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From the moment they arrived for their Tiny Desk debut, the cast and crew of the Broadway musical Be More Chill radiated kind exuberance. They posed for selfies behind the desk, shared stories from the previous night's Tony Awards and clowned around with cast member Jason SweetTooth Williams, who'd torn a muscle in his leg 48 hours earlier and used a wheelchair to get from the charter bus to the desk and back.
The night before, Be More Chill had gone 0-for-1 at the Tonys, winding down a disappointing awards season. Even its big Tonys moment — a skit in which host James Corden parodied the musical's breakout song, "Michael in the Bathroom" — passed by without anyone bothering to name the source material.
But you wouldn't have known it the next morning, as the Be More Chill crew — composer Joe Iconis, all but three members of the principal cast and a handful of musicians, each of whom held a key role in shaping the musical's sound — bused from New York to NPR's D.C. headquarters. Their arrival was a genuine event: For our Sesame Street Tiny Desk concert earlier this summer, we'd encouraged our coworkers to bring their young children, but this time around, we asked for their teenagers — the young theater enthusiasts in their lives, and anyone else they knew who'd fallen under the spell of Be More Chill and its pair of prolifically streamed cast albums. (Set to wiry, hard-driving synth-rock music, the show has been a true cult phenomenon, with an intense online following and one of the youngest audiences Broadway has ever seen. But its ticket sales waned and the show is now scheduled to close August 11.)
Each song they performed at the Tiny Desk tapped into a key plot point from Be More Chill, which tells the story of Jeremy, an average high-school geek whose life is upended when he swallows a pill-sized supercomputer that teaches him how to improve his social standing, albeit at the expense of his closest relationships and mental well-being.
* In the run-up to "The Pants Song," Jeremy's recently divorced dad (played by Williams), who's been embarrassing his son by moping around the house in a bathrobe, senses that Jeremy is in trouble. So he enlists Jeremy's newly estranged best friend Michael (played by George Salazar) to step up and intervene. As lighthearted as it is, the song conveys a powerful message about loyalty, parenthood, friendship, forgiveness and advocacy, all wrapped up in a simple mantra: "When you love somebody, you put your pants on for them."
* "A Guy That I'd Kind Of Be Into" is a showcase for Jeremy's crush, an oddball theater kid named Christine, who's played on Broadway by Stephanie Hsu. But Hsu couldn't make the Tiny Desk, so she's replaced here by the charming Lauren Marcus, who normally plays Brooke onstage. It's a sweet song about the early flowering of romantic interest, but it's also a wise and insightful nod to the way declarations of young love can be so guarded and tentative that they seem, by design, almost nonexistent.
* "A Guy That I'd Kind Of Be Into" holds its emotions at arm's length, but "Michael in the Bathroom" is an atomic bomb of teenage feelings — not to mention one of the most broadly relatable songs from any genre in recent years. The backstory is simple enough: Michael, having been abandoned by his best friend, shows up at "the biggest party of the fall," only to sequester himself in the bathroom and practically dissolve under the weight of his alienation, self-doubt, betrayal and regret. How George Salazar didn't get nominated for a Tony will have to remain a mystery, because his performance — like the song itself, which feels like a true standard — will be talked about for years.
* Finally, "Voices in My Head" closes Be More Chill — and this Tiny Desk concert — with a rousing celebration of Jeremy's return from the brink. Played by Will Roland, Jeremy seizes center stage here, taking mental inventory ("might still have voices in my head / but now they're just the normal kind") as the other cast members pipe up with their own commentary on his life. Above all, it's wonderfully rousing, building to a buoyant finale.
On the Broadway stage, Be More Chill has been a playful burst of frenetic energy and silly, stealthy sweetness. At the Tiny Desk, it holds onto that rowdy, generous spirit while peeling off bells and whistles to reveal some remarkably sturdy songcraft. In any form, it's a joy to behold.
- "The Pants Song"
- "A Guy That I'd Kinda Be Into"
- "Michael in the Bathroom"
- "Voices in My Head"
Joe Iconis: piano; Charlie Rosen: bass; Emily Marshall: melodica; Will Roland: vocals, percussion; George Salazar: vocals, cajon; Gerard Canonico: vocals, guitar; Tiffany Mann: vocals, percussion; Lauren Marcus: vocals, ukulele, percussion; Britton Smith: vocals, percussion; Jason SweetTooth Williams: vocals
Producers: Stephen Thompson, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineers: Josh Rogosin, Patrick Boyd; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Beck Harlan, Maia Stern, Jeremiah Rhodes; Production Assistant: Paul Georgoulis; Associate Producer: Bobby Carter; Photo: Shuran Huang/NPR