If narrative convention counts for anything, the story of Be More Chill should have been over a long time ago. The sci-fi musical opened at a regional theater in New Jersey in 2015, ran for about four weeks, and closed after receiving a mixed response from critics, including a lukewarm review in the New York Times, which described its teen-centered plot as formulaic and its comedic efforts as having a “whiff of the stale about them.” Typically, a low-stakes show with scant marketing resources would not have had much of a life beyond that.
But when a cast recording made its way to Spotify and other streaming platforms after the run had ended, something remarkable happened. The musical’s handful of local fans—a small but passionate group of mostly high school and college students—refused to let it die. With the distribution engine of social media at their disposal, they shared the music with their friends, amplified it, commented on how they related to its themes of teenage alienation and not fitting in.
Word spread on social networks like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram until a thousand fans became ten thousand, and then a hundred thousand. “Raise a glass to this song describing very accurately what it’s like to have a panic attack,” reads a typical comment.
Because Be More Chill had already closed, there was no live show for these new fans to see, but they weren’t deterred. They filled in the visual blanks with fan-created videos, sketching out the characters and plot lines on animated storyboards.
Fervor around the show continued to build for more than two years, propelled by an online mythology that seemed to be taking on a life of its own. Some of the fan-created videos generated upwards of 4 million views on YouTube, complete with endless comment threads about the show’s appeal. It got to the point where the show’s creators, with help from Tony-nominated producer Jerry Goehring, decided to mount a limited run off-Broadway this past summer, testing to see if that passionate online fan base would translate into ticket buyers.
Did it ever.
“We had $300,000 in sales the very first day off-Broadway, with zero advertising,” Goehring told me. “We kept thinking, well, it’s just a bubble.”
It wasn’t just a bubble. Not only did the entire run sell out by opening night, but the show has since announced it will transfer to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre next spring, an amazing journey for a work with such a humble origin story. Goehring, who came on as producer before the off-Broadway run and will be its lead producer on Broadway, says the fandom is not like anything he’s ever seen. “It’s like Beatlemania after the show,” he says. “These kids want to meet these people they’ve seen online, that they’ve seen clips of. They’re stars now in their eyes, and it’s because of this access they have that social media allows.”
Lessons for creators
On paper, Be More Chill may not read as anything exceptional. The story, based on a 2004 novel by the late writer Ned Vizzini, centers around an awkward high schooler who discovers a computerized pill that latches to his brain and coaches him to a steely confidence. But something about the plot, and the pop-infused music by Joe Iconis, resonated with young audiences.
More than that, the show’s unusual trajectory—closing on stage, then reopening years later in response to viral social media buzz—seems to lay waste to the long-held fear that the internet and its endless terabytes of free musical content pose an existential threat to live theater. Since the early days of cast recordings, Broadway producers have quarreled about the extent to which theater content would be cannibalized by electronic mediums.
It’s hard to quantify how legitimate those fears are. Certainly, stage producers have good reason to want to protect their investments, especially in an environment where the majority of shows don’t recoup their production costs. But theater history is replete with examples of recorded mediums boosting ticket sales, not depressing them. Chicago, for instance, saw a bump in sales after the movie was released in 2002, as did the musical Legally Blonde after a live-captured version aired on MTV five years later.
In the Instagram age, Be More Chill is part of a new wave of musicals, like Dear Evan Hansen and the West End’s production of Heathers, that seem to benefit enormously by posting content on social media and encouraging fans to interact with it. If you hit the right combination, your reach can explode well beyond the contingent of New York theatergoers who would have seen the show live when it first opened—and that notoriety can create a lucrative pipeline of new ticket buyers.
Mike Karns, who runs social media for Be More Chill with his marketing company Marathon Digital, says the show’s success offers lessons for theater creators and producers about the ability of social media to transform a musical into a must-see phenomenon. “There was a moment—I’m not sure when it was—where it went from being not about the cast album, but being about this community,” he says. “It’s so much about people sharing in the fact that they feel like that kid who didn’t fit in in high school, or they are that kid.”
Karns is a self-described “theater kid” himself. He studied stage management and lighting design at Penn State University, and says he grew up on a steady diet of musical theater cast recordings. Except in those days, there were no social media platforms on which to share his passion for Broadway. “I was burning through the Wicked CD, listening to Rent on repeat all the time,” he recalls. “But I didn’t have the ability to connect with other people who were excited about that outside of my high school theater class.”
Not so anymore: Broadway, despite being centered around a few dozen theaters in midtown Manhattan, is no longer restrained by its local boundaries. That’s an exciting prospect for a new generation of show creators, but Goehring says it will require a shift in thinking for producers who are still tempted to stick with the old ways of doing things. “When I talk to my colleagues, they’ll give me the advice that you can’t put too much out there, or people are not going to want to see the real thing,” he says. “We’re seeing just the opposite.”
Then he sums up the success of Be More Chill in more contemporary terms. “FOMO was a big part of it,” he adds.