Interview: Joe Iconis “Be More Chill”

This feature originally appeared in Musical Theater Today, Volume 3 2019.

MTT  What’s your origin story? 

JI  I am from Long Island, from a town called Garden City in Nassau County. My family is not in the arts at all. My mom was a school teacher when I was a kid and now she’s a superintendent. My dad is in computers. A lot of my extended family is in teaching—that’s like the family business. There are a few cops, you know, that larger Long Island Italian Catholic contingent. 

MTT  What’s your origin story? 

JI  I am from Long Island, from a town called Garden City in Nassau County. My family is not in the arts at all. My mom was a school teacher when I was a kid and now she’s a superintendent. My dad is in computers. A lot of my extended family is in teaching—that’s like the family business. There are a few cops, you know, that larger Long Island Italian Catholic contingent. 

MTT  Are you a pretty tightly-knit family? Do you all stay in the same area? 

JI  Yeah, we’re Italian folk, so when [my family] came from Italy they moved to Brooklyn and it was that classic tale. They all lived in an apartment house together and when it split up they all went to Long Island. My mom grew up in a house with her parents and her grandmother lived on the second floor, and so did her aunts and great aunts. Parents and kids all stay within 10-20 minutes of each other their whole lives. So my moving to New York City was a lot. It was as if I moved to Mars. My grandparents loved the city and felt very comfortable there (much more so than my actual parents); they would bring me into the city all the time. I also have an aunt who loved theater and brought me to shows all the time. I was in the city constantly and it always felt like home to me. It was never a mystical place.

MTT  Were musicals something you uniquely began looking forward to? Were there any shows that really gobsmacked you? 

JI  Yeah, for sure. When I was little, I loved The Muppets a lot. So The Muppets were probably my first exposure to any kind of theater and music hybrid. I was so obsessed with them. When I was six the Little Shop of Horrors movie came out. I loved it and the original production was still playing at the Orpheum theater Off-Broadway. I saw a commercial for it and my dad took me on September 27th, 1997 for my 6th birthday. That was the first musical I saw, and it was the most life-changing moment. It immediately gave me a love for musical theater. 

MTT  Was there also an impulse to participate?

JI  That was a few years off. When you’re a kid of a certain age, specifically where I’m from, the way to participate in theater is to be in it. So I would do musical theater summer camps and I would perform, but I was always terrible. I couldn’t sing and I was very shy, but I did it because I loved being around it so much. I loved being around people who were good at it, like other kids who were good singers or actors.

The more I saw musicals, the more I became musical theater literate. Then I got really into seeing every musical that came out, and the more I did that the more I got bitten by the bug.  I went through the Cats phase and the Phantom of the Opera phase, and then I was really interested in other shows. I started reading about writers in particular. It was like an Andrew Lloyd Webber to Stephen Sondheim switch that went off. As soon as I wrapped my brain around the fact that people actually wrote these shows, I just decided that’s what I wanted to do—around elementary school age. I was in fifth grade talking about Miss Saigon and Claude Michel Schönberg. I was this kid who knew everything about these shows, and I wanted to be a writer. 

This theater stuff was happening in one part of my life, and in another part I was taking piano lessons, just because my family had a piano. 

MTT  Were the piano lessons something you initiated? 

JI  No, no. It was just like, “You’re a child and you have to take piano lessons.” My grandpa loved music and loved the arts but had no real talent for it. It was his piano. It’s a Sohmer upright piano, very 1960s looking. And I hated practicing. But then when I was in fourth or fifth grade I started connecting the two things, theater and playing piano. I would see shows and come home and pick out the melody. I started playing piano while thinking about it in a theatrical context. That was the thing that made my piano playing and musicianship take off. As soon as I started becoming a really good piano player by ear, I started making up tunes and songs. All of them were always in a theatrical context. So even if I was writing a song, it would be a song for the musical version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I never wrote out lyrics; only melodies. It was always melodies that felt like theater, they’re theater songs, they’re just lacking the words. I was really cribbing Andrew Lloyd Webber and whoever I happened to be loving at the time. 

MTT  Would you start to notate? 

JI  A little bit. 

MTT  Were there other musical influences? Rock, pop, jazz? 

JI  Not when I was younger, no. I was very much musical theater only. I could not have been more of a show tune kid. My parents were young during the 60s, but none of the music that was going on in the 60s intruded into their lives. My mom liked The Monkees but they completely missed all the cool music so I didn’t inherit any of that. Any music that I liked that wasn’t theater music sort of came by accident and was usually related to some film thing. So I liked Dolly Parton a lot when I was younger, and other people I heard in movies. But my base interest was theater, 100%, and it wasn’t until I went to NYU undergrad and started writing for real that I realized I should listen to other music. 

MTT  So you were in their undergrad theater writing program? 

JI  I was in the undergraduate music composition program. 

MTT  When and how did you start working with text? Did you start dabbling in lyrics yourself? 

JI  Yeah, I wrote a few songs (truly maybe three or four) with text for a local community theater when I was in high school. I music directed these revues that they would do—essentially jukebox musicals—and in every one they would need an original piece. 

MTT  And those weren’t standalone songs? Those actually had to fit in some larger framework, right? 

JI  Absolutely. So when I got to NYU for undergrad… that program is very composition-focused, a lot of classical composition (which I could not have cared less about) and a lot of film scoring (which I was interested in but knew I didn’t want to do it). I was only really interested in musical theater writing, so I worked with a private composition teacher, Steve Rosenhaus, and that was the first time I had any sort of guidance or lessons in regards to writing actual songs and musical theater. We focused on music, but he would offer opinions on my lyrics, too. He said I could write the lyrics myself or ask someone else to write them, but I was still super shy in college and the idea of having to find another human being I’d have to speak to, and be honest with, and be in this relationship with, was so horrifying to me. So I went ahead and wrote them myself.

MTT  So who all was working on the songs you did for the Things to Ruin concert? At that time, about 12 years ago, was that your first concert on that scale? 

JI  For sure. But Things to Ruin was post-NYU. I graduated from undergrad in 2003 and went right onto grad school at the Tisch program, which is where I found my voice as a writer; I feel like I became a person in grad school. I didn’t have a magical undergrad experience. It felt like a weird continuation of high school. So when I was in grad school, finding my voice as a writer was very tied to me finding my voice as a man. Realizing that this is the person I want to be, and this is how I want to move through the world. I was also very, very large growing up and in high school and college, so I lost a lot of weight going into grad school. My first year I lost 90 pounds. It felt like my whole life clicked in a certain way. 

I graduated from grad school in 2005 and then Things to Ruin came about because I had all of these songs that I’d been working on through grad school (some that were from the musical The Black Suits which, at the time, was in development with a nonprofit theater) and I was really stimulated and writing a lot. I thought I was going to blow up. Then I realized, “Oh wait a minute, this isn’t how it happens.” I entered into this developmental process with this nonprofit theater and it wasn’t a good fit. So it became very clear that the speed at which I thought things were going to move along for me was not the speed in which they actually would. I just wanted to put on a show with my songs. I wanted to put them on a stage. And that’s where Things to Ruin came along. 

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MTT  So it was never designed to be a song cycle? It was simply a concert of standalone songs? 

JI  Yeah. But at the time there wasn’t really a musical theater concert scene. People did theater concerts but they all felt like they were pretty well-established artists, like Jason Robert Brown or Tom Kitt. I loved them and I would go to them, but they always felt very much like recitals to me. It felt like a college thing, like “A Night of Songs by (…)” kind of thing. There’d be music stands and they would be in places like the Guggenheim or, you know, fancy and stately venues. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something that felt theatrical and felt like a show. That first version of Thing to Ruin, which ended up having standalones from other shows, played like a song cycle, without it actually being that. 

MTT  Returning to when you brought up film: both Bloodsong and The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks point to an interest in genre, as does Be More Chill. Is this something you consciously pursue?

JI  I love using genre to talk about big issues and I think it’s something that, in the same way that I think musical theater has an inherent cheesiness, excites me about how we can use that to shine a light on something, or to take away the sting of something that wouldn’t be as easily digestible in another form. It’s such a fun environment to work in. When it comes down to it, it’s really just what I like and what I respond to. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and the genre will be inherent in it. With Be More Chill, even though it’s sci-fi and teen, the genre elements in the novel are nowhere near as pronounced as they are in the musical. I looked at it and I thought, “Oh, I know what to do with this: hype up all of the genre elements.”

MTT  I was trying to figure out what about Be More Chill feels different, what sets it aside from shows like Heathers (which I love and which is very much a genre piece) and Legally Blonde and Mean Girls and the like. But Be More Chill is a high school musical in which there is absolutely no adult moral framework in the world. It feels completely submerged in the teen experience. 

JI  Yeah, and intentionally so. 

MTT  And the kids’ world of communication moves so quickly.

JI  It’s also because it’s an adult-free world that what happens in the show can actually happen. There’s so much “when the cat’s away.” A lot with Be More Chill is technology, and how you actually use it, and why we rely so much on it. By removing the guiding figure from people’s lives… of course they’re going to turn to this thing that’s going to give them answers, because they don’t have anyone else. 

MTT  When the book was first passed along to you was it the plot, the style of it, or the content that really grabbed you? 

JI  It was the characters plus the genre element. I’ve written other things, like The Black Suits, that dealt with young people, and I like writing young people a lot. I try as much as I can to not repeat myself, but the idea of talking about young people and current issues through the lense of sci-fi is immediately exciting to me. I also liked that it felt like a comedy. A lot of my shows run into problems with people not knowing if it’s supposed to be sad or supposed to be funny. I love things that intentionally mash up different tones, but this felt like it was a musical comedy where I could talk about these really serious issues and dive really deeply into things, all under the umbrella of sci-fi musical comedy. But it’s still really classic to me, like Damn Yankees or something. 

MTT  I want to talk about the explosion on Be More Chill’s popularity on Tumblr and the album’s streaming success. Was that a motivated effort from you or your team?

JI  No, not really. The whole thing has been such a weird experience. When we were initially writing the show, no one cared. This sort of fandom was not there. We started working on it in 2012 but like two or three years later we did the first production. Many times in my career there’s been a ton of momentum and buzz and excitement about a show from theater people… There was all this momentum, momentum, momentum, then we open and got a really shitty [New York] Times review from Charles Isherwood and that killed everything. That’s happened to me multiple times in my career. Because of this sort of weird path I’ve had, I’ve always been reviewed by the top Times critic, and if they give you a bad review, you’re done. So our show was done. 

Then the theater, which was really proud of the show, said they wanted to make the cast album, so Bob Rechnitz, who is the head of the board of Two Rivers Theatre, was basically like, “I’m gonna pay for this album.” Honestly, at the time, I didn’t care. It was great, and I was like, “Let’s do it,” but I was so bummed out by [the review] that I felt nobody actually cared about the show. So we recorded the album and it was released in October 2015. Then in the Spring of 2017 (I had been actively trying to get the show going again) I started seeing the show getting tagged on Instagram and Twitter, with random people talking about “Michael in the Bathroom.” 

I’ve been lucky enough to work on things that have a good number of fans and I’ve definitely existed as a cult-y musical theater figure for many years because of my concert work. I’m used to getting positive attention online from people I don’t know and it’s very nice, but with Be More Chill there were more people listening to it and tweeting about it and it just grew so organically. It got to this point where myself, George Salazar, and Joe Tracz were all sort of texting each other being like, “Are you doing something with Be More Chill? Is something going on?” But none of us were. 

MTT  Not even someone’s agent was stoking the fire a little bit? 

JI  Not even the tiniest bit. After a few weeks of this I had GhostLight put up the record. There was all this Be More Chill excitement, I didn’t know what was going on, but I wanted to do something. What got them to pay attention was that people actually started buying the album, which never happens. It was immediately available for streaming and hard copy and it’s now on a vinyl (which is like a dream to have a cast album on a vinyl). 

Once all this was happening, GhostLight put out this “Michael in the Bathroom” video using recording footage that we’d had for years and some b-roll from the show. It became their most watched video ever, tons of streams, and all of the sudden I had all this ammo. This was last summer when all this fan art and stuff was happening. So I tried to get producers interested in it and still no one cared. It was all like, “That’s nice.” 

MTT  Did people ever cite concerns about the age demographic not necessarily being ticket buyers themselves? 

JI  For sure. Anyone who cared enough to engage with me on it, which was very few people, said, “These kids don’t buy tickets. It’s nice that people are listening to your music, but they’re not going to buy your tickets.” Then in November of last year, there was this one theater in New Jersey, a community theater, who licensed Be More Chill, and they were the first production that happened since the phenomenon took off. They do their shows in an old vaudeville theater in Jersey and typically sell 100-200 seats, but it’s a huge theater with about 1,000 seats. And they sold out five shows. It was the most they ever sold. This was when we couldn’t get anyone interested in the show. We went to Jersey and it was so insane that we needed a security escort the entire time. They had to shut down the street. They sold merch they made themselves. It was like a rock concert in the craziest way. My aunt went to see it and she kept saying, “This is amazing!” and I’m like, “[Still] no one will do my show! I’m so happy for them, but I can’t get anyone [in New York] to put this show on or take me seriously. But here’s this theater with people from around the world who came because they loved the show so much.” That was my darkest point.

I ended up taking two meetings about doing Be More Chill; One of the meetings was with Jerry Gordon, who I’ve known for years, and he was directing Be More Chill at his college. We had talked about it previously and he had never fully grasped it, but from doing the show and being in rehearsals he was like, “This is a huge thing.” Around Christmas time he asked me if I would ever want to do this in New York and I said, “That’s all I want.” So it came together in February of 2018 and it was off and running from there. We didn’t even know if kids would buy tickets. I mean, we hoped and thought they would. George Salazar and I did this series of concerts at 54 Below that we booked before anything was happening with Be More Chill because no one would fucking do our shows, so we figured we should do some art and get an audience. Those concerts were our first glimpse of the fandom.

MTT  And in that context you might get parents on board. That way the whole family is invested.

 JI  Yeah, for sure. We’ve definitely found that. 

MTT  With the film coming up too the show has the potential to be a brand with its own self-perpetuating financial ecosystem. For awhile there was a lot of anxiety about streaming and putting up theatrical content for free or at low cost. But people seem to be realizing that the film (or filmed) versions of shows really do not assuage the thirst for the actual experience. 

JI  Yeah, it’s such a funny thing. I’ve been so old-school my career and for a lot of years I was trying to distance myself from social media and all that. This whole experience has been so eye-opening. I’ve tried to get my work produced in the traditional way for as long as I’ve been doing it and I’ve been very lucky in having success with beautiful regional theaters, but I’ve never been able to get to the level that I wanted to. I’ve never been produced Off-Broadway in New York City before this summer. If Twitter and Instagram can help me get my work produced in New York City, or anywhere, then of course I’m going to use them. I see how young people receive information, so why wouldn’t I want to be aware of that and then figure out how to use that for good? With Be More Chill we very much took the stance that we would not stop anyone from filming lip-syncing videos or all that—we’re not withholding ameteur rights—we just want to let everyone participate. Kids have no frame of reference for paying for entertainment or music, they just don’t. It’s just like the way the world is. 

So I’m excited about figuring out how we use that to get young people interested in theater. That’s been the struggle of Broadway and theater for however many years. I’ve only been used to having my shows performed to elderly audiences. Be More Chill, when we were doing it in Jersey, was a younger crowd than I’d ever experienced. It was predominately people over the age of 50, which to me is young. But the idea of using social media to get actual young human beings interested in theater is incredible. 

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MTT  The cast album preceding the show’s commercial run seems like it was an opportunity for deep listening and connection; for people to feel that this is an artwork that they can inhabit, experience, and make their own. They are part of the cultivation of the final product. I hope it’s exciting for you. 

JI  Yeah, I love it. I’ve always obsessed over the idea that there shouldn’t be any barrier between the performers and the audience. If the audience wasn’t there, the actors wouldn’t be able to do what they do, and if the actors weren’t there, the audience wouldn’t be able to receive what they receive. It really is a collaboration. And you know, whenever I work with performers I change things around based on the actual people. I hate this idea that two actors doing the same song should sound the same. I believe it should live and breathe depending on the person that’s inhabiting it. There’s no right or wrong answer. So the fact that the young people who are diggin’ Be More Chill came into it with this sense of ownership and participation… I love it. I love the idea of kids doing their own interpretations of these songs. And the fanfic thing—immediately kids started writing their own stories about these characters and moments, or rewriting moments. To me, that’s exactly what it should be: a living, breathing thing. Having always said that, but not always seeing it play out on a scale like this, and to see it on such a grand scale and to have it be the thing that has allowed this show to exist is like… nuts. 

MTT  It’s something, I think, completely new to musical theater. You once expressed concern about jukebox musicals being audience sponges, and about financially prohibitive ticket prices. Now that the industry has not only crossed the line of the four-digit ticket box office ticket, but also is starting to offer ticket financing options, how have these concerns evolved? Or more generally, what are your thoughts on musical theater right now? 

JI  To speak to jukebox musical-ness, I think there’s always going to be the high-brow/low-brow thing. There are always going to be shows that please a commercial audience really well, as well as off-off-off-Broadway; that’s been a part of the scene in New York. What has happened in the last few years, which is encouraging, is that there are more and more anomalies, more and more [The] Band’s Visits. It’s all a hype machine; there’s always a show or two each season that’s critically acclaimed, embraced, and then explodes as the best thing that’s ever, ever happened. And sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But I think it’s helpful when these shows that are clearly not cynical or commercially-minded enterprises (at least not from the start) get a platform and an audience. 

MTT  In different language, shows that earn a audience’s demand and then match it and expand, rather than creating a demand through advertising and sheer star power. 

JI  Right now it’s the movies-turned-musicals thing that’s weirdly becoming the new jukebox musical. In that particular interview you’re referring to I was pissed off about the Mamma Mia! tagline, “You Already Know You’re Gonna Love It”. That mentality is an audience killer. The idea of, “Why spend money on something if you don’t know whether or not you’re going to like?” And I understand that it’s because it’s so fucking expensive to see theater, especially if you’re someone who does not know about all the ways in which you can see theater more affordably. It’s that mentality of not wanting to take a chance on something and going to theater the same way you would go to ride Splash Mountain. You know the experience you’re going to get, so you’re going to be satisfied in having the experience. 

That’s the mentality that drives me crazy, and it’s these clearly commercial enterprises in which you really feel like… someone is just going to make a lot of money, and that’s why we have to watch the show on Broadway. Those shows, unless they’re turning an adaptation on it’s head or unless they’re doing something to challenge audience expectations in some way, are really hurtful. It always pisses me off so much, especially in the last two years, to see these huge musicals based on huge movies where you know there’s already this crazy, built-in demand, and they’re going to make a bunch of money on merchandising. And you know that kids going to see the thing aren’t going to care who the hell is playing these characters; they’re just going to see characters they know and love. But we need to take the opportunity to give a platform to artists of color, or people who would not traditionally be allowed to work in that sphere. To not try to populate the industry with people who are going to push the artform or people who are going to give audiences a “new normal” just seems like such a wasted opportunity. 

MTT  Do you think that the cost of a ticket plays a role in this? If theater is going to incur such a substantial cost, the audience with an affordable Netflix subscription—the young person spending $9.99 on Spotify—often takes a leap of faith when it comes to experiencing new content because doing so does not cost them hundreds of dollars. 

JI  For sure. The price of theater clearly is prohibitive, and it all feeds into each other. The other part is, I don’t know how commercial theater could get more affordable just because of the reality of it. It’s so expensive to make a new musical for ten million reasons. I’ve always known that, but being on the inside… 

MTT  And there’s the emotional (and also financial) expense to the creators over a period of many years.

JI  Yes. it just costs so much money to do these shows. And I did not realize that ticket scalping for kid’s shows is such a driver of costs. If people who are not the artist are making $2,000 on Hamilton tickets, I understand why Hamilton is like, “We should be charging $1,500 for our tickets so then at least the money is going back to the artist.” Of course it’s tricky, and it only drives up the prices, but I don’t know the way around it at all. 

MTT  Returning to the Mamma Mia! tagline: do you think audiences need that kind of shepherding? 

JI  I don’t, no. Especially in today’s day and age where there is so much information, I think there are more creative ways of doing things. I think taglines like that will lose their power very, very soon, because the people that’s going to work on are going to die, literally. The youth is smarter than that. They’re not going to go see something just because you tell them to. 

MTT  Although, audiences are usually more willing to take a leap on a new artwork so long as there is a certain kind of legitimacy or prestige in its avenue of distribution. That’s what Broadway will always be able to offer; people might go see The Band’s Visit simply because it’s a Broadway show. That’s an amazing trump card to have. It is its own reward in that way. 

JI  Yeah, and I love the idea of making theater artists superstars. I love the idea of young people being like, “Oh I wanna go see the new musical that George Salazar is in.”  Being aware of the people who are actually making this art and something like Christy Altomare in Anastasia and her interacting with her fans and kids loving her like she’s Ariana Grande or Kanye. I think that’s so helpful for us. That’s the most exciting thing in the world to me.

MTT  Are you a pretty tightly-knit family? Do you all stay in the same area? 

JI  Yeah, we’re Italian folk, so when [my family] came from Italy they moved to Brooklyn and it was that classic tale. They all lived in an apartment house together and when it split up they all went to Long Island. My mom grew up in a house with her parents and her grandmother lived on the second floor, and so did her aunts and great aunts. Parents and kids all stay within 10-20 minutes of each other their whole lives. So my moving to New York City was a lot. It was as if I moved to Mars. My grandparents loved the city and felt very comfortable there (much more so than my actual parents); they would bring me into the city all the time. I also have an aunt who loved theater and brought me to shows all the time. I was in the city constantly and it always felt like home to me. It was never a mystical place.

MTT  Were musicals something you uniquely began looking forward to? Were there any shows that really gobsmacked you? 

JI  Yeah, for sure. When I was little, I loved The Muppets a lot. So The Muppets were probably my first exposure to any kind of theater and music hybrid. I was so obsessed with them. When I was six the Little Shop of Horrors movie came out. I loved it and the original production was still playing at the Orpheum theater Off-Broadway. I saw a commercial for it and my dad took me on September 27th, 1997 for my 6th birthday. That was the first musical I saw, and it was the most life-changing moment. It immediately gave me a love for musical theater. 

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MTT  Was there also an impulse to participate?

JI  That was a few years off. When you’re a kid of a certain age, specifically where I’m from, the way to participate in theater is to be in it. So I would do musical theater summer camps and I would perform, but I was always terrible. I couldn’t sing and I was very shy, but I did it because I loved being around it so much. I loved being around people who were good at it, like other kids who were good singers or actors. 

The more I saw musicals, the more I became musical theater literate. Then I got really into seeing every musical that came out, and the more I did that the more I got bitten by the bug.  I went through the Cats phase and the Phantom of the Opera phase, and then I was really interested in other shows. I started reading about writers in particular. It was like an Andrew Lloyd Webber to Stephen Sondheim switch that went off. As soon as I wrapped my brain around the fact that people actually wrote these shows, I just decided that’s what I wanted to do—around elementary school age. I was in fifth grade talking about Miss Saigon and Claude Michel Schönberg. I was this kid who knew everything about these shows, and I wanted to be a writer. 

This theater stuff was happening in one part of my life, and in another part I was taking piano lessons, just because my family had a piano. 

MTT  Were the piano lessons something you initiated? 

JI  No, no. It was just like, “You’re a child and you have to take piano lessons.” My grandpa loved music and loved the arts but had no real talent for it. It was his piano. It’s a Sohmer upright piano, very 1960s looking. And I hated practicing. But then when I was in fourth or fifth grade I started connecting the two things, theater and playing piano. I would see shows and come home and pick out the melody. I started playing piano while thinking about it in a theatrical context. That was the thing that made my piano playing and musicianship take off. As soon as I started becoming a really good piano player by ear, I started making up tunes and songs. All of them were always in a theatrical context. So even if I was writing a song, it would be a song for the musical version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I never wrote out lyrics; only melodies. It was always melodies that felt like theater, they’re theater songs, they’re just lacking the words. I was really cribbing Andrew Lloyd Webber and whoever I happened to be loving at the time. 

MTT  Would you start to notate? 

JI  A little bit. 

MTT  Were there other musical influences? Rock, pop, jazz? 

JI  Not when I was younger, no. I was very much musical theater only. I could not have been more of a show tune kid. My parents were young during the 60s, but none of the music that was going on in the 60s intruded into their lives. My mom liked The Monkees but they completely missed all the cool music so I didn’t inherit any of that. Any music that I liked that wasn’t theater music sort of came by accident and was usually related to some film thing. So I liked Dolly Parton a lot when I was younger, and other people I heard in movies. But my base interest was theater, 100%, and it wasn’t until I went to NYU undergrad and started writing for real that I realized I should listen to other music. 

MTT  So you were in their undergrad theater writing program? 

JI  I was in the undergraduate music composition program. 

MTT  When and how did you start working with text? Did you start dabbling in lyrics yourself? 

JI  Yeah, I wrote a few songs (truly maybe three or four) with text for a local community theater when I was in high school. I music directed these revues that they would do—essentially jukebox musicals—and in every one they would need an original piece. 

MTT  And those weren’t standalone songs? Those actually had to fit in some larger framework, right? 

JI  Absolutely. So when I got to NYU for undergrad… that program is very composition-focused, a lot of classical composition (which I could not have cared less about) and a lot of film scoring (which I was interested in but knew I didn’t want to do it). I was only really interested in musical theater writing, so I worked with a private composition teacher, Steve Rosenhaus, and that was the first time I had any sort of guidance or lessons in regards to writing actual songs and musical theater. We focused on music, but he would offer opinions on my lyrics, too. He said I could write the lyrics myself or ask someone else to write them, but I was still super shy in college and the idea of having to find another human being I’d have to speak to, and be honest with, and be in this relationship with, was so horrifying to me. So I went ahead and wrote them myself.

MTT  So who all was working on the songs you did for the Things to Ruin concert? At that time, about 12 years ago, was that your first concert on that scale? 

JI  For sure. But Things to Ruin was post-NYU. I graduated from undergrad in 2003 and went right onto grad school at the Tisch program, which is where I found my voice as a writer; I feel like I became a person in grad school. I didn’t have a magical undergrad experience. It felt like a weird continuation of high school. So when I was in grad school, finding my voice as a writer was very tied to me finding my voice as a man. Realizing that this is the person I want to be, and this is how I want to move through the world. I was also very, very large growing up and in high school and college, so I lost a lot of weight going into grad school. My first year I lost 90 pounds. It felt like my whole life clicked in a certain way. 

I graduated from grad school in 2005 and then Things to Ruin came about because I had all of these songs that I’d been working on through grad school (some that were from the musical The Black Suits which, at the time, was in development with a nonprofit theater) and I was really stimulated and writing a lot. I thought I was going to blow up. Then I realized, “Oh wait a minute, this isn’t how it happens.” I entered into this developmental process with this nonprofit theater and it wasn’t a good fit. So it became very clear that the speed at which I thought things were going to move along for me was not the speed in which they actually would. I just wanted to put on a show with my songs. I wanted to put them on a stage. And that’s where Things to Ruin came along. 

MTT  So it was never designed to be a song cycle? It was simply a concert of standalone songs? 

JI  Yeah. But at the time there wasn’t really a musical theater concert scene. People did theater concerts but they all felt like they were pretty well-established artists, like Jason Robert Brown or Tom Kitt. I loved them and I would go to them, but they always felt very much like recitals to me. It felt like a college thing, like “A Night of Songs by (…)” kind of thing. There’d be music stands and they would be in places like the Guggenheim or, you know, fancy and stately venues. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something that felt theatrical and felt like a show. That first version of Thing to Ruin, which ended up having standalones from other shows, played like a song cycle, without it actually being that. 

MTT  Returning to when you brought up film: both Bloodsong and The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks point to an interest in genre, as does Be More Chill. Is this something you consciously pursue?

JI  I love using genre to talk about big issues and I think it’s something that, in the same way that I think musical theater has an inherent cheesiness, excites me about how we can use that to shine a light on something, or to take away the sting of something that wouldn’t be as easily digestible in another form. It’s such a fun environment to work in. When it comes down to it, it’s really just what I like and what I respond to. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and the genre will be inherent in it. With Be More Chill, even though it’s sci-fi and teen, the genre elements in the novel are nowhere near as pronounced as they are in the musical. I looked at it and I thought, “Oh, I know what to do with this: hype up all of the genre elements.”

MTT  I was trying to figure out what about Be More Chill feels different, what sets it aside from shows like Heathers (which I love and which is very much a genre piece) and Legally Blonde and Mean Girls and the like. But Be More Chill is a high school musical in which there is absolutely no adult moral framework in the world. It feels completely submerged in the teen experience. 

JI  Yeah, and intentionally so. 

MTT  And the kids’ world of communication moves so quickly.

JI  It’s also because it’s an adult-free world that what happens in the show can actually happen. There’s so much “when the cat’s away.” A lot with Be More Chill is technology, and how you actually use it, and why we rely so much on it. By removing the guiding figure from people’s lives… of course they’re going to turn to this thing that’s going to give them answers, because they don’t have anyone else. 

MTT  When the book was first passed along to you was it the plot, the style of it, or the content that really grabbed you? 

JI  It was the characters plus the genre element. I’ve written other things, like The Black Suits, that dealt with young people, and I like writing young people a lot. I try as much as I can to not repeat myself, but the idea of talking about young people and current issues through the lense of sci-fi is immediately exciting to me. I also liked that it felt like a comedy. A lot of my shows run into problems with people not knowing if it’s supposed to be sad or supposed to be funny. I love things that intentionally mash up different tones, but this felt like it was a musical comedy where I could talk about these really serious issues and dive really deeply into things, all under the umbrella of sci-fi musical comedy. But it’s still really classic to me, like Damn Yankees or something. 

MTT  I want to talk about the explosion on Be More Chill’s popularity on Tumblr and the album’s streaming success. Was that a motivated effort from you or your team?

JI  No, not really. The whole thing has been such a weird experience. When we were initially writing the show, no one cared. This sort of fandom was not there. We started working on it in 2012 but like two or three years later we did the first production. Many times in my career there’s been a ton of momentum and buzz and excitement about a show from theater people… There was all this momentum, momentum, momentum, then we open and got a really shitty [New York] Times review from Charles Isherwood and that killed everything. That’s happened to me multiple times in my career. Because of this sort of weird path I’ve had, I’ve always been reviewed by the top Times critic, and if they give you a bad review, you’re done. So our show was done. 

Then the theater, which was really proud of the show, said they wanted to make the cast album, so Bob Rechnitz, who is the head of the board of Two Rivers Theatre, was basically like, “I’m gonna pay for this album.” Honestly, at the time, I didn’t care. It was great, and I was like, “Let’s do it,” but I was so bummed out by [the review] that I felt nobody actually cared about the show. So we recorded the album and it was released in October 2015. Then in the Spring of 2017 (I had been actively trying to get the show going again) I started seeing the show getting tagged on Instagram and Twitter, with random people talking about “Michael in the Bathroom.” 

I’ve been lucky enough to work on things that have a good number of fans and I’ve definitely existed as a cult-y musical theater figure for many years because of my concert work. I’m used to getting positive attention online from people I don’t know and it’s very nice, but with Be More Chill there were more people listening to it and tweeting about it and it just grew so organically. It got to this point where myself, George Salazar, and Joe Tracz were all sort of texting each other being like, “Are you doing something with Be More Chill? Is something going on?” But none of us were. 

MTT  Not even someone’s agent was stoking the fire a little bit? 

JI  Not even the tiniest bit. After a few weeks of this I had GhostLight put up the record. There was all this Be More Chill excitement, I didn’t know what was going on, but I wanted to do something. What got them to pay attention was that people actually started buying the album, which never happens. It was immediately available for streaming and hard copy and it’s now on a vinyl (which is like a dream to have a cast album on a vinyl). 

Once all this was happening, GhostLight put out this “Michael in the Bathroom” video using recording footage that we’d had for years and some b-roll from the show. It became their most watched video ever, tons of streams, and all of the sudden I had all this ammo. This was last summer when all this fan art and stuff was happening. So I tried to get producers interested in it and still no one cared. It was all like, “That’s nice.” 

MTT  Did people ever cite concerns about the age demographic not necessarily being ticket buyers themselves? 

JI  For sure. Anyone who cared enough to engage with me on it, which was very few people, said, “These kids don’t buy tickets. It’s nice that people are listening to your music, but they’re not going to buy your tickets.” Then in November of last year, there was this one theater in New Jersey, a community theater, who licensed Be More Chill, and they were the first production that happened since the phenomenon took off. They do their shows in an old vaudeville theater in Jersey and typically sell 100-200 seats, but it’s a huge theater with about 1,000 seats. And they sold out five shows. It was the most they ever sold. This was when we couldn’t get anyone interested in the show. We went to Jersey and it was so insane that we needed a security escort the entire time. They had to shut down the street. They sold merch they made themselves. It was like a rock concert in the craziest way. My aunt went to see it and she kept saying, “This is amazing!” and I’m like, “[Still] no one will do my show! I’m so happy for them, but I can’t get anyone [in New York] to put this show on or take me seriously. But here’s this theater with people from around the world who came because they loved the show so much.” That was my darkest point.

I ended up taking two meetings about doing Be More Chill; One of the meetings was with Jerry Gordon, who I’ve known for years, and he was directing Be More Chill at his college. We had talked about it previously and he had never fully grasped it, but from doing the show and being in rehearsals he was like, “This is a huge thing.” Around Christmas time he asked me if I would ever want to do this in New York and I said, “That’s all I want.” So it came together in February of 2018 and it was off and running from there. We didn’t even know if kids would buy tickets. I mean, we hoped and thought they would. George Salazar and I did this series of concerts at 54 Below that we booked before anything was happening with Be More Chill because no one would fucking do our shows, so we figured we should do some art and get an audience. Those concerts were our first glimpse of the fandom.

MTT  And in that context you might get parents on board. That way the whole family is invested.

 JI  Yeah, for sure. We’ve definitely found that. 

MTT  With the film coming up too the show has the potential to be a brand with its own self-perpetuating financial ecosystem. For awhile there was a lot of anxiety about streaming and putting up theatrical content for free or at low cost. But people seem to be realizing that the film (or filmed) versions of shows really do not assuage the thirst for the actual experience. 

JI  Yeah, it’s such a funny thing. I’ve been so old-school my career and for a lot of years I was trying to distance myself from social media and all that. This whole experience has been so eye-opening. I’ve tried to get my work produced in the traditional way for as long as I’ve been doing it and I’ve been very lucky in having success with beautiful regional theaters, but I’ve never been able to get to the level that I wanted to. I’ve never been produced Off-Broadway in New York City before this summer. If Twitter and Instagram can help me get my work produced in New York City, or anywhere, then of course I’m going to use them. I see how young people receive information, so why wouldn’t I want to be aware of that and then figure out how to use that for good? With Be More Chill we very much took the stance that we would not stop anyone from filming lip-syncing videos or all that—we’re not withholding ameteur rights—we just want to let everyone participate. Kids have no frame of reference for paying for entertainment or music, they just don’t. It’s just like the way the world is. 

So I’m excited about figuring out how we use that to get young people interested in theater. That’s been the struggle of Broadway and theater for however many years. I’ve only been used to having my shows performed to elderly audiences. Be More Chill, when we were doing it in Jersey, was a younger crowd than I’d ever experienced. It was predominately people over the age of 50, which to me is young. But the idea of using social media to get actual young human beings interested in theater is incredible. 

MTT  The cast album preceding the show’s commercial run seems like it was an opportunity for deep listening and connection; for people to feel that this is an artwork that they can inhabit, experience, and make their own. They are part of the cultivation of the final product. I hope it’s exciting for you. 

JI  Yeah, I love it. I’ve always obsessed over the idea that there shouldn’t be any barrier between the performers and the audience. If the audience wasn’t there, the actors wouldn’t be able to do what they do, and if the actors weren’t there, the audience wouldn’t be able to receive what they receive. It really is a collaboration. And you know, whenever I work with performers I change things around based on the actual people. I hate this idea that two actors doing the same song should sound the same. I believe it should live and breathe depending on the person that’s inhabiting it. There’s no right or wrong answer. So the fact that the young people who are diggin’ Be More Chill came into it with this sense of ownership and participation… I love it. I love the idea of kids doing their own interpretations of these songs. And the fanfic thing—immediately kids started writing their own stories about these characters and moments, or rewriting moments. To me, that’s exactly what it should be: a living, breathing thing. Having always said that, but not always seeing it play out on a scale like this, and to see it on such a grand scale and to have it be the thing that has allowed this show to exist is like… nuts. 

MTT  It’s something, I think, completely new to musical theater.

You once expressed concern about jukebox musicals being audience sponges, and about financially prohibitive ticket prices. Now that the industry has not only crossed the line of the four-digit ticket box office ticket, but also is starting to offer ticket financing options, how have these concerns evolved? Or more generally, what are your thoughts on musical theater right now? 

JI  To speak to jukebox musical-ness, I think there’s always going to be the high-brow/low-brow thing. There are always going to be shows that please a commercial audience really well, as well as off-off-off-Broadway; that’s been a part of the scene in New York. What has happened in the last few years, which is encouraging, is that there are more and more anomalies, more and more [The] Band’s Visits. It’s all a hype machine; there’s always a show or two each season that’s critically acclaimed, embraced, and then explodes as the best thing that’s ever, ever happened. And sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But I think it’s helpful when these shows that are clearly not cynical or commercially-minded enterprises (at least not from the start) get a platform and an audience. 

MTT  In different language, shows that earn a audience’s demand and then match it and expand, rather than creating a demand through advertising and sheer star power. 

JI  Right now it’s the movies-turned-musicals thing that’s weirdly becoming the new jukebox musical. In that particular interview you’re referring to I was pissed off about the Mamma Mia! tagline, “You Already Know You’re Gonna Love It”. That mentality is an audience killer. The idea of, “Why spend money on something if you don’t know whether or not you’re going to like?” And I understand that it’s because it’s so fucking expensive to see theater, especially if you’re someone who does not know about all the ways in which you can see theater more affordably. It’s that mentality of not wanting to take a chance on something and going to theater the same way you would go to ride Splash Mountain. You know the experience you’re going to get, so you’re going to be satisfied in having the experience. 

That’s the mentality that drives me crazy, and it’s these clearly commercial enterprises in which you really feel like… someone is just going to make a lot of money, and that’s why we have to watch the show on Broadway. Those shows, unless they’re turning an adaptation on it’s head or unless they’re doing something to challenge audience expectations in some way, are really hurtful. It always pisses me off so much, especially in the last two years, to see these huge musicals based on huge movies where you know there’s already this crazy, built-in demand, and they’re going to make a bunch of money on merchandising. And you know that kids going to see the thing aren’t going to care who the hell is playing these characters; they’re just going to see characters they know and love. But we need to take the opportunity to give a platform to artists of color, or people who would not traditionally be allowed to work in that sphere. To not try to populate the industry with people who are going to push the artform or people who are going to give audiences a “new normal” just seems like such a wasted opportunity. 

MTT  Do you think that the cost of a ticket plays a role in this? If theater is going to incur such a substantial cost, the audience with an affordable Netflix subscription—the young person spending $9.99 on Spotify—often takes a leap of faith when it comes to experiencing new content because doing so does not cost them hundreds of dollars. 

JI  For sure. The price of theater clearly is prohibitive, and it all feeds into each other. The other part is, I don’t know how commercial theater could get more affordable just because of the reality of it. It’s so expensive to make a new musical for ten million reasons. I’ve always known that, but being on the inside… 

MTT  And there’s the emotional (and also financial) expense to the creators over a period of many years.

JI  Yes. it just costs so much money to do these shows. And I did not realize that ticket scalping for kid’s shows is such a driver of costs. If people who are not the artist are making $2,000 on Hamilton tickets, I understand why Hamilton is like, “We should be charging $1,500 for our tickets so then at least the money is going back to the artist.” Of course it’s tricky, and it only drives up the prices, but I don’t know the way around it at all. 

MTT  Returning to the Mamma Mia! tagline: do you think audiences need that kind of shepherding? 

JI  I don’t, no. Especially in today’s day and age where there is so much information, I think there are more creative ways of doing things. I think taglines like that will lose their power very, very soon, because the people that’s going to work on are going to die, literally. The youth is smarter than that. They’re not going to go see something just because you tell them to. 

MTT  Although, audiences are usually more willing to take a leap on a new artwork so long as there is a certain kind of legitimacy or prestige in its avenue of distribution. That’s what Broadway will always be able to offer; people might go see The Band’s Visit simply because it’s a Broadway show. That’s an amazing trump card to have. It is its own reward in that way. 

JI  Yeah, and I love the idea of making theater artists superstars. I love the idea of young people being like, “Oh I wanna go see the new musical that George Salazar is in.”  Being aware of the people who are actually making this art and something like Christy Altomare in Anastasia and her interacting with her fans and kids loving her like she’s Ariana Grande or Kanye. I think that’s so helpful for us. That’s the most exciting thing in the world to me.

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