“The 1.0 being performed does not negate the Broadway version, and vice versa,” says “Be More Chill” composer Joe Iconis, a musical theater fanatic who grew up arguing happily about different versions of favorite shows like “Cabaret.” “I love the idea of somebody going to both and saying, ‘I prefer the 1.0 version.’ It’s all in play.”
As new musicals try to fully exploit their commercial potential on Broadway, rights to professional and amateur productions around the country are typically closely guarded. Since “Be More Chill” only hit the Lyceum Theatre in New York this past March after a brief off-Broadway run last summer, Monumental co-artistic director Jimmy Mavrikes says his friends had one question for him as the modestly budgeted production opened last week: “Are you doing this legally?”
“It’s unusual for most shows,” says Iconis, whose catchy songs have been Internet catnip since the album release that gradually blew up after the musical’s brief debut at New Jersey’s Two River Theater. “But I think for ‘Be More Chill,’ it’s in line with how the show has developed and operated from the beginning. The show is on Broadway because actual human beings loved it.”
“Be More Chill” is based on the 2004 novel by Ned Vizzini (who took his life in 2013) and deals with an anxious outsider named Jeremy, made “chill” by taking a Japanese-engineered computer-pill called a Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor (SQUIP). The musical’s song “Michael in the Bathroom” was a highlight at last month’s Tony Awards, as host James Corden made an in-joke of nervously hiding in the bathroom and finding last year’s still-fretful hosts, Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, in there, too.
Two River commissioned and premiered the musical, then teamed up with Ghostlight Records to record the score. That was a first for the troupe, according to managing director Michael Hurst, who says the company produced the show and the album without “enhancement money” from commercial producers. (Ghostlight released the new Broadway cast album Friday.) “Michael in the Bathroom” was the song that came up on Mavrikes’s Spotify list two years ago, right after he told director Izzy Smelkinson that, no, he had never heard of a musical called “Be More Chill.” The tune caught his ear, and so did the kid-focused story and the accessible pop score.
“We are interested in appealing to younger people than we’ve gotten before,” says Mavrikes, describing the company’s focus as “millennial theater, trickling down to Generation Z.” “And the show is about growing up and figuring yourself out.”
Co-artistic director Michael Windsor liked that “Chill” is “genuinely” about teens — “about social anxiety and how to fit into this weird high school world.”
The rights were becoming available. Iconis says that after a discouraging New York Times review of the Two River staging, “The show very much felt like it was dead in terms of any kind of commercial production.” But videos of two songs that Two River created from B-roll footage joined a growing throng of homemade “Be More Chill” performances online, and when Exit 82 staged the first amateur production late in 2017, fans flocked to Lakewood, N.J., from all over.
“Many popular lines from ‘Be More Chill’ were met with cheers and screams from the audience,” one reviewer blogged of the weekend run.
“At that point we knew the show had a worldwide fan base,” says Hurst.
“This was embraced, and part of it was people doing their own versions of songs on YouTube or Tumblr,” Iconis says. “There’s been a drive to perform the material. People wanted to just do it themselves.”
The founders of Monumental — Mavrikes, Windsor and managing director Beth Amman, all 28 — quickly fell into the “do it ourselves” camp, with Smelkinson directing. Monumental is an emerging troupe founded in 2015, mainly using nonunion actors and working in a black box space on the campus of Alexandria’s Episcopal High School. (Mavrikes is an Equity actor recently in “Newsies” with Oklahoma City’s Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma; he spoke by phone on a conference call with Windsor.) Last year’s “Pippin” is the troupe’s most popular show so far, with “Be More Chill” sales in second place even before it opened July 11. The company, which includes a possible D.C. move in its growth plans, also has ventured area premieres of the musicals “Bonnie & Clyde” and, with Equity actor Kurt Boehm, “Daddy Long Legs.”
Like Exit 82, Monumental secured the amateur rights and announced plans to stage it. Meanwhile, the surge in online interest led to last summer’s off-Broadway production at Manhattan’s Signature Center. Mavrikes and Windsor felt sure that the off-Broadway project would mean their production would get scrapped. They called the licensing agency several times to be sure they were still in business.
“They were like, ‘Stop bothering us. You’re fine,’ ” Windsor says.
Iconis and book writer Joe Tracz revised the show off-Broadway, and then the Broadway version — which runs through Aug. 11 — was changed even more. Iconis calls the Broadway version “3.0,” and he understands that most producers and writers would thoroughly squelch 1.0 and any other productions at this stage of the game. After all, a huge dispute erupted earlier this year when small companies that purchased rights to Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” were slapped with cease-and-desist orders by producer Scott Rudin, whose new adaptation by Aaron Sorkin was a Broadway smash with plans to tour.
Sean Patrick Flahaven, president of Concord Theatricals, explains in an email: “Licensing a show while it’s running in a Broadway or West End production or national tour is more unusual, but it’s something we’ve done successfully with ‘School of Rock’ and will be doing for other shows we’ll be announcing soon. That licensing, to amateur schools, universities, and youth groups, has proven to drive interest in and ticket sales for commercial productions and tours. For ‘Be More Chill’ specifically, with its young fan base, we felt it was particularly appropriate.”
To date, Flahaven notes, 84 productions have been licensed, all for the original — the “Two River” version. Professional rights for the Broadway revision are being withheld in case a major national tour develops . . . which means that yes, things would have been different if a big regional theater such as Arena Stage had been aiming to stage “Be More Chill” in the shadow of the Broadway venture.
But Iconis, 37, claims that even that is more for artistic than commercial concerns, though Flahaven says that rights did get more restricted as the show gained traction in New York. “I’ve never had a professional production I haven’t been involved with,” Iconis says.
As it happens, Jordana Abrenica is designing sound for Monumental’s show while working on the Broadway version as a sound engineer. (She’s based in New York, but used to work in Washington.) Both shows use 10 actors; the band on Broadway features eight musicians, while Monumental uses seven. Obviously, the scales and budgets are in different leagues — and the earlier script, Abrenica feels, has a rougher edge.
“We fly people on Broadway,” Abrenica, 28, says of the contrasting productions. “It’s wacky. There’s a lot of spectacle. At Monumental, we are super-limited by our space, but they are trying to go minimal and rely on the text. The kids are telling the story.”
“It was not an easy choice,” Iconis says of letting troupes like Monumental hang on to the rights even as a commercial version unexpectedly sprang to life. “And everyone understood how it could be harmful to us. It’s the conventional wisdom, and if that’s what Scott Rudin is doing, should we really do the opposite? But it felt correct to the spirit of our show. We are wrapping up in August, and who’s to say what would have happened, but I do not believe if there was not a production of ‘Be More Chill’ in Indiana, then we would be running for 45 years on Broadway.”
Be More Chill, music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz. Through July 29 at the Ainslie Arts Center at Episcopal High School, 3900 West Braddock Rd., Alexandria. $25-$40. monumentaltheatre.org.