Knowing Ned Vizzini's Story Changed the Way I Watched "Be More Chill"

George Salazar in “Be More Chill” (Photo by Maria Baranova)

George Salazar in “Be More Chill” (Photo by Maria Baranova)

  • Kristen Pizzo

May is #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth, and Broadway is no stranger to mental health issues. Anxiety and depression have been tackled head on in recent hits like Dear Evan Hansen, and Be More Chill. These shows have brought the issues out of the shadows and into the spotlight by weaving relatable stories of characters who suffer into heartbreaking raw and honest songs.

Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill share common themes: both main characters, Evan and Jeremy, respectively, feel like losers and outsiders who don’t know how to fit in, and both shows have overarching themes about the importance of being seen and believing that you matter to others.

While there isn’t any single factor in depression,  the feeling of being inconsequential can play a part in it. While Dear Evan Hansen really drives this point home, Be More Chill might come off as a little more lighthearted, especially if you don’t know the author who wrote the novel on which the musical is based.

When I saw Be More Chill on Broadway last week,  “Michael in the Bathroom” (arguably the best song) hit hard, especially since I went into the show knowing the history of the author.

Ned Vizzini found early success writing personal essays about his middle and high school years and struggles with depression. He gave talks at schools and libraries about mental health and encouraged kids to use writing as a form of therapy. Be More Chill was his first novel, but he may be more associated with It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which was made into a movie starring Atypical’s Keir Gilchrist and Emma Roberts. That novel was based on the time Vizzini spent in a mental hospital. Vizzini died in 2013 at the age of 32 after an apparent suicide.

In the program, there is a dedication that reads “Thanks to Ned Vizzini for creating these messy beautiful characters and for inspiring a generation of messy, beautiful people.”

I expected to see the suicide helpline number or at least some kind of reference to mental health, but there was none.

To be fair, the actual topic of suicidal ideation was glossed over in the show, treated as a dark humor punchline instead of a serious struggle any one character was facing. The plot focuses more on Jeremy’s quest to be cool and get his dream girl, rather than the underlying reasons for his (and other characters’) shared struggles with loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, and the feeling of not being “seen.” However, given Vizzini’s story, I could not help but see glimpses of the pieces of himself he might have planted in the characters.

Jeremy’s love interest, the quirky Christine (who is a spot-on portrayal of a theatre geek) makes a joke about being depressed anytime she isn’t at play rehearsal and then corrects herself to say she is “not kill yourself depressed.” Using the term “depression” to describe temporary, normal sadness is a common part of problematic vocabulary that only makes it harder for people who suffer from actual depression to be taken seriously. In the case of the musical, I think a line like that takes away from the very real depression that some of the characters seem to be going through.

In the heart wrenching and all-too-relatable song, “Michael in the Bathroom,” which is the only piece in the show that I really stuck with me after I left the theater, Jeremy’s best friend laments with tear-jerking vulnerability: “Wish I had stayed at home watching cable porn, or wish I had offed myself, wish I was never born” because he is alone and knows that he is not on anyone’s radar, which he makes clear through lines like: “Michael who you don’t know,” “I’m just Michael who’s a loner, so he must be a stoner,” and “I could stay right here or disappear and nobody’d even notice at all.”

The feeling that one’s absence would not be felt, would not make a dent, is not a feeling to take lightly.

The show is powerful because it shows audiences that they are not alone in feeling like they don’t belong, and that they don’t need to change (or use a SQUIP) to fit in.

Be More Chill and Dear Evan Hansen set out to send the message that everyone matters and is important, however, in comparison to Dear Evan Hansen, the way Be More Chill handles suicidal ideation is a bit irreverent. Ned Vizzini’s legacy made Be More Chill possible and I think it is important to honor his story, and remind theater-goers that help is out there. Suicide isn’t a joke you can sing about in a few lines sprinkled in different songs and then never address in depth, especially not when the story you are telling is written by someone who ended their own story that way. At one point, Christine says, “I wish there was something real I could do to make things better, but I don’t know how. So I guess I’ll just do theater.” I appreciate the attempt to address mental health on stage, and the gem that is “Michael in the Bathroom,” but I do think something a little more “real” could have been done.

If you or someone you know is struggling call the National Suicide Prevention Lifelineat 1-800-273-8255