Having a musical written just for you is a performer’s dream. And it’s one being lived by Penn State senior B.F.A. Musical Theatre students, who are currently working with up-and-coming writer and performer Joe Iconis, who was commissioned to develop a musical especially for the Class of 2017.
“I’ve had the honor of working with Joe Iconis for many years,” said John Simpkins, head of the Musical Theatre program. “He has an uncanny ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of humans and write them in a way that nobody else can.”
Iconis set about capturing the thoughts and feelings of Penn State Musical Theatre students in spring 2016, when he met that year’s junior class. He spent some time getting to know them artistically, and then devoted the next few months to writing a musical specifically geared to their talents. The current seniors are now rehearsing and developing that musical with Iconis and his creative team.
“Penn State has a rich history with assisting new musicals in readings and workshops,” noted Simpkins. “This new initiative builds on that success, and now includes commissioning a writing team every year.”
There will be an early reading of the new musical in January 2017, but in the meantime, local audiences can experience Joe Iconis’ work when the School of Theatre presents the musical “Be More Chill,” October 4–15 at the Playhouse Theatre. “Be More Chill” tells the story of an average teen who learns, via a sci-fi twist, that getting everything you want is not always what it’s cracked up to be.
“The protagonist, Jeremy, has a lesson to learn that is every bit as important as those of the dreamers and heroes that populate many musicals. … The very simple, but often elusive, message that ‘you are enough’ sits at the heart of the piece,” explained Simpkins, director of “Be More Chill.” “We don’t have to change who we are in order to be cool, to be popular, to land the girl or boy of our dreams, or to find success in our life and career. We simply have to ‘be more chill’ and trust that others will value that humanity and individualism. It is a powerful message for all of us—and especially relevant for young artists going through their college experience.”
“Be More Chill,” based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, has been previously produced only one time, at Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., in spring 2015. Iconis and Joe Tracz, who wrote the book for the musical, have been involved in the Penn State production process this fall. Iconis will present a post-show concert on Thursday, Oct. 13, in the Playhouse Theatre, free to ticket holders.
As part of the commissioning project, there will be performances of the new work both at University Park and in New York City each year. “Depending on the musical, the campus performance could be anything from a reading to a staged reading to a fuller realized staged workshop. The New York City performance will include both an industry reading and a concert at a musical theatre venue,” explained Simpkins.
According to Simpkins, there is a specific skillset required of actors working on new musicals. “There is no research or previous production template to follow, and frequently the writer and creative team are making fast changes from first rehearsal all the way through preview performances. It is a skill that the well-rounded musical theatre artist needs in their repertoire, and we’re so excited to announce this program as a way to expand our possibilities in this area.”
Photo: The cast of "Be More Chill" did a flash mob performance at the HUB-Robeson Center on Sept. 14 to promote the show. Photo by Stephanie Swindle.