Tech and friendship at heart of Broadway’s ‘Be More Chill’

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NEW YORK | Joe Iconis seems to have all the normal influences expected from a young musical theater composer.

The “Be More Chill” songsmith cites Stephen Sondheim, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, and William Finn as some of his favorites.

But then there’s another slightly less predictable source that motivates him, too.

This image released by Keith Sherman & Associates shows the cast during a performance of the musical “Be More Chill,” in New York. Based on the 2004 book by Ned Vizzini, “Be More Chill” tells the story of an awkward teen, played onstage by Will Roland, whose life transforms when he swallows a tiny computer that gives him the confidence to break out of his shell. (Maria Baranova/Keith Sherman & Associates via AP)

“I’m really inspired by 1964 World’s Fair. I just like that World’s Fair. It works its way into my work in strange ways,” the 37-year old Iconis revealed in a recent interview.

Fans will instantly feel vibes from that long ago expo — with its celebration of the nascent Space Age and the public’s first interaction with computer equipment — in Iconis’ high-energy musical.

Based on the 2004 book by Ned Vizzini, “Be More Chill” tells the story of an awkward teen, played onstage by Will Roland, whose life transforms when he swallows a tiny computer that gives him the confidence to break out of his shell. Playwright Joe Tracz wrote the book for the show.

A youthful wonder was evident inside the Lyceum Theatre a week before the show’s Broadway opening this past weekend. Befitting the World’s Fair fascination of the show’s composer, social media played a big role in spreading word of the musical, which sold out off-Broadway.

Yet beyond its relatable themes, catchy tunes, and brightly colored staging lies something more old-fashioned: The longtime kinship between Iconis and one of the show’s producers, Jennifer Ashley Tepper.

Tepper and Iconis have collaborated for almost a decade on musicals, concerts and other projects, including “Love in Hate Nation” and “Bloodsong of Love.”

“I’ve done Joe’s shows in like basements and barns and we’re kind of all taking everything we’ve learned together from all these years and putting it together on ‘Be More Chill,'” Tepper said of their collaboration.

Iconis feels the idea of having longtime collaborators is something old, made new again.

“It’s funny when people talk about it, because to me, it sounds like the most old school thing. I was a theater kid that was obsessed by the way Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim worked together all the time. I feel that theater used to have all of these collaborations,” Iconis said. “But I felt when I was coming up in musical theater that was so not the thing. So for me, it feels like the most old school.”

Roland, known for his role as Jared in the Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” said he feels fortunate to have another Broadway job.

“I truly feel like the luckiest guy in the whole world. I fully expect to spend like many years of my life unemployed, but I had the great good fortune of spending two weeks off in between ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Be More Chill,'” Roland said.