There Are Voices All Around

So why does the Squip choose Jeremy?

We don't realize this right away, but it doesn't take long before we figure out Jeremy didn't really make any of these choices; he's been manipulated by the Squip the whole time -- even before he takes it!

But what is it about Jeremy that makes him such a prime target? Well, we have to remember that Rich gets Squipped first, but clearly, Rich doesn't serve the Squip's agenda as well as Jeremy does. But why not Michael? Or Christine? Or the popular kids?

Well, Christine loves life. She's the least effective target. The Squip requires discontent to work its dark magic. And though Michael is an Other, an outsider, just like Jeremy, Michael actively engages Life, while Jeremy lets Life happen to him. And the rich kids all have strong personalities, much harder to shape.

Jeremy is passive. Jeremy is weak. In the script's character list, it calls him "awkward high school junior." Nice. Jeremy's life is kind of awful -- or at least, it sure feels that way.

What kind of person do you have to be, to be the target of such dark seduction? You have to believe that nothing else works, that there is no other hope, no other escape. You have to be close to Rock Bottom. In the first verse of the first song in the show, Jeremy tells us:
If I'm not feeling weird or super strange,
My life would be in utter disarray,
'Cause freaking out is my okay.

Being not okay is his normal. Later in the song:
Now, should I take a bus or walk instead?
I feel my stomach filling up with dread.
When I get nervous my whole face goes red.
Dude, weigh the options calmly and be still.
A junior on the bus is killer weak,
But if I walk when I arrive I'm gonna straight up reek;
And my boxers will be bunchy and my pits will leak;
Ugh, God, I wish I had the skill
To just be fine and cool and chill.

He's not joking. Jeremy's life really sucks. In direct opposition to 99& of musical comedy heroes, he sings:
I don't wanna be special, no, no;
I just wanna survive.

That's a pretty modest ask. But again, what kind of person thinks like this? Part of the appeal of this show is that everybody feels that way at some point, right? But Jeremy has most of us beat -- his mother has abandoned him, and his father is so lost in his grief, he won't get dressed. This isn't a musical comedy. This isn't a story about a great kid who just wishes he could fit in. This is a serious story about serious emotions that sometimes lead to serious tragedies.

If Jeremy shot up the school, everybody would be convinced they had seen the signs.

I've been thinking about this, as all the pieces of our show come together. What is most important that we communicate to the audience?

One of the things I discovered about Pippin when I directed it, is that Pippin has to be a jerk, a real selfish jackass, to begin with, or else his journey and his final Enlightenment don't mean anything. Fosse was correct in believing that "Corner of the Sky" is some self-indulgent bullshit from a shallow college graduate who thinks he knows more than he knows. Maybe Stephen Schwartz didn't intend the song to be that, but it works brilliantly that way. If Pippin is a spoiled (royal!) brat at the beginning of our story, he really is transformed by the end -- he has grown up.

He's gone on a Hero Myth journey.

In Be More Chill, Jeremy is also on his own Hero Myth journey, but his story is a Faustian one. He has traded his soul (almost literally) for social success, and it's so parallel to Seymour Krelborn, Joe Boyd, and, well, Faust...

At the beginning of the story, Jeremy is so lost, so confused, so sad. At the end of the story, he understands so much he didn't understand before. In very real ways, he is an adult at the end of the story. He understands responsibility, community, sacrifice, commitment, so much. There is a beautifully crafted arc for him across the story, and the real success of the script is that we see that transformation, and the key moments along the road.

A new Golden Age of musical theatre began in the mid-1990s, and part of that was the blossoming of the neo musical comedy -- shows that use the devices and conventions of musical comedy, but for darker, more complex, more political, more self-aware, more ironic purposes. Little Shop of Horrors was the really the first of these, but we didn't see the form really blossom till Bat Boy and Urinetown in the late 1990s. Now these shows are everywhere -- The Prom, Something Rotten, Head Over Heels, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Yeast Nation, Jerry Springer the Opera, Bukowsical, Reefer Madness, Passing Strange, and of course Assassins.

(I lean toward calling Merrily We Roll Along a neo musical comedy, but there's so little comic and so much depressing there...)

This Golden Age also birthed the neo rock musical, musicals that essentially adopt the rules and structure of the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows but using a rock/pop musical vocabulary. The original rock musicals in the last part of the 20th century, were about rock. Using rock music was the point for JC Superstar, Evita, and other shows. But the neo rock musical uses rock music because that's the common language between the writers and audiences. That's our musical default now.

How does all this apply to Be More Chill?

Last night I was watching a documentary called Take Your Pills, about over-prescribing medications for kids. And the way these kids described being on Adderall sounded spookily like how the Squip is described...

As high-energy and crazy as our show is, the story of Be More Chill is not a funny one. Think about it -- a troubled teenager whose mother has left him and whose father is falling apart, turns to black market pharmaceuticals to treat his problems, losing his best friend and the girl he loves in the process. Total downer! And yet this story is told using the storytelling language and pacing of a musical comedy.

WTF?

Just as the show fools us into thinking it's a love story, before it reveals its true nature; so too, it starts out feeling like a neo musical comedy, but becomes a neo rock musical by the Act II finale. "I Love Play Rehearsal" is a musical comedy charm song. "Michael in the Bathroom" is a musical drama character study. Both are excellent explorations of the feelings of these important secondary characters. But while "Play Rehearsal" makes us adore Christine, "Bathroom" takes us inside Michael's emotions. Christine felt this way before she met Jeremy, but Michael feels this way because of Jeremy. Christine's song moves their relationship forward, but Michael's song reveals the central tragedy of Jeremy's actions. Those are much higher stakes.

Not only has Jeremy been abandoned by his mother -- and sort of by this father -- but now Jeremy abandons Michael. Humans are such emotional wrecking machines.

This show completely morphs over the course of the evening. But that's not a bug; it's a feature. Big Picture, this story is a thriller at its core, and one of the ways it keeps us off balance and builds suspense, is by setting up and then disrupting our expectations over and over again -- by tricking us, just as the Squip tricks Jeremy.

Jeremy makes two gigantic mistakes at the beginning. He looks for an easy way to solve a really complicated problem, and he believes he can find his path by listening to someone else. What Jeremy learns at the end (a lesson we also learn in Passing Strange), is that he has to follow his own path, not the paths of others. No one else can steer him toward his own path; he has to find it himself.

And as the show ends, it looks like there's a good chance he will. He sings:
And there are voices all around,
And you can never mute the sound.
They scream and shout;
I tune them out,
Then make up my own mind.

He's taken his Hero's Journey and he's learned one of the most important lessons of Life -- Know Thyself. And in those last few moments, you'd be forgiven for thinking maybe this is a (neo) musical comedy after all, complete with happy ending. Because no matter how much we humans fuck up, most of the time, we eventually find our messy way. Though we sure leave a lot of carnage in our wake. The point of telling stories like this is to reassure ourselves and each other that we all fuck up and we all get on the wrong road sometimes. The trick isn't to never fuck up -- it's just to find your way back again when you do.

We open in a week and a half! Our pre-sale is now officially the second biggest in New Line history! Get your tix now!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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