There’s a universal feeling of striving to find your best self that’s strung throughout a handful of high school musicals currently thriving on Broadway.
The latest, “Be More Chill,” isn’t just centered around introspective teenage characters: It’s found new life through theatergoers far younger than the Broadway average. And if it weren’t for those fans, the musical — which premiered and closed after a short, local run four years ago — may have never seen that larger stage.
"Be More Chill," with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, is reaping the benefits of a relatively new period where the average ticket holder — a middle-class white woman in her 40s — isn’t the norm in every audience. Following a sold-out Off-Broadway run, the musical moves to the big stage, where it’s being embraced as a cult favorite by high school- and college-aged theatergoers.
In its first week in previews on the Great White Way, the show broke a house ticket sales record, tracked a 98-percent nightly sell-out and had to relocate its stage-door entrance to contain fan mobs.
“It’s been so surreal and gratifying to see actual young people relate to the show,” Iconis says. “I spent so long saying to people, ‘if young people would ever be tricked into coming to the theater, I think they’d really like this.’"
The production joins several others encapsulating the high school experience onstage — “Mean Girls," “Dear Evan Hansen" and "The Prom” included — all of which debuted while Broadway experiences a demographic shift.
The 2017-2018 season saw the highest number of teenage ticket holders ever: 2.1 million, compared to 1.6 million the season prior. According to data collected by The Broadway League, Broadway is literally becoming more chill.
“Our audience has consistently been getting younger, and 25 percent of our audience is under the age of 25,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, which tracks ticket sales data and leads programs to boost Broadway’s exposure.
Tom Melcher, who runs Manhattan-based theater review site Show Score, echoes her sentiment, saying we’re experiencing a “clear renaissance or reemergence of passion for musical theater among younger people.”
But “Be More Chill” is not solely attracting younger crowds. Instead, it’s managing to diversify and balance the average theater audience, bringing together fans young and old.
“Even though it’s technically about young people, the deeper meaning of what’s going on is something that’s not exclusive to them,” says Iconis, a Long Island native. “I’ve always thought of it as a show about anxiety and depression and pressure and all of these huge issues disguised as a teenage sci-fi musical comedy.”
Social ‘Chill’ down
On a Saturday afternoon, the “Be More Chill” audience ranges from grade schoolers to senior citizens — all bobbing their heads along to catchy tunes and laughing in agreement at embarrassing teen moments. It’s a 180-degree shift from the play’s mediocre premiere run in New Jersey four years ago.
It received an adequate review in The New York Times, but closed after a four-week run in Red Bank.
Then, social media took over.
First, it was Tumblr posts, then Instagram fan art, Reddit discussions, Spotify streams and YouTube covers. Before long, teens across the country were singing George Salazar’s “Michael in the Bathroom” without having seen the show.
“I think the gateway drug for ‘Be More Chill’ has been ‘Michael in the Bathroom,’” Iconis says of the song about a teen experiencing anxiety at a house party. “That’s a song that kids gravitate toward because they relate to what’s going on under the lyrics.”
Lauren Ealy, 19, who runs a “Be More Chill” Facebook fan group, traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to see the musical during its Off-Broadway run in September, after originally “falling in love” with the show on Tumblr in 2017.
"We watched this fandom build," director Stephen Brackett says. "I wish I could say there was some mastermind behind all of this, but it was really, truly organic."
Broadway shifted into the social sphere in the early 2000s, with major networks bringing series like “Glee” and “Smash” to younger viewers’ living rooms. Then there were live theater TV specials ("Sound of Music," "Hairspray"), and productions like “Hamilton,” which saw the major impact the internet has on the stage through use of ticket lotteries, hashtags and influencer marketing.
Nick Sala, who serves as the company manager for Inside Broadway, an educational nonprofit that teams up with schools (including Bronx Theatre High School and Manhattan East) to bring students to productions, says many kids already know the shows well before they arrive.
“And they didn’t learn about it from us,” he says. “They know it from the marketing teams, who get the word out on social media. Kids are watching, they’re sharing and responding to it.”
With a direct line to a “chiller” audience, Broadway struck gold. “Be More Chill” hit $300,000 ticket sales on the first day of its Off-Broadway run with zero marketing costs.
Following an organic start, “Be More Chill” and other teen-centric productions have made more conscious efforts to target and engage with younger audiences online. They’ve even offered ways to combat the obvious financial gap between teen and adult fans.
“Chill” offered discounted tickets to those under the age of 30, accepted YouTube video submissions to an online karaoke contest, and released a cast album before opening on Broadway. Other youth-targeted productions, like “Mean Girls," have employed similar strategies by offering digital lotteries targeted toward the tech-savvy and giving fans direct access to their favorite stars through Instagram takeovers.
Minding the age gap
Still, director Stephen Brackett credits the “outpouring of love” for “Chill” and other youth-oriented musicals to groups of teens looking for more theater content they can identify with. While differing in plot, all of the high school musicals currently on Broadway mimic an identifiable structure: the nerds versus the mean girls.
With lessons about parenting, drug addiction, mental health and sexuality strung throughout the subtext, the production and its high school counterparts are an ideal fit for the city’s educational programs that bring teens to Broadway.
The Broadway League has tagged 19 shows this season — “Be More Chill," "Dear Evan Hansen" included — as appropriate for sophomores and above. These productions team up with the New York City Department of Education to participate in educational programs like Inside Broadway’s “Create the Magic” and the League’s “Broadway Bridges,” both of which help expose students to live theater.
“Our goal is to get where all 70,000 sophomores see a Broadway show before they graduate each year,” the League’s director St. Martin says.
While “Be More Chill” found its teenage niche, it’s important to remember "age is not a predictor of taste," Show Score’s Melcher says, encouraging older crowds to give the show a chance.
“We’re seeing more shows attract teens, but age, gender and ethnicity, is not a predictor of who likes what. We’ve found this again and again, that it can’t always be predicted. I’m 55 years old, so does that mean I shouldn’t go to ‘Be More Chill?’ The answer is always no."
IF YOU GO: "Be More Chill" is playing an open run at the Lyceum Theatre. Tickets are available at bemorechillmusical.com.