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Why the off-Broadway musical Be More Chill is a viral teen sensation

The universal teen angst of Joe Iconis’s Be More Chill, in one song.

George Salazar as Michael in Be More Chill
“Michael in the Bathroom.”
Maria Baranova
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Be More Chill is an underground sensation of an off-Broadway musical. It is wildly adored by its teen fan base, but until this summer, it existed only in a brief month-long run in New Jersey theater in 2015, plus the accompanying cast album. That’s all there was — and that was all it took to make the show a sensation.

Be More Chill (music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz) was the second-most-talked-about musical on Tumblr in 2017. (It’s second in popularity to Hamilton on the site, but ahead of Dear Evan Hansen.) Its cast album has been streamed more than 100 million times. Ninety-seven weeks after the album came out, it cracked the Billboard Cast Album chart’s Top 10. And in August, it launched a revival at an off-Broadway theater, where it immediately sold out and had to extend its run. On Wednesday, the show announced that it would transfer to Broadway in February 2019.

When I attended a preview performance of the off-Broadway revival, which is directed by Stephen Brackett, I found myself at the hottest under-18 club I had ever entered on a Sunday night. The teen audience was screaming at every song, applauding every cast entrance, whispering in-jokes to each other at all of their favorite lines. Be More Chill is connecting with its fans at a deep, authentic level, and we know that because they found it largely on their own, when there were absolutely no marketing resources behind it.

And if there’s a moment in the show that epitomizes the profound adolescent emotion behind Be More Chill’s appeal, it’s the second-act showstopper “Michael in the Bathroom,” the song shaping up to be the “On My Own” of Generation Z. It’s an immensely cathartic torch ballad of sorts that speaks to an adolescent longing so universal that listening to it makes you feel 14 again.

Listening to “Michael in the Bathroom” feels exactly like being in high school

A wall is plastered with post-its listing the names of potential Squips.
At Be More Chill, audience members are invited to share their ideas of who their Squip might be. Vox has redacted all signatures.
Constance Grady/Vox

Be More Chill is based on the 2004 YA novel of the same title by Ned Vizzini. It’s a makeover fantasy, centering on high school loser Jeremy and a tiny capsule-shaped supercomputer known as the Squip. Once swallowed, the Squip implants itself in the user’s brain, manifesting itself as visions of a smooth-talking, Keanu Reeves-looking guide who can tell the user exactly what he needs to do in order to become popular.

Under the Squip’s guidance, Jeremy becomes one of the coolest kids in school — but, like all makeover story protagonists, he soon realizes that his newfound popularity separates him from those he cares about most.

There’s a strong element of self-loathing to this fantasy, whose appeal relies on the belief that your current, pre-makeover self is unacceptable. “Oh, everything about you is so terrible,” sings the Squip to Jeremy as he begins the makeover process. “Whoa, everything about you makes me wanna die.”

That element is not lost on the show’s teen audience. A sign in the theater lobby encourages attendees to write down the names of their “Squips” on Post-it notes and share them; when I stopped by, one cheerful yellow one read, “Myself b/c I hate myself :)”

But if Jeremy’s self-loathing is defensive and toxic, the self-loathing of his best friend Michael is purely anguished and cathartic. Played with heartbreaking vulnerability by George Salazar, Michael is the traditional makeover story best friend, there to be discarded and abandoned as soon as the hero gets cool enough. He is also the Be More Chill fandom’s favorite character. Tumblr is littered with fan art of Michael; when Salazar makes his entrance, the show has to halt for a solid 30 seconds as the fans scream wildly for him.

“Michael in the Bathroom” is Michael’s big solo and the source of fans’ deep adoration of him. It comes halfway through the second act, when the newly popular Jeremy has abandoned Michael at a house party and left him to hide in the bathroom, and it is painfully relatable.

“I am hanging in the bathroom at the biggest party of the fall,” sings Michael. “I could stay right here or disappear, and nobody’d even notice at all.”

Oh, Jesus, you think when you hear it, Been there, kid. Who hasn’t hidden out in the bathroom at a crappy house party, feeling alone and ignored? Who hasn’t felt abandoned and isolated and rejected? That’s basically the default state of being a teenager.

“Michael in the Bathroom” is so true to life, so vivid and evocative, that if you’re an adult, listening to it sends you hurtling painfully back to high school. And if you hear it as a teenager — well, then, judging by the audience for Be More Chill, the only possible reaction is to scream wildly for a solid minute and then post some fan art to Tumblr.

That feeling is the secret sauce. “Michael in the Bathroom” taps so clearly into the traumatized horror of adolescence that it metabolizes the angst into pure energy, the kind of energy that can lift the cast album from a tiny regional musical out of obscurity and to the top of billboard, that can propel a show from New Jersey to an off-Broadway theater.

Next stop, Broadway.

Update: This piece was originally published on August 14, 2018. It has been updated to include news of the announced Broadway transfer.