The title is easygoing, and so is the licensing for “Be More Chill.”
A production of Joe Iconis’ 2015 sci-fi musical comedy opens Friday at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, just shy of one month after it bowed on Broadway.
That timing is highly unusual. Rights to most Broadway shows only become available after a Broadway run, with rights-holders often forcing theaters to delay or scotch productions entirely.
In fact, over the past few months, many productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have been canceled across the U.S. and Britain after legal threats from the backers of a brand-new Broadway production adapted by Aaron Sorkin and headlined by Jeff Daniels. For decades, community and high school theaters relied on a 1970s adaptation by playwright Christopher Sergel.
But the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which controls the licensing for “Chill,” has given rights not only to the Minneapolis Musical Theatre (MMT), which is producing the show in the Twin Cities, but to more than a dozen other companies nationally — some professional, some amateur.
It surprised, in a happy way, even the folks at tiny MMT.
“I kept waiting for them to call and say no, but the call never came,” said artistic director Joe Hendren. “It’s an exciting time and this is an exciting show.”
Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 young adult novel, “Chill” tells the story of a social outcast named Jeremy who’s bullied at school. Seeking to boost his popularity, he swallows a pill that’s really an amazing supercomputer life coach.
After its unremarkable New Jersey premiere in 2015, “Be More Chill” slowly gained momentum in the world of social media. According to the New York Times, the 2015 cast album racked up 170 million digital streams, even before the March 10 Broadway debut. And the musical inspired a spate of fan-driven YouTube tributes, usually starring exuberant teens.
The show has become very popular with young people, partly because it pokes fun of tropes associated with high school musicals, said director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha.
“The trajectory of getting it from off-Broadway to Broadway was totally audience-driven,” Pillatzki-Warzeha said. “That’s an exciting possibility for an audience favorite to have this unexpected rise, especially since it was largely driven by a young audience, regardless of the reviews.”
About those reviews. Well, they have been mixed. There was a dismissive New York Times review in 2015 when “Be More Chill” premiered in New Jersey. The newspaper gave last month’s Broadway premiere even worse marks. But that’s not the point, Pillatzki-Warzeha said.
The bigger deal is that in a field where audience demographics skew older — owing to the high price of theater tickets and the fact that the canon stretches back 2,500 years — the audience is being renewed with “Be More Chill.”
In the past, regional productions like MMT’s were seen as competition. Or at least distractions from the standard-bearer on Broadway. But that view is changing, with some observers seeing the Broadway show as the sun and other productions as satellites.
“I don’t want to speak for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization but I’m curious to see how this is actually going to play out,” Hendren said. “The people who’re going to shows in New York — on or off Broadway — are going to keep going to those shows regardless of what we’re doing here in the Twin Cities.
“The only thing that this is going to do, if producers and publishers continue to embrace this approach, is drive music downloads and sales,” Hendren continued.
MMT landed the right to “Be More Chill” last fall, well before it opened on Broadway. Just how did a small theater in Minneapolis pull it off?
“It was a pretty mundane process,” Hendren said. “We saw that rights were available, and we, as a company, like to do new musicals, so we got in line.”
Now they are hoping that audiences in Minneapolis will do the same.