The emotional and social minefield that is high school is the setting of Be More Chill, the new musical by composer-lyricist Joe Iconis and librettist Joe Tracz, getting a world-premiere staging by Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ. The project, based on the 2004 young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, took the 33-year-old playwright right back to his teen years in Michigan. He shared some of his process and past with me.
Tracz, class of 2000 at Northville High School, explained: “When we saw the first set designs for the production, which included sets for three different bathrooms, I was like, ‘Did we really write a show with so many bathroom scenes?’ But actually, that felt really true to high school in a cool way. Both Joe and I had all these memories of ducking into bathrooms at school, or at parties, because they were like a sanctuary — a place to hide, to be alone with your thoughts away from your peers. But they’re also these spaces without supervision, so there’s a danger there too. To carry Ned’s banner and not airbrush the high school experience, having so many scenes set in bathrooms felt right.”
Be More Chill, directed by Stephen Brackett, features Will Connolly as Jeremy Heere, an uncool, suburban New Jersey teenager whose life is transformed by ingesting “The Squip” (played by Eric William Morris), a tiny supercomputer that attaches to his brain and fulfills his desires — including a date with Christine (played by Stephanie Hsu) and wide popularity.
Orchestrations and music supervision are by Charlie Rosen, music direction by Nathan Dame and choreography is by Chase Brock. The cast also includes Jake Boyd, Gerard Canonico, Katlyn Carlson, Katie Ladner, Lauren Marcus, George Salazar and Paul Whitty.
The creative team for Be More Chill includes scenic designer Dane Laffrey, costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, sound designer Zachary Williamson, fight directior UnkleDave’s Fight-House. Casting is by Adam Caldwell. The production stage manager is Amanda Michaels.
Be More Chill opened June 5 following previews and has been extended to June 28 at Two River’s mainstage Rechnitz Theater at 21 Bridge Avenue in Red Bank, NJ, 45 miles by car from Manhattan and also easily accessible by rail via New Jersey Transit.
Songwriter Joe Iconis has been nominated for two Drama Desk Awards and a Lucille Lortel Award, and is the recipient of an Ed Kleban Award, a Jonathan Larson Award, an ASCAP Harold Adamson Lyric Award, and a MAC John Wallowitch Songwriting Award. His songs appeared on season two of NBC’s “Smash” and he is the author of the musicals The Black Suits, Bloodsong of Love, The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks and more.
Joe Tracz’s adaptation of the first book in the Percy Jackson series, The Lightning Thief (with composer Rob Rokicki) received a Lortel nomination for Outstanding Musical and is now touring nationally with TheatreWorks USA. With Chill collaborator Joe Iconis, he is developing a live stage version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid to premiere at Children’s Theatre Company in 2016. His plays have been developed with Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage, Roundabout Theatre Company, Ars Nova, The Flea and Playwrights Realm. He has been published in “Best American Short Plays.”
Here my chat with fellow Michigander Joe Tracz, whose last name is pronounced “Trace.”
How did you get attached to Be More Chill? Have you worked with Joe Iconis before?
Joe Tracz: Be More Chill is my first collaboration with Joe Iconis (aka Other Joe), and also the first musical I’ve written. (Not counting a few I wrote in high school that were essentially Les Miz fan fiction.)
I went to NYU for grad school, where I studied playwriting, but musical theatre is a separate department, so even though I grew up loving musicals, it never occurred to me that I could write one. At the same time, I was writing plays that had these huge casts and heightened worlds, and while they got me a lot of readings, the general sense I got was that they’re weren’t very producible.
Then one day my agent — the amazing Scott Chaloff — decided to play matchmaker. He set me up on a coffee date with Joe Iconis and gave us both the book “Be More Chill.” He’d read it and thought it had the potential to be a really great musical. More than that, he thought that Iconis and I would connect. He was right on all counts.
What attracted you to the novel that the show is based on? What kernel or seed or theme struck you?
Joe Tracz: I knew Ned’s work because I’d worked in the YA section of a bookstore, and Ned’s books always drew a different kind of reader — boys, or kids who were outsiders, who probably weren’t reading a lot otherwise. Ned talked about not wanting to “airbrush” the teenage experience. He never shied away from the awkwardness and the uncomfortable stuff, the edges that other authors might sand off. (Not many YA authors write as frankly about masturbation, but when you’re inside the head of a teenage boy, you’d be dishonest to avoid it.) So even though Joe and I had both written about teenagers before, this book felt like something we hadn’t seen before. Plus it was a sci-fi story about having a computer in your brain. So there’s that.
Where did you grow up and go to high school, and where did you fall in the social hierarchy in school? Jock? Theatre nerd? Mathlete?
Joe Tracz: I was a bit of a floater, I was involved in lots of clubs that competed for my attention. But the one I really loved was theatre — creating a show always inspired deep devotion and intense friendships. We drew on that for the character of Christine, the girl Jeremy likes. She’s a theatre kid who’s a total geek about it, which is probably most what I was like at that age.
Were you able to deviate from the book and add new characters and situations? What of “Joe Tracz” is in the show?
Joe Tracz: The novel itself is pretty Joe Tracz (and Joe Iconis) in that it’s science fiction but still character-driven. But the book is from Jeremy’s point of view — it’s first person narration, so everything we know about his classmates is filtered through Jeremy’s limited perspective. It made some of the supporting cast tough to crack, especially the popular kids, because while Jeremy might look at them and think they’ve got it all figured out, the truth is that, in high school, nobody does. So we went through all the characters, and tried to find the flaws and insecurities Jeremy might not see.
Also, the book doesn’t really have an ending proper — it’s this neat conceit where (book spoiler!) you get to the last page, and you realize this book you’ve just read is Jeremy’s effort to explain to Christine why he’s been acting so weird. Which is exciting on the page, and I know Ned loved how the lack of resolution encouraged readers to imagine their own. But the musical required a more concrete ending. So it was fun to go crazy and invent our own, which gave us a chance to really spill into genre in a big way. I got really excited about a school play where Jeremy’s fighting his way back to humanity while the entire cast is turning into zombies around him. It borrows from Shakespeare and anime, it references the video game fights of Scott Pilgrim and the final sequence of Sweeney Todd, and it’s pretty much the most Joe Tracz thing to ever be put on stage.
Can you share a little bit about the process of writing the libretto? What was your starting point? Did you write a “script” — a dramatized version of the book that Joe Iconis cannibalized for songs? Or did you work together, piecemeal?
Joe Tracz: Not having experience writing musicals, I started by taking my cues off of Joe, to make sure I wasn’t overstepping, but he was immediately so open and collaborative, and never made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing. At the start, I’d write a scene as if it was from a play, without really carving out space for a song, and then Joe and I would discuss which idea in the scene felt most musical. What was exciting for me was seeing how my dialogue was sometimes reincarnated as lyric — it made me think about the musicality of prose in a way I’d never considered. By the time we got into rehearsal, we were rewriting both simultaneously, flipping beats from scene to song and back again. It was a joyous act of mutual cannibalization.
Are there a couple of Ned Vizzini or Joe Tracz sentences that have been lifted wholesale to become songs?
Joe Tracz: One of my favorite songs came from trying to articulate the character arc of Jeremy’s Dad. In the book, Jeremy has both of his parents, but we didn’t want two adult actors, so we decided that Jeremy’s mom had left, and Dad was wallowing in self-pity. I became obsessed with this (hilarious, to me) idea that Dad would only be shown in his underwear until the end, when he comes to Jeremy’s aid, because, as I was explaining to Joe, “When you love somebody, you put your pants on for them.” Later that night, Joe sent me an MP3 of a song he’d wrote titled, “When You Love Somebody (You Put Your Pants On For Them).” So that’s a highlight of my life.
Most great musicals usually have an indelible first 15 minutes, and great openings tend to presage great shows. Was the opening a challenge?
Joe Tracz: We discussed a lot of ideas for the opening — in the books, Jeremy has a checklist of daily humiliations that seemed like it could be musicalized, but it wasn’t coming together. Then Joe went away and wrote this huge ten-minute opening number called “More Than Survive” that takes us through Jeremy’s day, with beats carved out to introduce all our major characters, plus a recurring theme of survival that could presage the fact that, by the end of the show, he’d be literally fighting to survive. After that, I immediately understood Joe’s voice as a lyricist and Jeremy’s voice as a character. But it took the longest to crack.
Can you point to a thing or two that you learned about the show in rehearsals or previews, something you were able to address?
Joe Tracz: For three years, the second song in the show used to be this song called “Touching My Hand,” where Jeremy neurotically overanalyzes Christine’s body language as he’s sitting next to her (which is something I totally related to). Performed out of context, it killed every time — but it never worked quite as well in front of audiences, and we didn’t know why. Our awesome director Stephen Brackett pointed out that, after spending the entire opening number with Jeremy, it felt redundant for the second number to also be this neurotic internal monologue, and suggested replacing it with Christine’s song, “I Love Play Rehearsal,” which used to come later in the act. As much as we hated to lose this song that everyone loved, the show suddenly worked so much better — we weren’t repeating ourselves, we got to know Christine sooner. And now we have a trunk song for any future Be More Chill cabaret.
Great writing is about rewriting, as you know. What was your “rewrite” process here? Were there many versions to the show, or was it a fairly simple process?
Joe Tracz: I was looking over old notes, and I realized that the bones of the story stayed pretty much unchanged since our first meeting, which was a two-hour conversation at Birch Coffee. All the major events, the stuff we drew from the book and the stuff we invented, fell into place pretty early on, which never happens to me. I think the combination of two people generating ideas made things click faster than when I’m writing alone. That said, while the major scenes remained the same, the content of those scenes was being rewritten up until (and including) the day we opened.
Writer Ned Vizzini struggled with depression and tragically took his own life in 2013. What responsibility do you feel about getting it right for Ned? That is, respecting the source material. What sort of conversations did you have with him, or what permission did you get from him to make it your own?
Joe Tracz: We had a really amazing conversation with Ned before we started writing. Musical theatre wasn’t a world he knew a lot about, but he talked about attempting to translate the story for film, and how it was tough to structure a movie around someone talking to a voice in their head. We told him how, actually, that’s perfect for a musical — because in musicals, it’s expected that people will sing their inner thoughts. So he was really excited by the possibilities.
The final song is actually called “Voices In My Head.” and it was the first song written after Ned’s death. We’d already had the general idea — that [spoiler alert!] after Jeremy gets rid of his Squip, he still has to learn to tune out the voices of his peers and trust himself. But that idea took on new meaning after Ned died. Depression isn’t something you beat once and it goes away; you’re always wrestling with those voices of doubt and insecurity. So the idea that Jeremy can’t defeat those voices, but has to learn to navigate them… That felt like an ending that paid tribute to Ned, and the honest way he wrote about his own struggles.
How is Be More Chill part of a continuum of the stories and themes you’ve created in the past?
Joe Tracz: A lot of my work revolves around teenagers and technology — teenagers, because I’m drawn to the intensity of that stage in life; and technology, because I think we have a responsibility as dramatists to stage the way we communicate today, and technology is such a huge part of that. I’m also drawn to characters who role-play, who use the lens of fantasy as a coping mechanism to navigate the world. Be More Chill — in which a teenager uses a fantasy technology as a coping mechanism to navigate the world — has literally all of those things. It’s the Joe Tracz-iest.
When you are writing your own plays, what hits you first when you are at the start of a project: a character, a situation, a place? Or does it vary?
Joe Tracz: I tend to start with a place — especially a place where two characters who wouldn’t normally share an orbit are suddenly brought together. Especially if it’s a place that has an element of fantasy attached to it. In my play Happy Place, I’d wanted to write a play set in Disney World, since it’s one of the few places everyone vacations, and it’s tied to so many of our shared cultural fantasies. Then I read about how wealthy Manhattan families were hiring guides in wheelchairs to help them skip the lines, and I had the characters to go with the setting. In my play Boy Wonders, I wanted to bring two gay characters of different generations together, but have them connect over something besides being gay — so the play starts on the message board of an online super-hero role-playing game.
Joe Tracz: That’s amazing that you said Inge Zayti! When I was a kid, she ran the Marquis Theatre in downtown Northville. It was this children’s theatre that looked like (and maybe was?) an old movie palace. They had a summer camp that my sister wanted to do, so my mom signed the both of us up. That was my first time ever being backstage and it felt like gaining access to this secret world.
My parents also took us to all the Broadway shows that came through Detroit. I remember seeing Cats with all the neighbors, and my sister and I being the only ones who understood it. All the adults were saying, “But what is it about?” And my sister and I were just like…“Cats.”
My parents are still in Michigan, so I still go back. I think my mom is determined to get the Marquis Theatre to perform one of my plays.
Why did you come to New York?
Joe Tracz: I moved to New York to attend Tisch School of the Arts for grad school. Before that, I was living in Chicago, doing as much theatre as I could — interning and stage managing and, for one memorable month, being a karaoke DJ in an interactive karaoke comedy, while living in the basement of the Chicago Dramatists theatre. It was a really great apprenticeship period, but I was having a hard time thinking of myself as a playwright instead of “that former intern who writes plays.” NYU was always a dream school — growing up in the Midwest, it seemed like Hogwarts — so I applied to their grad program, and suddenly I had a reason to move to New York.
You have a BA from Kalamazoo College and an MFA from the Tisch School’s dramatic writing program. What did you take away from the latter program that you didn’t have going in?
Joe Tracz: Unlike some other playwriting grad programs, NYU’s doesn’t really offer a production component; it’s more of a workshop setting, where you generate a lot of pages really fast for two years. Also, when I was there, the department (which is divided into film, TV and theatre) was just starting to grapple with the fact that, today, most professional playwrights also write for TV. I was a playwriting concentrate but I begged my way into as many TV classes as I could. I left with a lot of scripts of varying quality, but an appreciation for the fact that, whatever medium you’re writing for, the technical aspects may be different but the tools are the same.
What’s coming up for you? What plays are you working on, what productions are coming?
Joe Tracz: I’m doing two projects at Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer that are blood relatives of Be More Chill in very different ways. Song for a Future Generation is going to be Williamstown’s family show under the stars, directed by Lee Overtree. It’s a sci-fi teen party play — think “Can’t Hardly Wait” in outer space — where all the familiar high school archetypes show up as clones, time travelers, intergalactic bounty hunters… It’s big and poppy and plays like a musical. And there’s that theme of teenagers and technology again, even if here the technology is cloning booths and time-travel devices.
Then I’m workshopping another musical there, called Poster Boy, written with legendary composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia. It’s a documentary hybrid inspired by the story of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student whose suicide drew national attention to cyber-bullying. So it’s also about teenagers and technology, but without the lens of fantasy to hide behind. Which made it the toughest thing I’ve ever written, but Craig pushed me as a writer in a way that has resulted in something really special; I can’t think of another musical like it.