a small budget and we’re being very careful, because we have to be,” Goehring adds. But as well as bringing in younger audiences, it is also bringing a younger, mostly unknown cast to Broadway, and a younger creative team and team of producers. “We have the lowest median age of producers on Broadway now,” concludes Goehring, “I’m proud to give opportunities to young artists and young producers – they’re the ones who will be bring in the next generation of shows, too.”
Be More Chill could just be the start of a new revolution for Broadway musicals.
Born: Goehring: Wichita, Kansas, 1963; Iconis: Mineola on Long Island, New York, 1981
Training: Goehring: Wichita State University, studying theatre and business.
Iconis: Steinhardt School of Music at New York University, musical writing at Tisch School
• Pasek and Paul’s A Christmas Story, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway (2012)
• Bloodsong of Love, Ars Nova, New York (2010)
• The Black Suits, Barrington Stage Company (2012), then Center Theater Group, Los Angeles (2013)
• Broadway Bounty Hunter, Barrington Stage Company (2016)
Agent: Iconis: Michael Finkle, William Morris Endeavor
Be More Chill is at Lyceum Theatre, New York until October 20. For more information go to: bemorechillmusical.com