“I’D never heard of ‘Be More Chill’ until a 16-year-old student called Jessica told me about it,” Kirsty Budding says of the next big musical show coming up for her company, only the second in Australia to get the rights to the teenage theatre sensation.
“Mention it to anyone over the age of 21 and they’ll give you a blank look, but mention it to any 15-year-old and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.”
After a low-key premiere at a commuter town theatre in New Jersey, the show was streamed online, then YouTubed and Spotified around the world to adoring teenagers with the original cast recording making it to the “Billboard” cast album chart’s Top 10.
The book, by Joe Tracz, based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, with original music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, introduces teenager Jeremy, whose divorced father is an embarrassment because he’s always walking around in his undies or as the Americans put it, “not wearing pants”.
That gives rise to “The Pants Song”.
But dad isn’t stupid and he notices that Jeremy is losing his sense of self, so obsessed he is with the need to be popular.
In particular, he is crazy about Christine, so signs up for the school play she’s in in a bid to “More Than Survive”, as the song goes.
When a mate tells Jeremy there’s a popularity pill you can take called The SQUIP (“Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor”), he swallows it.
Little does he know that The SQUIP is a supercomputer that starts to control his life, telling him what he should say to be more “chill” and most of all, what girls would want to hear – seen in the number, “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into”.
But The SQUIP advises him that in order to be more popular he has to “upgrade to Jeremy 2.0” then starts to delete parts of his life – his best mate Michael disappears, for instance, and while Jeremy starts hooking up with girls, he loses all sense of what was unique about him.
“It’s very original and funny – I love funny stuff – and the lyrics are memorable,” Budding says.
“A lot of it is about kids discovering sexuality, desire, who they are, what they want to do.
“Also, it’s very raw, very real and it doesn’t sugar-coat issues, it’s not presenting teenagers as their mums and dads would want them… for instance, there’s one song called, “I’m Waiting for my Porno to Load”.
As a youth production, most of the characters are played by kids, but actor Paul Gardner doubles as a couple of adult characters.
Largely performed by and for the young, Budding’s sure it’s going to be acceptable to mums and dads, too, because high-school experiences stick with us.
“Be More Chill” does have a happy ending, with a moral saying that it’s better to be yourself than to be more chill, exactly the opposite of that in “Grease” where the moral is, “You’d Better Shape Up”.
The show started out small in 2015, but after ending up on YouTube, it made a huge impact and when it hit New York, producers were stunned to find teenagers travelling in hordes from different states to see the show.
“But it won’t be just for teens. This is something my mother could enjoy,” says Budding.
“Be More Chill”, Gungahlin Theatre, March 24-27. Book at buddingentertainment.com