In a world seeking connection, fans of Broadway seem to be able to find it even when they will never be able to be in the room where the magic happens. It is fascinating in a time when media’s success is measured by how many people it can reach, that the Broadway industry still thrives even as it’s isolated from so many of its fans, geographically speaking. A pinnacle example of this is the hit almost-Broadway show Be More Chill, whose unexpected success lies solely on the backs of the fans that revived it after a swift death off-off-Broadway.
Based off a novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill centers around a high school student named Jeremy, a known loser who spends every day just trying to “survive.” The show takes a sci-fi twist, though, when Jeremy is introduced to a Squip, a nano-computer disguised as a pill that implants into his mind and tells him exactly what to do to become cool and to “be more chill.” The show follows trends in both high school-coming of age and sci-fi genres, with matters quickly rising to excellence and descending into chaos in Jeremy’s life only to be resolved happily in the end. Through the story the audience gets an inside glance in to the minds of Jeremy and his classmates, who all begin as archetypes but quickly transform into unique and incredibly relatable young characters.
The show originally opened in the Two River Theater, in New Jersey, with book by Joe Tracz and lyrics by Joe Iconis, but closed after a four-week run. It is not unusual for new musicals, especially ones not produced in New York, to close after a brief run and expect that to be the end of it. Luckily for the creators of Be More Chill, though, they had the opportunity to record and release a cast album. Two years passed quietly for the folks behind the unassuming show when, out of the blue, Be More Chill started gaining an traction online with fans. 150 million streams later the show has risen through the ranks and has become the most popular musical on Tumblr, second only to Hamilton itself, with one of the most dedicated fandoms (the colloquial term for the group of fans of a medium) of any musical, running or not.
The creators, cast, crew, producers, and basically everyone else involved in the production gives full credit to the fans, not just for the show’s popularity, but for its resurrection. It is due to the power of the fans that the show was brought back from the dead and back to the stage, initially as an eight-week Off-Broadway run that sold out before it even opened. After being extended, Be More Chill was quickly transferred to Broadway proper, finding home at the Lyceum Theater, opening March 10th.
According to one fan, Nicole Brennan (aka Tumblr-user nishichipsahoya), “It was so fascinating because we had no idea if it was ever going to make it to New York, let alone Broadway. When they first announced that the show was coming to Off-Broadway in Summer 2018, it felt like a dream come true.” This shock at the effects the fans have had on the show is entirely understandable based on media’s general representation as being steered by faceless men in gray conference rooms, and thus the most incredible thing about fan-power is how truly underappreciated it is.
There are countless interviews with celebrities thanking their fans for bringing them to ‘where they are today’ and the whole entertainment industry’s goal is to get more people to like the content it is producing in order to make money. To this end, the media industry wears a face of being all about the fans, but very rarely reaches out to let them take part in the media they consume. It is because of this that Be More Chill’s genuine connection with its fans was so refreshing and amazing to the fans themselves.
There are many reasons why Be More Chill is so beloved, but one major reason is quite blatant while another is largely subconscious. The known one is that the fans relate with a real connection to the characters that look and feel like they have. Another member of the fandom explained that one of the major draws to the show for him, was that in this fictional high school they saw a very real and poignant representation of what high school was really like. Along with this, it is rare to find an accurate portrayal of the teenage psyche and, to this fan, relating to the characters in this show was what he wished he had the opportunity to do when he was struggling in high school.
This noticeable cause is closely tied to the subtler cause of the show’s success: resonance and genuine connection. Due to Be More Chill’s small origins it ended up not feeling as though it was pandering to its fans in order to make money. The composer of the show, Joe Iconis, said that he believes this was his most popular show because he just wrote music he loved for a story he adored. It is clear that his sincere investment into the music carried through and was able to touch the show’s fans in a way that is far less superficial than what they have become accustomed to from the entertainment industry.
At its heart, this show was written by a few people who just really loved a book and it became popular because a few (re: many, many) people just really loved a musical. It is in this commonality that it was able to become popular in such an organic way; it found a fanbase who loved it in an earnest way because it is so earnest. It was those fans, who were touched so purely, that they wanted to share this experience so others could share in this beautiful experience as well, that paid it forward till it grew into the international sensation that it is.
The true phenomenon here, though, isn’t just the sincere heart behind the show or the warmth it was received with, it is that by accidentally relinquishing power over the show’s success to the fans, it allowed it to become popular so organically as well as empower the fans themselves. Be More Chill became a rare moment in entertainment history when the fans could see that they meant as much to the show as it meant to them; it was a moment where the one-way relationship of fandom finally felt reciprocated.
The story of Be More Chill is like the beloved rom-com trope of unrequited love turning into “happily ever after,” by virtue of the fact that it was the first production to make its fans no longer feel like they are in a one-sided relationship with the media they consume. Rather, by demonstrating a sense of sheer, genuine gratitude on both sides, the relationship between Be More Chill and its fans fostered a fanbase that didn’t just love the show itself, but also felt understood and cared for, as well as a musical that is adored and admired for all the real human connection it portrays.