Jason Tam’s Squip calls the shots in the sci-fi high school musical “Be More Chill.”
In the production, opening Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, Tam brings to Broadway a rare villainous character that receives an equally enthusiastic raucous reaction from the crowd for his high-tech entrance as he does for his demise.
“People love to cheer for the Squip because everybody kind of wants one in their lives even though they know they shouldn’t,” Tam, 36, says.
For those who haven’t yet swallowed a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor), it’s a gray, oblong druglike pill that travels through your blood, implants itself in your brain and tells you what to do to avoid awkward situations. In short: “It’s from Japan!”
The technology comes to life onstage by way of Tam, an NYU alum, who reprises his role as an Intel processor from the 2018 Off-Broadway production. “But the Squip is not a robot,” he says. It’s a physical extension of a character who exists only in the mind of teen Jeremy Heere (Will Roland).
The New Jersey high schooler swallows the pill to impress the dreamy Christine (Stephanie Hsu). Oh, and because he’s sick of being a “loser, a geek or whatever.”
The Squip’s sole function is to guide Jeremy through social interactions, making decisions for him that ultimately strip away what makes him unique.
“By coaching Jeremy, he teaches him how to be more chill and have more confidence in a leading by example kind of way,” Tam explains.
Tam’s Squip easily stands out as the “cool kid” in a sea of anxious teenagers with doodles on their backpacks hoping to get an invite to the hottest party of the year.
“There’s a point where the artificial intelligence overlaps the boundaries it’s been programmed for and decides to do what it thinks is best, which is Squipping everyone, whether they want one or not,” he says.
Sharing much of his stage time lurking near and mimicking Jeremy’s physical movements, Tam manages to create a seamless connection between the two. Their connection only grows stronger the longer Jeremy is controlled by the pill.
“It’s an interesting concept because I think it’s very current and that makes it appealing to a younger generation,” Tam says. “I think the overarching message is very universal, it’s people dealing with self-doubt and how to navigate it in a healthy way without harming yourself or those around you.”
The musical, with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, is already appealing to younger fans in a way that’s “thrilling” Tam, who made his Broadway debut in “A Chorus Line” in 2006 and later appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live.”
It first ran at a regional New Jersey theater in 2015, where it was met my mediocre reviews and closed after just four weeks. An outpouring of love from high school- and college-aged theatergoers on social media helped bring the show to New York in 2018, and, ultimately, to The Great White Way months later.
“I never experienced anything like this before,” Tam says. “It’s this incredible wave of energy to ride. It’s thrilling to be a part of and I don’t think this show would be happening on Broadway without the fans who fell in love with it and told their friends.”
Tam’s character is one who gets a serious upgrade in the production’s move to the big stage, with “bonkers, over-the-top costume” changes that help define his shift from “chill” to “evil.” He has an intricate new costume in the finale number that he says took nearly 200 hours to make.
And be sure to watch out for the Squip’s flying sequence, added into the production for the first time as a way to accentuate just how strong his powers become.