When Be More Chill opened on Broadway in March, it was a dream come true for Joe Iconis.
The Garden City native wrote the music and lyrics for the musical comedy adapted from the young adult novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini. The story of how this musical made it to the Broadway stage—the Lyceum Theatre stage, Broadway’s oldest continuously operating theater, no less—is unlike any other, thanks to the fans who identified with the material so much, they wouldn’t let it fade into obscurity.
“I immediately responded to the characters [in the book],” Iconis said. “On the surface they seem like classic archetypes, but then they’d start behaving in ways they kind of weren’t supposed to, especially not in the confines of a classic teen comedy.”
When the sci-fi element came into play, in the form of an ingestible super-computer that teaches its host to be cool, or ‘more chill’ to be precise, Iconis knew the story would work as a musical. Not only would it be funny, but it would deal with some heavy issues.
“We’re going to talk about anxiety and depression and these things that plague our society, but we’re going to do it through this unexpected sci-fi comedy lens,” he said, and he has gotten nothing but positive feedback from fans who see parts of themselves in the characters. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet [many] Be More Chill fans in person…So many young people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for making something that feels celebratory, while still dealing with all of these issues that I go through.’”
That’s what makes Be More Chill stand out from the crowd—there’s a lot going on, and so much depth that might be easy to miss at first glance.
“If I’m writing characters who are young and don’t have the vocabulary to express what they’re feeling, I’m going to use certain word choice,” Iconis explained. “The show is written in the language of teenagers.”
“Michael in the Bathroom,” the Act 2 song that can be considered the anthem of the show, and the song that has made the biggest impression on audiences, is one such example. Sung by George Salazar, this song explores what it feels like to be abandoned by your best friend and the anxiety that comes along with ‘flying solo’ when you’re used to being part of a pair. It has more emotional intensity than you’d expect from a song with ‘bathroom’ in its title, and is catchy as heck, explaining its popularity on social media.
Following the run at Two River Theater in New Jersey in 2015, Be More Chill was effectively dead, living on only through the cast recording and tales of those fortunate enough to have seen the original production. A YouTube video of “Michael in the Bathroom” posted in 2017 went viral and essentially created the demand that this show return to the stage—which it did Off-Broadway in 2018.
Iconis has been rewarded for his efforts with a Tony Award nomination for best original score, as well as Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominations.
The composer and lyricist refers to his musical as a celebration of suburban weirdness.
“We wanted it to play out in malls and in bathrooms and in house parties and backstage at high school auditoriums, which is my youth,” Iconis said. “I was definitely thinking about Roosevelt Field when I was writing the mall stuff.”
Musical theater has been a part of Iconis’ life since childhood. Though no one in his family was in theater or entertainment, they fed his love for the genre by taking him to see a show for every birthday and holiday. He also credits the music education offered by the Garden City school district with shaping his future.
“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have that access to music as a kid,” he said. “Being able to have that nurturing was the greatest thing. I definitely owe much to the great teachers there.”
The child of educators, including his mom, Lucille, the superintendent of schools in Massapequa, shouts out his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Harrington, who loved that he already loved the arts as a kid.
“She was like obsessed with the fact that I knew about theater in a real way and we could have actual conversations about the theater season,” he said. “That really helped me feel like I was a part of a community before I knew where to find that community myself.”
In junior high, Iconis participated in the musicals by playing piano.
“I was never in anything. I knew I was a terrible performer, I just loved to be around the shows so much,” he recalled. “I was always in the pit. I’d always try to weasel my way into a company of singers I knew were so much better than me.”
He later learned to “properly exploit his love of theater” by becoming the musical director for the Garden City Community Theatre and doing jukebox musicals with founders Brad and Ruby Gustavson, who still run the program today. Iconis also ran the Hofstra Musical Theater Summer Camp for several years, which was the first place he had the opportunity to write full-length scripts that were performed.
Since then, he’s written quite a few cabaret shows and musicals, including The Black Suits, about a Long Island high school garage band, and several more on the horizon.
Broadway Bounty Hunter will open this summer at the Greenwich House Off-Broadway. The musical written for Annie Golden, the ’70s-era punk-turned-Broadway actress who most recently has been seen on Orange Is The New Black, tells the story of a theater actress of a certain age who is down on her luck and feeling the effects of a sexist, ageist society.
“Through a series of events, she gets wrapped up in the world of bounty hunting [and begins] an adventure to South America to capture a drug lord,” Iconis explained. “It’s told in the style of exploitation films of the ’70s so it has this really cool R&B, funk score.”
Iconis shows his range with Love in Hate Nation, which will premiere at Two River Theater in the fall. The original musical is about two girls who fall in love at a juvenile hall for girls in 1962.
“It’s about a lot of what’s going on in America at the time, which is also a lot of what’s going on in America today,” he said about the musical that features a 1960s girl group-style score as filtered through a ’90s riot girl punk rock aesthetic. “It’s about how these young women learn to become the revolutionaries of tomorrow.”
As if that weren’t enough, Iconis is also developing The Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical, a show no one asked for, but everyone will want to see out of sheer curiosity.
“That’s going to see the light of day at La Jolla Playhouse hopefully within a year,” he said. “My dream is that all of these projects will be one then the other then the other. I feel good about the stable of musicals of mine that will be rearing their ugly heads this year.”
On top of all that, a Be More Chill movie is in early development, and Iconis maintains a healthy concert life with his Iconis & Family shows, featuring artists he frequently collaborates with.