Interview: Joe Iconis, the composer behind gleefully geeky hit musical Be More Chill cover photo

Interview: Joe Iconis, the composer behind gleefully geeky hit musical Be More Chill

Interview: Joe Iconis, the composer behind gleefully geeky hit musical Be More Chill cover photo
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16 Jul 2021 · Follow on Stagedoor

Be More Chill has been a sleeper hit, in no small part thanks to the soundtrack that captured the attention of fans online. Here's its composer on what it's like composing a show that even a pandemic couldn't kill.

Be More Chill opened in early 2020, just before lockdown hit London. Were you worried this was the end of the road for the show?

It seemed very likely, and it was such a bummer because we'd just opened when shutdown came, and audiences seemed to be really liking it. But part of me just knew it was going to come back. There have been multiple times in this show's life where it seemed like the end of the road. It's like the zombie of musical theatre: it might seem dead, but then it comes crawling out demanding to be on a bigger stage.

After a low-key debut out of town, Be More Chill seemed like it wouldn't go any further. But then it was propelled to Broadway by people who discovered the soundtrack online. Why do you think it's garnered such a big following?

It deals with big heavy issues like anxiety and depression, and dependence on technology, but in a way that's kind of unexpected, and fluffy, and fun. I always hoped that people would be able to weed through the crazy sci fi trappings of the show and see what was really at its heart. And what we learned was that people do, and specifically young people, and that has been like the greatest gift of all time, that the show's been resurrected by the young people who discovered it.

The company of Be More Chill

Has the show's online fandom influenced you in any way as you've developed the show?

It's a tricky line to teeter on, because of course I want to make people who love the show happy, but you're never going to please everybody, so I just try to have to write authentically and honestly and hope that people who dig it will continue to dig it. But that said, [Be More Chill's book writer] Joe Tracz and I have had so many conversations with so many people about the show, that some of those conversations can't help but infiltrate our psyche. Like, that Michael should have two moms, stuff like that just kind of organically works its way into the show.

You cut your teeth on the New York cabaret scene. Was that good preparation for writing a musical?

Absolutely. I value the art of songwriting, and well-structured songs that have a beginning, middle and end and have strong melodies. And so much of that comes from a cabaret tradition where everything's stripped away. It's just a singer on stage, so there's no like hiding behind anything, it's all about the song. The first time we performed 'Michael in the Bathroom' (Be More Chill's best known number) it was in a cabaret show, and even without knowing who this character was, I was able to see it was something people could connect with.

Be More Chill at Shaftesbury Theatre

What kind of musical influences did you draw on for Be More Chill?

I was inspired by 1950s 'Invaders from Space' movies, and . And so like the Bernard Herrmann's score for 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'. And the thing that was most resonant to me was the theremin, which is an electric instrument that's about manipulating sound waves and creates the sound of otherworldly creatures from all those old horror movies. And other sounds are taken from 1980s teen movies. I think that mash up means that it sounds current, because pop music is always looking backwards for the next sound.

And apart from wondering about what would happen with Be More Chill, how was lockdown for you? Was it a creative time?

I hated it! I feel like time was ripped away from me, and I am so angry about it. I worked, but I didn't feel creatively inspired at all. And I'm really excited in like a number of years to pretend like I don't even remember it.

And finally, what would you say to someone who doesn't like sci-fi or comic books, and thinks Be More Chill might not be for them?

The sci-fi stuff is just the dressing. Ultimately a celebration of people who feel like misfits, and the message of the show is that the triumph of life is not solving your problems. It's finding out how to deal with them. And I think that's so much more true to life than most shows. It says you can have an exciting, celebratory life while still dealing with problems like anxiety, and that's a powerful message.

Be More Chill is currently playing the West End's Shaftesbury Theatre. BOOK TICKETS HERE

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