How an illustrator makes room for children to see themselves
Why critics seemed ‘absolutely irrelevant’ for this youth-driven Broadway musical
Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, there's a Broadway hit that's broken many of the conventional rules of how to make it on the Great White Way.
Jeffrey Brown visited the stage of "Be More Chill" recently and reports why this coming of age musical is hitting high notes with a certain audience, even while failing to win over many critics.
It's part of Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture series.
Jeffrey Brown: The stress, the awkwardness, the sheer horror of high school, in the musical "Be More Chill," the very unhappy and uncool Jeremy ingests a pill-shaped supercomputer that changes him into a popular kid. Mayhem and magic ensue.
The story itself may cover familiar ground, but the story of the musical is anything but. "Be More Chill" could be creating a new model for Broadway; 37-year-old Joe Iconis wrote the music and lyrics.
Joe Iconis: I was shocked by what happened, because it's not something that's ever happened before.
Jeffrey Brown: In 2015, the play opened in a New Jersey theater and received a less-than-enthusiastic review by New York Times critic Charles Isherwood. That, thought Iconis, was that.
Joe Iconis: When we closed in Jersey, I thought the show was dead. But I thought that because it was. No one wanted it, because the way that our theater business works -- or has worked up until now -- is that you need that New York Times review, if you're a little show like ours, in order to come into New York.
Jeffrey Brown: But you went a different route.
Joe Iconis: We went a different route.
Jeffrey Brown: But not by plan. The play was no more, but the cast recording of its music, including the song "Michael in the Bathroom," became a huge viral sensation, with its themes touching on the anxieties and pressures of teenage suburban life.
It inspired social media memes and fan art, clubs, online and then live performances. To date, the recording has been streamed some 300 million times.
Will Roland plays Jeremy, and George Salazar is his friend Michael.
George Salazar: Well, a couple of people found this album, found out about the show, told their friends about the show, shared the album.
Will Roland: It's like a multilevel marketing scheme in a way. It's what they sell you. They're like, oh, if you tell five friends and you tell five friends, then, suddenly, you will have a million friends.
And that is literally what happened with this show.
Jeffrey Brown: With a built-in fan base, the play got an Off Broadway run, and then opened in the Grand Lyceum Theatre in March.
George Salazar: People feel kind of represented by this. And it's a cast of people who look like the people you would see on the street. It's a cast of 10 incredible actors, incredible singers and OK dancers...
George Salazar:... who are representative of society, you know? It's not like 10 Instagram models in a musical. You have people of all shapes and sizes, all colors and backgrounds.
And so I think the success to the show is, you know, is the show.
Will Roland: And I think the thing that's really worth noting here is that this is not an adaptation of a blockbuster film. There are no world-class celebrities in it. There's nothing in this that is trying to say like, oh, well, this will get butts in seats.
Jeffrey Brown: But it does.
And outside the theater, patrons told us why; 23-year-old Lauren Hugh arrived early in the morning to buy a matinee ticket and stayed to get autographs afterwards.
Lauren Hugh: The thing that I think is really cool about this show is that it's not some big money backer that brought this show to Broadway. It's purely the steam that came through phenomenon of all the fans. Without the fans, like, this show wouldn't be here on Broadway right now.
Jeffrey Brown: And Miona Williams on a school trip was brought to tears when she saw the actors.
Miona Williams: I like that his friend came back, even though he treated him like crap.
Jeffrey Brown: For their part, the critics have continued to howl, with headlines like "'Be More Chill' is dopey, shrill and somehow very popular," and "This coming of age musical is a real pill to swallow."
Ben Brantley: I think the show is pitched at a very particular frequency, which is to -- like some dog whistles to the ears of people who are under the age probably of 21.
Jeffrey Brown: New York Times co-chief theater critic Ben Brantley had some harsh things to say in his review, but also respect for a production that seems to be critic-proof.
Ben Brantley: It kind of refreshing to have a show for whom critics are absolutely irrelevant.
The first time I saw it in New York, Off Broadway, it was like what going to a Beatles concert or a One Direction concert must have been like. I hope this will be a gateway drug for kids who have never experienced theater before and say, hey, I had a swell time.
Jeffrey Brown: "Be More Chill" comes on the heels of several successful musicals about teen angst, including "Dear Evan Hansen." Will Roland was an original cast member there too.
But those plays followed a more traditional route to Broadway, where production costs run high and ticket prices regularly top $100.
Do you see this as a potential new model for the way theater and Broadway can work, or is this kind of a one-off?
Joe Iconis: I certainly hope it's a potential new model. The idea that a show, a little show, can make it to Broadway because actual human beings love it, not because it has name recognition, brand recognition, that's, I think, a dream.
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.