WHAT IF YOU COULD TAKE A PILL THAT GAVE YOU WHAT YOU WANTED MOST IN LIFE?
This is the question at the heart of Be More Chill, a hotly anticipated musical with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis that will debut at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in February. The show stars Dear Evan Hansen alumnus Will Roland as Jeremy, a social outcast whose dreams of high school popularity start coming true after he takes a pill called a SQUIP (a “super quantum unit intel processor”), which implants a computer into his brain to dictate what he says and does.
The regional Be More Chill world premiere cast recording (released in 2015) has already amassed over 200 million streams to become of the most streamed cast albums of all time. In 2017, the show’s status as a viral sensation prior to its inaugural Broadway bow had Tumblr rank it as the #2 most talked-about musical on its platform (only behind Hamilton).
Though Roland was not part of the world premiere cast, he took on the central role of Jeremy this past summer when Be More Chill played its acclaimed Off-Broadway run. During that production’s rehearsal process, Iconis wrote “Loser Geek Whatever,” a brand new anthem to close out the first act. Now, Ghostlight Records has released the breakout showstopper as the musical’s lead single in advance of its Broadway arrival.
To celebrate the single’s release, I spoke with Roland about bringing Be More Chill to Broadway, what makes “Loser Geek Whatever” such a standout number, his own high school experience, his journey with Dear Evan Hansen and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Why was Be More Chill the perfect project for you following the blockbuster success of Dear Evan Hansen?
WILL ROLAND: There is a lot about Be More Chill that’s really appealing to me personally. It’s another story about a young person. I’m very attracted to those stories because I think young people are very interesting in their lives. Also, I have a very long relationship with a lot of the creative team, especially Joe Iconis. In addition to all that, I have always loved sci-fi, fantasy, and anything that can push boundaries. I love magical realism. Anything outside of our normal world is very appealing to me as an artist. So the opportunity to do a piece that does all those things and to be the leading man in it was beyond exciting. It was truly the perfect thing that fell into my lap at the perfect moment!
What makes “Loser Geek Whatever” the perfect song to introduce people to this story and its music?
“Loser Geek Whatever” gives you a great idea of who our leading man is and what he’s struggling with during the course of our story. It is a new song that was written during the Off-Broadway run, so I’m very excited to say that I’m the only person who’s performed it onstage. It’s very emblematic of what the show sounds like. It has a sort of retro-futurist pop/punk sound, but it also has really thoughtful lyrics. I think it’s a great representation of what our show is about.
This show has a really enormous fan base and whenever I talk about “Loser Geek Whatever,” I talk about how the song is not only about Jeremy, but it’s also about me – Will Roland, the actor. It’s also about all of these incredible young people who have internet-ed Be More Chill into its success. It’s about a lot of things at once and so I’m really excited we got to release that single in advance of the Broadway run!
How do you think the addition of this song as the Act One closer enhances the show?
One of the things that was tricky about this show was that it left us asking a few questions. One of these was, “why is Jeremy making the decisions that he’s making?” We were very eager to peek inside his head. What we’ve seen so far in the show are a lot of moments where he’s been bullied and dunked on by the world – but they’re all, for the most part, kind of comical and they all sort of happen to him. So I think one of the things that’s really valuable about this song is that it gives us a look inside his head. We learn that all of these things that we see happening to him are not just little occurrences. They’re actually making him feel profoundly lonely and dissatisfied.
I talk a lot about how the word “bully” is kind of reductive. It’s a word that we use to describe “things that happen to kids.” But the bullying that occurs to Jeremy has a real effect on him and he’s really profoundly unhappy. This song is where we get to watch him make the decision to do something that he doesn’t like, which is to leave behind his one real friend in order to hopefully make a change in his life.
The “Loser Geek Whatever” single also includes instrumental and acoustic versions of the track. What was it like to peel back the layers of such a big song and record such an intimate rendition?
The release of the instrumental version to me is very funny because it’s exactly what I was singing along to in the studio – so that’s a great gift to our karaoke enthusiasts out there! The acoustic version was a really fun thing to get to put together. It was just Joe Iconis and I at the piano. We played around with a bunch of different vocalisms and textures. In the end, we decided to sing it a whole step higher than it is in the show and on the other recording.
This song is very powerful. It’s very huge and it feels like a Van Halen song. But for the acoustic version, we wanted to really point out the lyrics and point out the longing and trouble that’s present in there. We wanted to strip away a lot of the artifice and the yelling. I do a lot of yelling in this song! It was really hard to pull that back and make it into something that’s just a little bit more stripped-down, bare bones and vulnerable.
As a performer, what are the most rewarding and challenging parts of tackling Joe Iconis’ score?
The best thing about the score is that it is the most intelligent and literate lyrics that I’ve ever been handed in my whole life! I’m a musical theater performer who believes it is all about the lyrics. I don’t go in for big vocal fireworks and lots of riffing and things like that. Joe’s writing is musically very interesting and very challenging – but it’s really about these incredible lyrics that he’s writing.
In terms of the score and the musical elements of it, it’s definitely a challenge for me. I spend a lot of time hydrating and sleeping. I’m not talking during the day because it really is a marathon in terms of styles, range and volume. I’m doing a lot of really gentle falsetto-y stuff during the show. So if I’m out drinking and partying, that’s going to be the first thing that I won’t have at the matinee the next day. I’m very conscious of preservation in that way.
The other thing that’s so fun about Joe’s music is that it switches grooves so often. The show has a unifying sound but it definitely doesn’t all sound the same. There are a variety of styles that I think are really honestly and truthfully represented.
What are some of the biggest differences between the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions?
We restructured the second act when we were in rehearsals Off-Broadway. We reordered it so that the sequence of events was more exciting for audience members. There has also been a real focus on making sure that the audience understands that all of the characters on stage are having a similar struggle to what we watch Jeremy having very articulately in the rest of the show. Both for Off-Broadway and for Broadway, we’re giving moments to everyone in the company so that you understand that all of the young people and the father–all of the people in the show–are having their own tiny Be More Chill off in the wings while we’re watching Jeremy’s story on stage. That’s one of the big focuses.
We’ve also been talking a lot about how the role of artificial intelligence and computers has really increased in our lives, especially in the years since this show was originally written. We wanted to make sure that our show had a point of view about what those machines can do and are doing in our world, and what is our responsibility as the people who create and control them.
When the show begins, Jeremy is an underdog at his New Jersey high school. When you were growing up, was the hierarchal structure of your high school as rigid as it is in Be More Chill? If so, how did that inform your understanding of your character?
Well, I was very lucky. I went to a high school that was very small and it had a lot of ways of valuing a lot of people. I was very involved in theater starting very early on, from sixth grade until I graduated. It was the kind of school where everybody went to the play. So I think the fact that I was on stage playing the romantic lead in a show changed the way that people thought about me. I’m very lucky to say that I didn’t have a super hard time in high school.
It also was this sort of tricky thing where I felt very confident and sometimes was not entirely kind to my classmates. You could say I was something of a bully. And that was something I had to learn to grow out of, which I did thankfully! I’m lucky to say that a lot of what I’m doing as Jeremy is me drawing from experiences that I saw among my friends and among my classmates and then internalizing them with some of my own experiences. But I’m happy to say that I had a much easier time than Jeremy’s having in high school.
Jeremy’s journey from being bullied to becoming the bully to landing on and accepting his authentic self is quite a vast character arc. Why do you think his is such an important story to tell?
I think that our notions of what leads look like in musicals these days, or in all forms of art, is changing. I think a lot about how those kids on Stranger Things are like the heroes of America at this moment. There are a lot of “losers,” “geeks” and whatever rapidly permeating the mainstream of our culture. They’re no longer relegated to, “the FBI agent hands the case to the computer nerd and he puts it in the machine and it spits out a photo.” I feel like we’re seeing more diversity of body types and ages and all sorts of stuff.
So in terms of Jeremy’s journey, I think it’s the kind of story that we get to tell when we allow more diverse stories onto the stage. We’ve always loved underdogs on stage and in literature. But to watch this guy’s life get super-charged, or upgraded as we say in the show, is the beauty of sci-fi. The beauty of sci-fi is that we say, “What would happen if we have this blah blah blah that we don’t have in the world?” This is one version of how one kid would use it.
If we were to pop this SQUIP into the head of any other musical theater character, we’d get a totally different tale. That’s the beauty of the genre. I think the success of our show comes from the idea that we get to see someone do something where they step entirely outside of themselves at the drop of a hat.
Is there a primary takeaway you’re hoping audiences have after seeing the show?
The finale of our show is a song called “Voices in My Head” and it is about both literal and figurative voices that one experiences – whether those are a super computer in your brain, actual voices in your head, voices of actual people in your life or voices of things like doubt or your conscience. Both the song and the show are about how our lives are filled with voices, people and urges telling us what to do and what to think. Those never really quite go away. But hopefully we can listen to the good voices within ourselves and use them to cope. It’s more a show about learning to deal with the world than it is about fixing the problems in your life. You’re never going to fix them and they aren’t going to go away! They just get easier to deal with. I think that’s a very realistic message for 2018 wrapped up in a very fantastical show.
How influential was Ned Vizzini’s novel during your creative process? How does the show expand on its source material?
I read the novel, as did a lot of our cast and creative team, leading up to the process. I would say that on the whole, our show takes a brighter and more fantastical view of the world than the novel does. But what the novel affords us is this very interesting question, which is, “what if happiness came in a pill?” I think that when the late, great Ned Vizzini was writing it, he was very specifically commenting on his experiences taking Adderall, Ritalin and various drugs that are prescribed to teenagers.
Though those questions and notions are in there, I think our show is more about the broader question of technology in our lives. There are things that Ned couldn’t necessarily have predicted when the book came out in 2004 – like map surveillance by Google and Amazon, etc. Our show makes the world a little bit larger. The novel is great and I love reading it, but it sort of doesn’t have an ending. Meanwhile, our show has this big, spectacular world-threatening climax that is entirely the invention of our stage adapters. It’s a lot of fun!
Since a world premiere cast recording of the show from 2015 already exists, do you feel a sense of pressure to remain faithful to Will Connolly’s interpretation of Jeremy? Or do you feel freedom to discover the character on your own?
I definitely feel like once I learned that I would be playing this role, I very much stopped listening to the cast recording so that I could feel that the choices I was making were my own. I returned immediately to the text and pretended as if there were no cast recording. But I also had already listened to that cast recording many, many times because I was an original Be More Chill fan! And so, there are many elements of Will’s performance that I just couldn’t help but incorporate into my own. Even if I were endeavoring to make it different and make it mine, it’s just the way that theater works. It’s inherent in the same way that if I went and played Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast next week, I would be paying certain homage to Jerry Orbach – even if it had been years since I really observed that specific performance. These things imprint on us! So it’s a little bit of both.
Even before the show has officially opened, you’re already getting Tony Awards buzz. Does that impact your creative process at all? What would that kind of recognition mean to you?
I would love for Be More Chill and for everyone in it to win every Tony Award possible! I think that would be the greatest thing ever. But I also know that these awards are a very challenging thing for us to incorporate into our process and let into our world. Though we obviously are going to be campaigning hard and hoping that we clean up, at the same time, we have a job to do and we can’t let little gold statues affect that.
Dear Evan Hansen is currently celebrating two years on Broadway. Looking back, how would you sum up the experience of being such an integral part of the show all the way from its regional to Off-Broadway to eventually Broadway productions?
Dear Evan Hansen was an incredible experience in my life. I spent just about four years working on the show between readings, workshops, out of town, Off-Broadway and Broadway. It taught me an incredible amount about our industry and producing. We had a really spectacular team. That show continues to have a really spectacular team from onstage to the creative team, the producing team, the marketing team, all that stuff. I really learned a lot by getting to watch this show have its meteoric rise.
I also learned a lot about what is important in the development of a show. When I started out, the first draft that we read was like three hours long and it was actually very satirical. It was definitely very heartfelt but there was a lot of it that was laughing at us and the way that we’re addicted to the internet. As the show’s development went on, it became clear that we wanted to take a more honest and earnest look at that aspect of our lives.
We also learned that my character, Jared, remained the voice of skepticism as all this ridiculous stuff started to happen. That had a huge effect on the shape of my role. It was less time spent torturing Evan. I actually had a song that was just six minutes of torturing Evan at the beginning of the show that got cut. Jared became the traditional Shakespearean clown in that he looks at the audience or at Evan, and says, “This is ridiculous! What the hell is going on here?” And in the end, he also calls Evan out on his world before it all falls apart. So it was fascinating to get to go on that ride and inhabit all of those roles over so many years through so many drafts and incarnations. It was so great to watch those writers and that creative team decide what they wanted the show to be.
There are film versions of both Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill currently in development.
Hollywood is coming for all my jobs!
Aside from yourself, who would you like to see play your characters in each of these movies?
I hadn’t even thought of that! I hadn’t thought to dream cast the roles. I do think that any of those Stranger Things kids would be excellent in Be More Chill. In terms of Dear Evan Hansen, I don’t know! I haven’t thought too much about it. I would love to make a cameo as Jared’s dad. That would be very fun. I could just yell upstairs to him while he’s up there with Evan. I think that would be a delightful moment that we’d all enjoy at the cinema.
Congratulations on your recent engagement! How’s juggling wedding planning with opening a new Broadway musical going?
Thank you so much! It’s very, very cool. If we’re being honest, wedding planning is going on the back burner a little bit. I have a little sister who’s also engaged and she’s going to be getting married in the fall. So that’s going to happen first. Our wedding will probably be some point after I leave Be More Chill. But we’re definitely checking out venues and thinking about invitations and the guest list and things like that. It’s insane! It’s the craziest process in the world. It’s an industry designed to confound people and I think it’s meant to test their love. I think it’s meant to be like, “You sure you want to do this? It’s challenging!” But we’re having a lot of fun with it. We’ve been together for a long time and she’s very much a part of this community.
What are some of your musical theater dream roles?
Oh man! I always love to say for this question that my musical theater dream role hasn’t been written yet. But the truth is there are a few I love. One of my favorite musicals ever is 1776 and I would love to play John Adams. I’ve been talking for a long time about how in the year 2026, it’ll be 250 years since the founding of our country and I’m sure that there will be some high-profile Broadway revival of 1776. I would be perfectly appropriate to play John Adams at that point in my life!
Thanks so much, Will! It was so great to chat with you and I cannot wait to see Be More Chill. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?
Thank you, Alex! It’s truly been a pleasure. We’ve got the 11thAnnual Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular coming up from December 14-16. It’s totally sold out but people should try and come anyway! It’s totally raucous and irreverent Christmas lunacy. It’s the longest show you’ll ever see at 54 Below. It’s a real, full-fledged book musical so you’ll really get your money’s worth! It’s very, very fun.
Originally published on PopBytes