It’s very now.Be More Chill, Broadway’s new teen-angst musical about a high-school misfit who takes a pill laced with a computer chip that turns him into Mr. Cool, pretty much fizzled when it premiered at a small theater in New Jersey four years ago. But it became a viral hit on the Web — with a soundtrack album that has reportedly been streamed more than 200 million times — and that led to a sold-out off-Broadway production last year, Now the show, with a score by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, has transferred to Broadway on a wave of pre-opening hype — a now-generation musical that has demonstrated a new path to grass-roots success in the Internet age.
It’s very then. Jeremy (Will Boland) is a high-school nerd who just wants to fit in (“I don’t want to be a hero / just want to stay in the line,” he sings). Sound familiar? For anyone who’s seen Dear Evan Hansen or Mean Girls or School of Rock — or any one of a hundred teen comedies of the past 20 years — it’s all painfully passé. The clique of stuck-up popular girls, the vaguely gay best friend, the clueless parents (here a dad who won’t put on pants) — the show checks all the usual boxes. What once seemed fresh now seems like the default mode for Broadway’s effort to attract the millennials.
It’s actually not bad. Though over-familiar (and overmiked), Be More Chill is surprisingly winning. Stephen Brackett’s production doesn’t overdo the fantasy elements (the computer chip is personified by a Keanu Reeves clone, amusingly played by Jason Tam), and avoids the usual Broadway-power-ballad bombast.The score is especially catchy, in a nonthreatening pop-rock style, with some cute retro hiccups (“Being here with you right now-how-ow”).One of the best numbers is the quietest — “Michael in the Bathroom,” sung by Jeremy’s best friend (George Salazar) while hiding out at the coolest party of the year. There’s at least a modicum of authenticity, and it’s a rare show that improves in the second act.
But not that good. Why does the school’s most popular guy chase after the nerdy theater girl (Stephanie Hsu) that Jeremy has a crush on? Why is Jeremy living with his Dad? (Mom isn’t dead, we learn, but there’s no back-story at all.) The difference between Be More Chill and a more serious teen-angst musical like Dear Evan Hansen is that here we’re supposed to take all the character clichés on faith. It’s probably no accident that Iconis wrote songs for NBC’s let’s-put-on-a-generic-Broadway-musical show Smash. If Smash were retooled for the Disney Channel, Be More Chill is the musical they would be making.
It’s the fans vs. the critics. Many of the top theater reviewers have been surprisingly sour on the show. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times all hated it — even as the musical is setting box-office records at the Lyceum Theater. Will Be More Chill prevail? It will be an interesting spring.