C-C-C-Come On, C-C-C-Come On, Go Go!

Be More Chill has one of those perfect, textbook opening numbers that accomplishes way more than you notice at first. Like Company, High Fidelity, Urinetown, Bat Boy, Next to Normal, Robber Bridegroom, Hands on a Hardbody, and so many other shows, Be More Chill's opening, "More Than Survive" is so much more than just a first song. It establishes style, tone, pacing, the show's central musical and textual themes, and all the major characters.

The show begins with a short musical prelude, some key-bending horror music, capped off with a short musical phrase that will later accompany the words, "Helps you to be cool, it helps you rule..." It's a musical foreshadowing of the show's central conflict -- except the phrase stops before the final note, and jumps into the first scene.

But that music is in our heads now...

The music turns to a four-note musical phrase that will return throughout the show. As I wrote in another post, this figure is almost familiar; it's almost Disney's Little Mermaid vamp, but it's been complicated by turning one note in the phrase dissonant, creating a tritone, a musical interval often associated with darkness, evil, even the Devil himself. The music is telling us that Jeremy's life is just a normal fucked up teenager's life, not right, not comfortable, not happy -- and that something really fucked-up is heading our way...

Just by changing that one note in the phrase, the music tells us subconsciously, even before we hear any words. that Jeremy's world is out of balance, and the action of this story will be about putting his world into balance.

And the first words of the show are the "C-C-C-Come on!" that will return throughout the show. Here, it's Jeremy impatience for porn to load on his computer. By the end of this opening number, that same chant will be the students impatience for the final bell to ring at the end of the school day. By the end of the show, that phrase will come to be the characters' invitation to the audience to follow Jeremy's example and find their own path.

Similarly, at the end of the school day, the chant will be finished off with a string of "Go, Go, Go, Go..." urging the clock's hands toward the bell. At the end of the show, the exact same chant will be telling the audience to now go out and put their own lives on the right path.

Only after this subliminal foundation has been set does the song gives us concrete info. Jeremy introduces himself and his problem (social failure) in the first verse, to music that will become Jeremy's "Dork Theme" (my label).

And then we segue into underscoring and the show's first bit of dialogue, which introduces Jeremy's father and the very odd relationship they share -- as well as his father's lack of pants. Here it's just a joke; we'll soon learn it's much more than that.

In the second verse, we find out that Jeremy is almost paralyzed by two things -- dread of continued social failure, and an inability to make decisions. We don't know this yet, but the Squip is going to solve both problems.

Now on the school bus, Jeremy lays out another repeating musical theme to this lyric:
I don't want to be a hero;
Just wanna stay in the line.
I'll never be a Rob De Niro;
For me, Joe Pesci ls fine.

He wants to be a nobody. Or at least, he doesn't aspire to anything more. Also, songwriter Joe Iconis is telling us that pop culture references are part of the fabric of this story. The section ends with:
I don't want to be special, no, no...
I just want to survive.

And that's his problem. He doesn't expect or even hope that his life will get any better. He's stagnating, not growing.

The opening continues into some more underscoring and dialogue, and we meet most of the other characters and we see an illustration of Jeremy's shitty social status. The underscoring is the main theme from "Smartphone Hour" -- it's a kind of "Gossip Theme," but we don't know that yet... And the dialogue also sets up the sexually charged social world at this school.

We return to the opening's main melody and Jeremy tells us his only real goal here is to "remain unseen." So much is set up in this opening that will soon change.

And then we meet Christine and the romantic "Christine Theme." But then Christine speaks and Jeremy falls apart and he goes back to his "Dork Theme." He tells himself:
Accept that you're on of those guys
Who'll stay a virgin till he dies.

Yikes! (There are a lot of references to death and suicide in this show!) Finally we meet Michael and the music changes drastically. Jeremy's music has been a kind of driving, relentless pop-rock, but when Michael arrives, the music swings for the first time. Michael is listening to Bob Marley, so the music slips into a Jamaican reggae groove to mirror the music we don't actually hear in his headphones.

This very short musical section tells us a lot. It tells us the Michael doesn't share the same "music" (literally and metaphorically) as all the other kids. He has his own music, his own voice, because he already knows what Michael must learn -- to follow his own path. As soon as Jeremy speaks again, the music turns back to that regular beat and the dissonance of the beginning of the number.

Jeremy and Michael share some dialogue and we get some information about their relationship. We learn more about Jeremy's feelings and the romantic "Christine Theme" returns, this time with all the students singing along -- in Jeremy's head. This moment tells us that in this story, the other characters will sometimes play voices in Jeremy's head. That's important for us to know.

The music stops for just a second, just long enough for Rich to humiliate Jeremy in front of everybody else. And Jeremy returns to his "Dork Theme." He sings:
I'm never gonna be the cool guy;
I'm more the one who's left out.
Of all the characters at school, I
Am not the one who the story's about...

That last line is fascinating because it tells us so much about Jeremy -- he can't imagine being the Hero, being the Protagonist. But to the audience, it's a funny meta-moment since we already know we're here to see a story in which Jeremy is the protagonist.

The last section of this opening number turns to driving rock eighth notes, as Jeremy pleads with the universe to help him "more than survive." Maybe he's not content with his life after all. Maybe he does aspire to something more. And as the rest of the cast joins in, maybe we get the hint that all of them, even the Cool Kids that Jeremy envies, all really feel the same way underneath.

In one of my favorite asides in the show, Jeremy sings:
If this was an apocalypse,
I would not need any tips
On how to stay alive.
But since the zombie army's yet to descend,
And the period is going to end,
I'm just trying my best
To pass the test
And survive.

In other words, Jeremy can handle himself against zombies in a video game, just not against humans in the real world. All he wants is to "pass the test" of social acceptance. Weirdly, his skills in the video game universe will essentially help him Save the World at the end of the show. Also, he doesn't know if yet, but he doesn't have to "pass the test" -- because measuring up to other people's measure is the Great Mistake that Jeremy makes. He only has to measure up to his own measure, to be a happy and complete person.

The "C-C-C-Come on!" theme returns, as a structural bookend to the number (and eventually, the show as a whole!), and it invokes that feeling of impatience that fuels our teenage years; and despite Jeremy's protestations, we see that Everybody's Wants the Same Thing.

By the time his opening number is over, we know quite a bit about Jeremy and his major relationships -- with his father, with Michael, with Christine, and with the brutal high school social scene. We've also heard all the important musical themes that will be used throughout the score, we've gotten a taste of the the pop culture references that will permeate the story, and the wry, irreverent humor that is the language of this world.

If the audience doesn't already know the story, they think at this point that this is a romantic musical comedy, that ultimately Jeremy will find himself through the love of the Right Girl. But that's not where we're headed, or to be more accurate, that's not how we're headed. Jeremy has to go on a painful (literally and metaphorically) Hero's Journey -- by himself. It's self-knowledge that Jeremy lacks and must find -- by himself.

Soon after Michael arrives to Save the World at the end (oops! spoiler alert!), Jeremy comes to the self-awareness he lacks in the opening. And significantly, the finale ends the same way the opening ends. In the opening, all they want is the end of the school day; in the finale, they're urging all of us to learn what they've learned -- we each have our own path, and we each have to find that path on our own.

The opening ends with a driving chant, "Go, go, go, go..." The Act II finale ends instead with one "Go" on a big, choral chord that rises and grows, and while there is dissonance within the chord, it grows into a final, perfect, major chord, no dissonance, no complication.

Jeremy's okay. He's grown up, or at least taken his first steps in that direction. He has learned to focus on others instead of himself. He's learned about sacrifice. And he's learned the most important lesson of all:
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.
. . .
And there are voices in my head...
So many voices in my head...
And they can yell,
And hurt like hell,
But I know I'll be fine.
Might still have voices in my head…
There are voices in my head…
But of the voices in my head,
The loudest one is mine!

Those "voices" -- peer pressure, the culture, and other social forces, won't go away -- the trick is to make sure you own voice, your own path, is the one you follow. The final invocation of the "C-C-C-Come on, Go!" chant finishes the show, and it takes on powerful meaning.

We realize by the end that this chant has changed over the course of the show; it's "grown up" with Jeremy. It first accompanies Jeremy's impatience for computer porn, then the students' impatience for the end of the school day, then Jeremy's impatience with his nonexistent social confidence, then porn again, then at the end of Act I, it becomes the Squip's seduction, to which Jeremy succumbs.

But here at the end of the show, it's a demand, a command, the equivalent of the iconic "Just Do It."

The show, the characters, the actors are all imploring us to live our lives actively rather than passively, to let our own voices be the loudest ones. It's not all that different from "Let the Sun Shine In" at the end of Hair, begging the audience to bring light back into the darkness. In Hair, it's advocating for communal action; Be More Chill advocates for personal, largely inner action.

That's not a lesson for teenagers. It's a lesson for all of us. Which is why Be More Chill is so universally loved. When I talk to audience members after performances, so many of them talk about how "honest" and "real" the story and the characters feel to them -- despite the sci-fi elements.

We're all Jeremy, one way or another. We all have voices in our head that steer us wrong, that tell us we're not good enough. The Squip is a metaphor, and by the end, we all get it. Following someone else's path always leads to problems. We each have to find our own way, and to do that, our own voice must be the loudest. Christine acknowledges at the end that what the Squip offers is very seductive, but it's not a real life.

We close the show next weekend, and we will all miss it terribly. But it will stay with us, not just the joy and the amazing response from audiences and the press, but also the deeply honest, thoughtful, subtle story, that has something to teach us all.

Long Live the Musical!