When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
The origin story of Be More Chill is already one of musical theater legend. After a month-long run at the Two River Theater, the creative team—including Brock, director Stephen Brackett, writer Joe Tracz and composer/lyricist Joe Iconis—thought the show's lifespan had unjustly passed. About two years later, Brock began noticing fan art popping up on Instagram, and assumed that Be More Chill was being performed at high schools or community theaters. (It wasn't yet: The show only became available to license in July 2017.) Instead, the cast recording was being streamed, over and over again, as teens discovered the show—and the rapidly growing canon of cosplay, fan fiction and fan art surrounding it—on YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram. By the spring of 2018, the album had been streamed over 100 million times. Be More Chill's success online is what convinced producers that it was ready for an off-Broadway production, which sold out before opening night; an extension of the run sold out in less than eight hours.
A move to Broadway, where the show begins previews this month, was almost inevitable. But the unapologetically quirky production will still be an underdog, just like its protagonist, Jeremy, a high school loser who ingests a pill-sized supercomputer called a Squip to help him be cool—or rather, "chill."
Brock partially attributes Be More Chill's wackiness to the absence of a commercial producer during development. "We were allowed to just do our thing, and as a result the show is spikier and stranger," he says. This freedom is also reflected in Brock's high-energy choreography, which draws from sources as various as a Belgian street dance called jumpstyle, and finger-tutting, which represents the digital world of the Squips. (His most memorable fan experience so far involved a teenage girl sitting near him on opening night off-Broadway, perfectly executing a complex finger-tutting sequence.)
Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Keith Sherman & Associates
What was it like to visually shape a show that thousands of fans had listened to but never seen? "I had to trust that if one part of the show was connecting strongly then all the other parts would connect that strongly, too," says Brock.
But Be More Chill will need more than a teenage cult following to survive on Broadway. Brock says the show already has a growing fan base in the parents who brought their superfan tweens to the off-Broadway production. But the goal isn't to appeal to everyone, anyway. In fact, Brock believes that part of what has made the show so successful thus far is how it has connected with a very specific group: LGBTQ teens who consider themselves outsiders. Be More Chill's popularity on social media has generated an unprecedented collaboration with these fans, who have imagined new relationships between characters that are now alluded to in the show. "They are speaking back to us," says Brock, "and we have a responsibility of listening."