A full three years after a production in New Jersey that looked as if it would never advance beyond off-off-Broadway, the musical Be More Chill (with music and lyrics by Smash alum Joe Iconis) starts previews on Broadway tonight, in advance of a March 10 opening. The show, buoyed to its Broadway debut by the viral forces of internet fandom, follows the misadventures of Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), a lonely self-proclaimed loser and geek who finds he can “be more chill” — and achieve elusive coolness — by taking a pill called a Squip (which manifests onstage in the Keanu Reeves-esque form of actor Jason Tam).
On the eve of his dress rehearsal, Roland — who made his Broadway debut originating the role of Jared Kleinman in Dear Evan Hansen — chatted about becoming a leading man and about “Loser Geek Whatever,” a tour de force number added to the show for its off-Broadway production last summer.
Watch Roland perform an acoustic version of the song with Iconis on piano below, and check out our Q&A after the jump.
You have a longstanding friendship and creative collaboration with composer Joe Iconis, but you were not in the original off-off-Broadway cast of Be More Chill. What was the evolution of this song being added to the show for you?
The song was a conversation the creative team had been having for a long time. When they did the song in New Jersey, they were hungry to hear from Jeremy a litte more about why he was doing the things he was doing. Joe Iconis wrote it over the course of three days while we were in rehearsal off-Broadway. He very much knows how to write for my voice. A lot of the words in it are about Jeremy but they’re also about Will Roland the actor, and the fans, and the lyrics apply in a few ways, which is true of a lot of the stuff Joe writes.
So often in shows about young people there’s a triumphant “I’m okay being weird!” soliloquy of some sort. This is almost the opposite of that, and refreshing in that way.
The song, in terms of how it occurs in the show, it literally hapens in one split second in Jeremy’s head, the decision to literally optic nerve-block his best friend and essentially never see him again. He has to cut out this human, loving part of himself, to make this decision that feels really wrong but that he thinks is going to give him what he wants in the end. He’s taking action in his life, so we wanted to give [the song] this triumphant feeling, but there’s also a huge sadness and regret throughout the whole thing.
This number seems to really put you through the vocal wringer. You go from nearly whispering in falsetto to belting by the end. Is that as much of a challenge as it sounds like?
And that’s the easy version, the stripped-down acoustic version! It definitely requires a careful touch. I’m the kind of actor who always wants to yell and scream. A lot of the finessing of the performance was finding the moments to pull back, the moments to retreat within a little bit, making sure it has a lot of levels to it. It’s definitely hard; once in a while at the run off-Broadway there would be a moment like, okay, let’s see if we still have this much gas left in the tank. I’m really lucky that this song was written on me, and for me, so I had a lot of influence in how it’s structured. It’s really written for me to sing on my worst day. It’s vocally built to what my instrument is good at in terms of range and timbre, so it often feels like the last leg of the race, like i’ve gained a hearty lead at this ponit — so I’ve hit my stride at that point. I’m already a big sweaty mess. People have already decided if they think I’m a good actor or singer. There’s a certain degree of relief. But I definitely come off the first act like, oh my god, and I just go and sit in my dressing room naked for a few minutes.
In the song, one of the lyrcs mentions the fact that you’ve never been “the leading man.” I couldn’t help but think about your actual Broadway trajectory — in Dear Evan Hansen you were the quirky best friend, and now you are the leading man.
That’s the most literal lyric that’s about me. But there’s also a lyric a third of the way through, “If Brooke can look me in the eye/like I’m some normal handsome guy” — I think of the young people who sit in the front row of our show, and a lot of them are going through various transitions. We have a lot of trans fans, and I think a lot about the journey young people go on as they find their sexuality, feeling seen and wanted and normal — for whatever reason, I always picture those folks and where they’re out. You’re 15 and maybe you’re covered in acne or you feel skinnny or tall or short, but we all want to be some normal handsome guy in some way.
What does it feel like to be back on Broadway for the first time since Dear Evan Hansen?
It feels wonderful to feel like I’m back on Broadway after six, seven months away — that’s a lucky thing I would not have expected two years ago. But it really does feel different. Obviously I loved everyone at Dear Evan Hansen, but I’ve known so many people in this production for so long. There’s a certain incredible layer to all this, like wow, me and my friends really stuck it out and we’re really going to Broadway. That’s something I never could have dreamed of, and it’s unlike any other experience so far.