The snubbing of ‘Be More Chill’: How a sci-fi musical became Broadway’s biggest paradox

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Tony Award nominations are like a buffet for hungry producers looking to boost their shows’ revenues, and this year, the viral hit “Be More Chill” has been sent to bed without supper. Nominated only for best original score, the sci-fi musical follows the story of high school loser Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), who attempts to climb the social ladder by embedding an artificial intelligence system, called a SQUIP (Jason Tam), into his brain.

The show’s “geek turned jock” plot is simple yet highly relevant, with the potential to reach even loftier heights. Its theme of technological hegemony, somewhat underdeveloped despite its centrality to the plot, lays the groundwork for even deeper conversations about life in the digital age. It reflects the bitter truth of how social media can easily become a soapbox for harmful ideas and a breeding ground for conformity. Perhaps under different guidance, “Be More Chill” could have been a sophisticated and morbid horror story about how technology has consumed the very identities of children growing up with the internet.

But rather than delving into tragedy à la “Dear Evan Hansen” — a musical about teen suicide that swept the 2017 Tony Awards — the creators of “Be More Chill” chose a different route. With neon lights, campy costumes and a deus ex machina revolving around Mountain Dew, the show flagrantly turns its back on any and all appearances of “sophistication.” Instead, it revels in its own ridiculousness, toeing the line between reality and clichéd teenage daydreams. As for the aforementioned simple plot, it ends even more simply: Jeremy eliminates most of the SQUIPs, scores a date with his crush and learns a valuable lesson in self-confidence.

And for many, this simplicity works. After the cast recording was released on Spotify, “Be More Chill” soared in popularity and quickly won over a large following whose online support helped carry the musical to Broadway. Much of the show’s success, moreover, is owed to its appeal to younger audiences; as with “Dear Evan Hansen,” the experience of watching high school characters like Jeremy cope with mental health issues resonated with many adolescents and young adults. In fact, one could say that “Be More Chill” is less of a musical in the traditional sense and more of a youth movement, propelled by its army of virtual fans.

But while some critics were quick to join the hype, others were far less eager. The New York Times gave it mediocre reviews in both 2015 and 2018, while The Washington Post went so far as to call it “a patience-trying endurance test.” Above all, many of the show’s opponents agreed that “Be More Chill” simply wasn’t made for adults.

And therein lies the ultimate paradox behind “Be More Chill,” both its greatest blessing and its biggest curse: It is a Broadway musical not meant for traditional Broadway audiences.

The obvious blessing here is that, even with some poor reviews, “Be More Chill” proved to be incredibly successful, landing a Broadway run based off of almost nothing but grassroots support. The show has captured the hearts of theater kids across the nation, and in that sense, it has already done its job and done it well. It doesn’t need a heap of nominations to cement its status as a hit musical or an important cultural influence — the 70 million Spotify streams it had racked up by April is enough proof of that on its own.

What it may need the nominations for, however, is ticket sales. For a select few shows, the Tony Awards are like a spotlight that generates greater interest and profit, while most others take a hit to their sales. In this case, Forbes reported that “Be More Chill” saw the biggest drop of any show currently on Broadway, losing more than $219,000 after nomination announcements. Its young fans may have gotten the show to Broadway, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the resources or opportunity to go see it there. No doubt, the team behind it all is currently asking itself, “What exactly do we do with an online audience?”

This isn’t to say that “Be More Chill” deserved every nomination that it was denied; a show about defeating a Keanu Reeves look-alike with Mountain Dew isn’t exactly a paragon of artistry. It’s loud and tacky, sometimes in a smartly satirical way and sometimes in a “cover your ears” way, and perhaps the nominating committee truly believed that it couldn’t compete with the other contenders.

One thing is clear, however: This musical has already had a much stronger impact on the world of theater than some of its more generously nominated peers. “Be More Chill” is an open question to Broadway that must be answered if theater elites have any hope of ushering their industry into the new age — but if this year’s nominations are anything to judge by, it’s a question that won’t be answered anytime soon.

Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].