Joe Iconis. George Salazar. And Michael in the Bathroom.
September 25, 2018 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Joe Iconis writes songs. Songs about outcasts and misfits and people who aren't comfortable in their skins. George Salazar is one of the people who sings them.
Iconis's latest musical, Be More Chill has become an underground sensation. It is wildly adored by its teen fan base. With no traditional advertising, it sold out its off-Broadway run entirely. Its cast album has received over 160 million streams.

The moment in the show that best epitomizes the profound adolescent emotion behind Be More Chill’s appeal is the second-act showstopper Michael in the Bathroom. It's Michael’s big solo and the source of fans’ deep adoration of him. Sung with heartbreaking vulnerability by George Salazar, Michael is the Be More Chill fandom’s favorite character. Tumblr is littered with fan art of Michael; when Salazar makes his entrance, the show has to halt for a solid 30 seconds as the fans scream wildly for him.

Michael in the Bathroom

In February, Be More Chill will move to Broadway.

Between the Off-Broadway and the Broadway productions, Joe Iconis and George Salazar performed and recorded Two-Player Game, a collection of songs by Iconis. Each song offers its own story, with Salazar morphing into completely different characters.

And I step off the edge
I don't need a girlfriend, I have a goldfish
I try and I try to change myself, but my back's against the wall
I’d stay if I could, but the universe won’t let me

“I love writing songs about people who feel either way too normal to be the subject of a song, or people who feel like they don’t belong,” he explained. “They’re not strange enough to be the strange one, not cool enough to be the cool one.”

The result is a series of songs about characters who are eminently relatable, made even more so by Salazar’s charismatic, extraordinary ordinariness.
posted by still_wears_a_hat (15 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I would like to note, because I think it is important to note, that the author of the YA book that was eventually made into this musical, Ned Vizzini, struggled deeply with depression, and ultimately killed himself in 2013, two years before this musical was produced. He did not live to see this become a viral sensation on the lips of teenagers everywhere. It reads as true to teenagers because the heart of it was true, born of his own painful experiences.

I just wish he was here to see this acclaim.
posted by corb at 3:39 PM on September 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

My kid, a thirteen year old theater nerd, has been obsessed with this for a solid month. They might get an account here to discuss.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:38 PM on September 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

My kid will be 13 next month and loves this show as well.
posted by mogget at 4:40 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

. for Ned. I can't find the quote now but there's an interview with Iconis talking about how he made notes on the show and gave them advice when it was just being figured out. As someone who works in YA and was/is a fan of his and musicals but with no knowledge about this one particularly, seeing it blow up from a distance has been wild. It makes me happy but heartbroken. Man. Fuck depression.
posted by colorblock sock at 4:45 PM on September 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

man, the PT Cruiser's reputation is getting dragged from one generation into the next. I wonder if it'll still be a good punchline 10 years from now.
posted by numaner at 4:47 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

And coming to actual Broadway very soon, as everyone in my house keeps telling me.
posted by rokusan at 5:18 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is wonderful. From all of us theater-nerd alumni, thank you for bringing us up to speed.
posted by gusandrews at 6:27 PM on September 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hooray for teenage theater nerds. You have discovered the key to salvation, happiness, and success in all you desire. Your friends will be the best friends, your lovers will be the most passionate lovers, your endeavors will be the most creative endeavors and will inspire others. Your lives will be full because you will imagine dreams into possibilities. You’ll create whatever the next Burning Man is. Most of you will become high school teachers eventually, but that’s ok.

Old Theater Nerds
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:14 PM on September 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

Ned was a friend of mine in high school.

I used to talk with him about magic cards and Star Trek and his weird business ideas. I still have a copy of the weird comic he and another friend published (via photocopy) and sold around the school for two bucks a pop. I went to see his rock band play at The Continental.

I remember when he started getting his writing published in the New York Press (a free weekly). It was so good, and so true to him.

When he published his first book — a collection of those newspaper essays — I was blown away. He was “famous”!

We weren’t in touch that much after high school; I was at NYU and he was at Hunter. I met up with him once, while he was prepping for the release of Be More Chill. He had envisioned a whole sort of ARG-style guerilla marketing campaign for the book. He was putting up flyers on streetlights around the city with lines like “What is a Squip?” He has set up some websites for people to discover if they tried to look up the silly word he had come up with. He really thought kids would get into the mystery of it.

We talked, another day, about his hospitalization, and about depression. His third book, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, was based on his experience checking into in-patient care. He told me the only part of the book he made up was the love interest — everything else had been real.

That was the last time we hung out, but I kept up with his career over the next few years. It feels like it was a short time, but it must have been seven years later that I woke up and found out he was gone.

I was shocked, a few months back, to learn that BMC had been adapted into a short-lived musical in New Jersey. Even more shocked to find that the soundtrack was available on streaming services. I listened to it in the car with my wife and laughed when I remembered which of Ned’s old friends Michael was based on.

When the show gained enough popularity on Tumblr that they actually reopened it off broadway, I bought us tickets.

It was really enjoyable.

I wish Ned had been around for me to send my congratulations to.
posted by bluemilker at 9:05 PM on September 25, 2018 [19 favorites]

My kid, a thirteen year old theater nerd, has been obsessed with this for a solid month. They might get an account here to discuss.

Well, should they do so, we'll do our best to make them welcome. May I suggest the username spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmintsthenextgeneration?
posted by Naberius at 6:19 AM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can someone answer: is this an OCR I could listen to and conceivably follow the plot without having seen the show (like Hamilton)? Thx!
posted by joelhunt at 11:22 AM on September 26, 2018

joelhunt, For Be More Chill, yes, but there's also a plot synopsis on Wikipedia. Two Player Game doesn't have a plot; it's just a collection of songs.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:54 PM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

bluemilker, That's just heartbreaking about the author wanting to do guerilla marketing around the Squip, when that's so similar to what's happening with it now:
A sign in the theater lobby encourages attendees to write down the names of their “Squips” on Post-it notes and share them; when I stopped by, one cheerful yellow one read, “Myself b/c I hate myself :)”
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:58 PM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Timely post! I saw Be More Chill on Saturday night.

Let me rephrase that. My wife and I accompanied my 13-year old's pilgrimage to Saturday night's Be More Chill revival service. We kept an open mind going in, curious how it would compare to the other middle/high school-oriented musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Mean Girls. We were converted within minutes--the show is refreshing, nerdy, clever, infectious fun from start to finish. An absolute blast. Great production, fun story, and the cast is phenomenal--Salazar's performance of "Michael in the Bathroom" left me speechless, but it's Will Roland's stamina (as Jeremy, the lead role) that deserves accolades.

No idea how BMC will translate to the Lyceum in February--it's like moving a tent revival to a staid cathedral--but the show deserves a chance for exposure to a broader audience, even if it ends up as a limited run.

The point I really wanted to make is this--it's really wonderful that musical theater is getting infiltrated by modern productions that tap into the psyche of today's teens, tackling some tough subjects with a mix of heart-wrenching honesty and uplifting humor. It helps a huge swath of middle and high schoolers—not just theater geeks—work through a confusing set of years, and the topics these shows explore are spawning open discussions at schools about big issues amongst middle/high schoolers: from standard stuff like cliques, popularity, dating, fitting in to social isolation, anxiety, depression, gender identify and sexual orientation, and the psychological effects of social media.

So, it's a net positive phenomenon, but it's also a bit frustrating that most kids are stuck piecing together the narratives and deciphering meaning from Spotify original cast soundtracks and the inevitable potato-quality bootleg videos. To answer your question, Joelhunt, you really need to see the entire show start to finish to understand the narrative. Same with shows like Dear Evan Hansen--the dialogue and character interactions carry the weight of the intended message--so you really need to see the show to understand the context. I listened to the BMC soundtrack in the weeks leading up to the show, and was surprised that the story arc was way different than expected based on the songs' lyrics.

Hopefully shows like BMC and DEH will work their way into community productions in a few years, opening doors for discussion on the local level while offering teens new outlets for creative expression and personal and social growth. And hopefully the theater community, on and off broadway, will continue to encourage productions that tackle the topics that really matter to young audiences.
posted by prinado at 2:36 PM on September 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I can see that Be More Chill is getting a major indicator of teen fandom on the internets: animatic videos. Christ, I wish that kind of thing had been around when I was but a maid. I had to go down to the art classroom and use one jerry-rigged camera for stop-motion that's now on one long-lost VHS tape. Today kids are animating music videos at an age where I was still afraid to eat meals in front of boys. It's amazing.

The soundtrack has some bangers, and I can't help loving showtunes with the Konami code in them. As a teen, I would have loved this show because it deals with the strength of dueling voices in your head, which was something I struggled with privately and in my deeply embarrassing art. Overall, it's not as great a high school musical for me as Heathers, but that's okay; Heathers was a story from my generation. (Although apparently it too has plenty of young fangirls, who think JD is a yandere bishonen, bless their hearts.)
posted by Countess Elena at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2018

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