Among the most promising and active young composers in musical theater today, Joe Iconis got his biggest stage yet during the second season of the cult hit TV show Smash, when his song “Broadway Here I Come” felt inescapable. But long before Smash, and long since, Iconis has written musicals blending classic and contemporary sounds with unorthodox story lines, most notably his recent viral hit Be More Chill, which gained a huge audience a full two years after its premiere at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. Iconis recently stopped by the Billboard on Broadway podcast to chat about his multifaceted career.
“I grew up as an ultimate theater geek,” Iconis admits. “I loved classic show tunes: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, Bill Finn. I got to college, and when I started writing and discovering my voice, I stopped listening to cast albums and listened to only other stuff. I was like, ‘Oh, there’s other types of music! This is what other people have been listening to!’ Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson.” He calls his own sound a “marriage of old and new,” honoring classic theater while bringing in edgier contemporary influences.
“I value good songwriting and the structure of classic musical theater and the integrity of the writing,” he says. “It’s having that basis, and having the literal sound pull from something that feels contemporary, where the literal vibe of it feels like something that couldn’t have been done in 1950-whatever.” A fan of cinema, he learned from the movies the value of writing about “small moments that are blown out into something bigger.”
Iconis goes on to speak about the unusual trajectory of Be More Chill. Iconis describes the show as “a sci-fi musical comedy, like a ’90s teen movie mixed with an ’80s horror film mixed with a very serious story about teenage depression and suicide,” and admits he can’t explain the show’s sudden, viral popularity. “It’s been this monster that keeps growing and growing,” he says. “When I was writing it, I talked so much to people about how I was writing a show about anxiety and depression and actual kids who didn’t feel like they belonged. … For me, to have kids so immediately respond to all the things I said the show is about is the most amazing thing.”
In his conversation with host Rebecca Milzoff, he delves into how he found the confidence to perform his own material, how having his songs on Smash changed his life, how he relates to the kids of Be More Chill, and much more.