Home / Artists / Chilling with Joe Iconis (Just Between Friends)

Chilling with Joe Iconis (Just Between Friends)

joe-iconis-by-monica-simoes

By Jennifer Ashley Tepper, with introduction by Steve Schonberg

Photo Credit: Monica Simoes

While searching for new ways to share an even deeper perspective into the lives of outstanding artists—from up-and-coming, to established stars who’ve helped create some of our greatest cultural accomplishments in theatre—I realized that I can share a totally new perspective by removing myself from the equation. While I dig deep with these talents who bring incredible legacies for us to explore, or whose fresh perspectives are defining the future of this great art form, there’s a formality to interviews even when we’ve come to the conversation with an existing rapport.

Instead, I realized that typically the deepest and most revealing discussions are had between good friends. Just as you or I let down our guard with those we consider a part of our inner circle, another writer could bring this out in a good friend—but, instead of it being limited to the constraints of their memories, it can be shared with us all.

With that in mind, I invited a writer—a great writer, in fact—to do a guest post this week. A person I too consider a friend and colleague (who I profiled last year on the Huffington Post) the incredibly talented, Jennifer Ashley Tepper. I asked Tepper to explore the work of buzz-worthy musical theatre innovator, Joe Iconis, whose latest show Be More Chill, a sci-fi musical about a tiny supercomputer that gives the lead character anything he could every wish for, is currently playing at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ.

Tepper is a theatre historian and producer who is currently the Director of Programming at the acclaimed Broadway supper club, 54 Below. She is also the author of “The Untold Stories of Broadway” book series, featuring her interviews with 250 Broadway professionals.

Joe Iconis is a musical theatre writer who has authored the musicals Be More ChillAnnie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!Bloodsong of LoveThe Black SuitsReWriteThe Plant That Ate Dirty Socks and We The PeopleHis songs were featured on Season 2 of NBC’s SmashHis concert act, Joe Iconis and Family, frequently plays The Beechman Theater54 Below, and Joe’s Pub.  The original cast recording of Joe’s theatrical rock concert Things To Ruinis available on Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight records.

Jen and Joe are close friends and frequent collaborators. This is their first interview. It’s an in-depth look at Iconis’ work, and the evolution overall of modern American musicals. Like any friends catching up, it’s a long chat—and as two well-established theatre professionals, it’s also a conversation a die-hard theatre fan would probably give a limb to eavesdrop on, which in fact may have actually occurred as these two sipped cocktails in Times Square’s Marriott Marquis.

We also peppered in a ton of videos. Conversations are dynamic, so we felt the story should be too. So as you read, jump between text and video, or let them play in the background as color and context to the story.

Whatever you do, be “chill,” and enjoy!

JEN:

This is Jennifer Ashley Tepper interviewing Joe Iconis… for the very first time… on May 25, 2015. I think I got sunburned on the way here. Like, legitimately sunburned on a 20 block walk. That’s not part of the interview, I was just mentioning it. Also, Joe, if you watch the screen right there, you’re going to see the entire cast of Kinky Boots… look, Cortney Wolfson!

[We are sitting on the 8th Floor of the Marriott Marquis, next to the giant windows overlooking Times Square and its digital advertisements for Broadway shows.]

Do I have permission to record this interview?

JOE:

Yes!

JEN:
That’s so if we ever get into a really big fight and I want to legally use this…

JOE:

Don’t say that!

JEN:

[laughing]

JOE:

That’s the worst thing. I hate that.

JEN:
I knew you were going to hate that—I think at this point in our friendship, I can predict which things I say you’re going to hate. I’ll try not to say too many of them in this interview.

JOE:

[chews on a straw, a trademark move]

JEN:

Before we start, I want you to know that some of these questions are pretty involved. As your close friend and frequent collaborator, I think I’ve read every interview with you that’s ever been written… some great ones, some not-great ones… and as such, I wanted to focus on questions I feel like I haven’t seen you answer publicly before. OR questions you haven’t answered in depth. OR things I think people will find interesting but that many might not know to ask.

JOE:

Okay… good. [not nervous at all]

JEN:

First question! You’ve talked about how Little Shop of Horrors was an early inspiration for you, a show that got you interested in musicals. I love that Be More Chill has a feeling of being in the same family as Little Shop. What do you see as the line between the two musicals, their relationship to each other?

JOE:

I think that both shows feature characters who are kind of damaged and super realistic, who happen to be trapped in an extraordinary world. When I was a kid, I loved Little Shop so much because of a million things: the craziness of the horror angle of the story, the score… but really, I was obsessed with Seymour and Audrey as characters, because they felt like real people. That’s what I wanted to do with Be More Chill. I wanted it to feel like a musical about real people, where all of the fantastical, sci-fi elements were in service of telling the story of these damaged humans.

 

Preview of Be More Chill: Will Connolly and Eric William Morris:

 

JEN:

What was the genesis of Be More Chill? How did the project start?

JOE:

It was my agent, Scott Chaloff. He read the book [by Ned Vizzini, 2004] and he thought that I would like it a lot, and that it would be a good project for me to adapt. That was 2011. I read Be More Chill—and I did like it a lot. It’s one of the few projects I’ve done that hasn’t started with me, and an idea that I had. When I first read it, some of it felt like familiar territory, because I’ve written about high schoolers before… but the voice of the novel was so specific that it made Be More Chill stand apart. And the science fiction element was really exciting to me. I was like: Yeah, sure. I’ll do this! It felt like there was enough there, that I had something to say about.

The funny thing about the show is that it’s become more resonant to me the more I’ve worked on it. When I first started writing Be More Chill, I didn’t totally understand all of the layers of it. It felt like a job and something that it made sense for me to work on. But I’ve come to feel so much more for the material… Oh god, I’m rambling.

JEN:

You’re fine. This is exactly what this should be. This interview is for the real musical theatre lovers! If they want to read: “I liked writing that show! It was fun! Next question,” they can find that elsewhere.

JOE:

When I first read the book, it was at a time when… well, it was post-Bloodsong of Love, 2011. I was feeling pretty lost in a few ways, and I was just like: Sure, I’ll do this. It makes sense. It’s something I can do.

[Waitress delivers one dirty martini and one Manhattan.]

JEN:

What’s that?

JOE:

This? [Holds up what can only be described as a 54 Below coin purse.] It’s what my wallet is right now.

 JEN:

I have never seen one of those.

JOE:

Since I fell in vomit on 9th Avenue on Monday, my wallet got covered in vomit, and I just threw it out. I’ve been using this. I ran home to clean myself up and try to make the next train back to Red Bank for Be More Chill, and I didn’t have a rubber band, but I had this. It’s what the 54 Below gift cards come in. I’ve been using it all week. And at least five people have been like: Has Jen Tepper seen that? So, now you have.

JEN:
Excellent. So, I feel like people do have this conception that you like projects that initially come from you. But I’ve never found you to be closed off to working on projects that originate elsewhere, like with Be More Chill, or other possible books or movie adaptations that might come from an outside source. It’s just not what you’re used to, since it’s not circumstantially what’s happened in your career so far: a lot of musicals based on existing material or brands. You’ve certainly written songs on spec for potential projects like that, though. Do you want to speak to that?

JOE:

Yes! First though, we should “cheers” with these drinks. That’s important. To our first interview.

JEN:

Of several.

[Glasses clink.]

JOE:

For me a lot of times when I write something, even if it’s an idea that has come from me, I feel like I just sort of inherently put some kind of restrictions on the idea. I love to impose rules on an idea, whether it’s a stylistic thing, or otherwise. With The Black Suits, I decided: all of these songs are going to be simple, and all of them should be able to be played on a guitar, like a high schooler in their own band could play or write. And with Bloodsong, I decided that all of the material was going to be inspired by very specific references from Spaghetti Western movies, and certain sounds and ideas from that world. So I feel like with these projects, even though I’m not technically adapting something… I love sort of working through the lens of another piece of art as I’m writing them.

 

“The Answer” from The Black Suits: Jeremy Jordan:

 

Because of that, adapting another work of art feels really natural to me. I enjoy adapting material when it’s something I can find a unique way into, that I want to write about. The one thing that I know is that I’m only ever interested in writing something that I have a way into, something that I feel like my voice will add something to. Something that I can truly connect to. When I connect to another work of art, like with Be More Chill, it feels just as much like its in ‘my voice’ as an original musical does. There’s something thrilling about that.

With Be More Chill, it’s been awesome to work within a framework, the book, and then to deviate from that. There are so many things that are musicalized that maybe shouldn’t be. So it’s thrilling when a writer finds something that should be musicalized, because there’s something about it originally that could be expanded upon, using their voice. It’s exciting to take the original book, Be More Chill, and figure out the reasons that it needs to be this other thing, a musical.

 

“Michael In The Bathroom” from Be More Chill: George Salazar:

 

JEN:

On Be More Chill, you’re working with several collaborators for the first time. What has it been like working with Stephen Brackett and Chase Brock? Is there a specific moment you can talk about that you’ve created with them, that you’re excited for audiences to see?

JOE:

These are such question-questions! This is really cool. It’s been really great working with Stephen and Chase! Seriously though, it has been. I’ve never worked before on a new show with so many new collaborators. It’s been a good experience, having all of us figure each other out. Much like my collaboration with Joe Tracz, I think we all have a similar sensibility, and then we spoke off from that sensibility in really different ways that all compliment each other.

Chase in particular… he’s so ‘dance-y’. His choreography is straight up choreography! A lot of the musicals I’ve done have had dancing that could be classified more as ‘movement.’ So many of my shows have had character-based stuff where the choreography feels somewhere between dancing and moving. Chase’s work… there’s no bones about it that it’s dancing. I didn’t know how that would interact with my work, but it’s been amazing. There are these moments in the show that I never thought would be dance numbers, and to see the characters dancing and singing like Chase and Stephen have made them do, has been great. It’s been incredible to see how that brings out the intentions of the songwriting, even more. My fear with things is always that… well, I hate when I see a show and feels like a director or choreographer has put an unnecessary layer on a moment. So to have dancing that actually enhances these moments and gives a different color to them has been really cool.

With both Chase and Stephen, I feel like because, musical-wise, we don’t know each other, they’re less likely to be respectful of some of the things that people who I’ve collaborated with for a long time know not to go near, as far as my writing. And that’s cool! It’s actually great. It’s helpful in a different way than how it is with people I’ve collaborated with many times, who I have a short hand with. It’s been cool to have Chase ask me, for example: “Can we put a button on this?” I hate musical theatre buttons that sound like musical theatre buttons, so I feel like my frequent collaborators understand my urge to avoid them. But it’s been really wonderful to have someone who I respect so much ask me about these buttons, and to have conversations about changing the ends of songs… because now there are some buttons in the show that weren’t there before, and I really love them. They work, and they make sense for the piece we’re making.

As far as a number I’m really excited for, there’s this song in Be More Chill called “Rich Set A Fire”… It’s a song that, when I first wrote it, I felt wasn’t really to my taste, but I was excited about it being in the show anyway. It felt like I was writing a show that, at its heart, was a musical comedy, and I really wanted a number in the second act that felt like a big showstopper. The song sort of references “The Telephone Hour”…

JEN:

You know, “Rich Set A Fire” really does have that ‘musical comedy huge 11 o’clock group number’ feel… I’ve never seen you write a number quite like it. It’s in the tradition of the great musical comedy second act group numbers, that really knock you out and also propel the plot forward. “Without Love” from Hairspray... “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat” from Guys And Dolls

JOE:

Yes! And I so felt like it belonged in the show. Getting to work on it with Chase and Stephen has been awesome. I also felt at times like: Oh, this is so a number that’s going to get cut. It’s about seven minutes long, and I felt like I was doing everything to call attention to the fact that it’s this sort-of sore thumb number, different from other songs in the show.

“Rich Set A Fire” is the “Gee Officer Krupke” tangent, from the handbook of musical theatre, and I feel like it helps push the plot and characters forward, but maybe it’s not what you expect in that moment. To really craft that on stage with Chase and Stephen and just be like: Okay, we’re going to go whole hog and see what this thing is, and give it a chance to be a huge number… is really thrilling. Every time we do a run-through for people in the theatre, I keep waiting for someone to say: “Okay, you have to get rid of that number.” But no one has said anything! Which is great. That’s the number that I’m rooting for, to make it to the stage. I’m really excited to see it in the context of the show.

JEN:

Cool! Now I’m even more excited to see it. Let the record show: I will be seeing Be More Chill several times. Can you tell us more about all of the musicals you’re working on right now? What are these other projects? And this ties into my other question about your Be More Chill collaborators, which is that you’re working right now with both Charlie Rosen and Joe Tracz on a few different projects. So what is it like to work with them on different types of music and different types of stories?

JOE:

One of the other projects is a musical adaptation of the Wimpy Kid books, which I’m working on with Joe Tracz. He’s the librettist on both Wimpy Kid and Be More Chill, and since the moment we started working together, it’s been this wonderful, perfect collaboration. We challenge each other, support each other, bring out the best in each other… I feel pretty lucky to be collaborating with him.

Another of the projects is… Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!… whose title might change. That is a musical about a down-on-her-luck musical theatre actress, whose name is Annie Golden, and who will hopefully be played by the actual person, Annie Golden. She’s having a really tough time of it. She’s an actress of a certain age who feels like there’s no place for her in musical theatre, or in the world, and through a series of events, she gets wrapped up in the world of bounty hunting. It’s an action musical that follows her journey in the world of bounty hunting, where she discovers her place in the world. It’s told in the style of exploitation movies of the 1970s.

Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! is sort of a celebration of exploited people, and marginalized populations. That’s a show that I’m working on with Jason SweetTooth Williams and Lance Rubin, who are two guys I’ve known for a long time, and have primarily collaborated with as actors, with them acting in things that I’ve written. They’re people I feel so comfortable with, but it’s been a cool process of figuring out how to work together as co-writers on a show. That’s been a few years in the making.

 

“Spin Those Records” from Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!:

 

JEN:

I know that in your work, you draw on a lot of different sources of inspiration—unlikely sources and films and artists Dolly Parton to Robert Altman to the Muppets, that you regularly reference. Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! (AGBHY) has several sources of inspiration that are perhaps unlikely for a musical, but are so theatrical when you get to see them on stage.

So I was wondering, in terms of writing this piece with inspiration from Blaxploitation films and kung fu movies, and other unlikely sources, how that trickles into the music? How that changes the world of the songs, and how that’s maybe come out in your work on the show with Charlie Rosen? The score is full of songs that don’t sound like musical theatre songs, but that are so right for the story and so exciting to see presented as part of a musical. How did you approach this project differently because of its unique genre?

JOE:

It’s twofold. Specifically, to talk about AGBHY, when we first came up with the idea, I decided that was sort of the style we wanted to write the show in. The heart of the idea was putting Annie Golden in an action movie musical… and the idea of Blaxploitation movies specifically, where African American actors in the 1970s kind of felt they were being relegated to sidekick roles, or villain roles, in these specific kinds of shitty action movies—and they decided to grab the reigns and be the stars of their own shitty action movies.

These Blaxploitation movies were labeled as kind of trashy and obscene and offensive… but were controlled by these people who the industry at large didn’t recognize as being worthwhile artists. I thought there was a really cool connection between that, and actors of a certain age in theatre. Specifically, Annie Golden, who is this amazing, vibrant, sexy woman, who is in her 60s, who maybe doesn’t get the opportunities that other people get in musical theatre. It feels right that she is our leading lady and her love interest is an African American man.

At any rate, we decided we wanted to write it in this style, and that put these ground rules on the type of music I could write, and the type of dialogue we could create. We made the language used in the show mirror the dialogue and tone from those movies. There’s a very fun trunk of slang and speech to choose from.

Music-wise, I’ve been writing in the style of those film scores, but for the stage. As I write songs for Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!, the style of those movies’ sound is very much in my head. I’m constantly thinking: How do I take this funk sound and make it dramatically compelling within this story on stage? And I’m also imagining how the songs are actually going to sound, when they’re expanded from just me on piano, recording demos.

That’s where Charlie Rosen comes in on the project. We definitely have a short hand from working together before. Charlie is so wise beyond his years, and he has this incredible knowledge of different kinds of music. I can play Charlie something and say: “This is referencing this Curtis Mayfield score, or the movie “Across 110th Street”, from 1972.” And Charlie immediately understands how what I’m doing musically, with those references, relates to the actual instruments and the actual sounds he’s orchestrating and arranging.

Charlie has created these demos that have been so helpful in showing people what Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! will actually sound like. Every day I realize more and more, that even though I may have a specific sound in my head, it’s hard for other people to hear a writer’s demo and to make believe a song being sung by me on piano is a song being played by a funk band with African American singers performing. So Charlie, since he thinks about music in the same way I do, and he literally hears it in his head, was really able to translate the world of that show into a demo that represents it. We’re just on the same level.

JEN:

It’s really cool to hear you describe it, because I’ve seen this happen, where Charlie gets really excited about making the content of a song or of a show fit instruments that might not be the same four instruments you hear being used in every musical. I’ve seen you work together on Black Suits and Be More Chill and Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! where your writing so fully ignites because of the way he expands it musically, whether that’s by making it sound like a high school garage band, adding a video game concept to an orchestration, or mirroring a Blaxploitation film score.

JOE:

And he’s also someone who loves lots of different genres of music that aren’t theatre music, too. We’re alike because we have this very strong foundation in musical theatre but we love other types of music, so it becomes about: How do we apply the other sounds of very different, specific styles of music, to the actual structure of musical theatre songs, in ways that serve the story.

JEN:

I’m finding it particularly interesting to hear you talk about Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! today, because the more that I see different incarnations of the show, the more I see you guys developing it, the more I feel like it’s such a relevant topic, women of a certain age and how they feel about their place in the world. I don’t know another musical that addresses it the way this one does.

 

“Actress”: Katrina Rose Dideriksen:

 

I didn’t feel as strongly about the need for equal rights for women ten years ago, because I felt like they already had them, but the more I live in this universe, where Anne Meara’s obituary headlines don’t call her “Groundbreaking Comedian” or “Broadway, Film And TV Star”, but instead “Ben Stiller’s Mother”, the more I want this musical to exist, about a woman of a certain age who is marginalized and not getting this kind of recognition she should be. And I like that the musical asks the question of why, and then comes at “why” from a really unexpected place, where the character becomes a bounty hunter, that ends up speaking so fully to the idea of feminism and ageism and marginalization of not just Annie Golden, but the other characters we meet, who are different races and types. It’s so relevant to Broadway and TV and all of these things going on in the news.

JOE:

Yeah! And you know, for me selfishly, I want to see a musical where the leading lady is not an ingénue, and is over the age of 40. And isn’t someone’s mother. And is not defined by the relationships she has to other people. And of course there have been so many great musicals about marriages and about someone’s mother, but that’s just it. There have already been so many. There haven’t been musicals about something else. If we can have a musical about a guy older than 40, who’s not a father in the same way, that would make me so happy. I’m trying to think of an example, and I can only think of Hedwig

[There’s a giant Hedwig and the Angry Inch billboard present through the window.]

It’s staring at me…

 

“Headshot” Music Video:

 

JEN:

As long as I’ve known you, I’ve loved that the artists you get excited about are all different ages and types, because that’s what I respond to, also. It’s not just the 20-something Broadway starlets and heartthrobs that are exciting, but tons of different people. I remember seeing you lose your mind over Dylan Baker, when he walked into the West Bank Café one time… And that’s what’s exciting about Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!: putting that passion into action. Jumping ahead a little bit… Pretend it’s ten years from now, and a musical you’ve written is opening on Broadway—but it’s not something you’ve started writing yet. Is there an idea, or style, or basic sketch for a musical you haven’t started on yet, that you’d really like to bring to the stage in the next decade?

JOE:

Yes. I really want to write a classic, golden age of Broadway-style score for a musical—I love the idea of tapping into that sound—and then making the musical about something that couldn’t have been written about in that time when that sound was originally prevalent on Broadway.

JEN:

[gasps] Wow! I didn’t know that.

JOE:

That’s something I’m excited about. I don’t have the idea yet.

JEN:

Well, it sounds like maybe this show will be too big for it, but you know I have this intense, spiritual feeling that you’re going to write a Broadway musical that will play the Music Box. Maybe it’ll be there.

JOE:

Maybe it could be.

JEN:

There’s a certain interest in the dark side of suburbia that colors a lot of your work, from songs like “Ammonia”, to the frightening social sphere of the popular vs. unpopular high schoolers in Be More Chill. What sparks your interest in this? Do you find yourself observing suburban life today and using pieces in what you’re writing?

 

“Ammonia”: Heidi Blickenstaff:

 

JOE:

Absolutely. I grew up on Long Island in suburbia and I have this weird relationship with it. I have this big Italian family who came from Brooklyn and Queens, and I always felt like a city kid even though I lived in suburbia. I didn’t identify with the suburban experience until high school, or even when I was out of it, in college. That’s when I realized: Oh yeah! I grew up in one of those places with manicured lawns and white people

I always found myself not relating to that world and those people—not feeling above them, but feeling different from them and removed from it. So I’ve had a complicated relationship with suburbia, and this idea of living in this place, getting married as soon as you can, having kids as soon as you can, buying a house a block away from the house you grew up in, and then your kids doing the same thing. That has never appealed to me, but I’ve always been fascinated by it.

 

“Lonely Woman”: Anthony Rapp:

 

I don’t want to be a part of that, and I don’t identify with a lot of the people in that world, but I don’t feel like they’re bad people or like what they want isn’t valid. In fact, I’m fascinated by what makes them want the things they do, and behave as they do. For me, the stuff that really sparked my interest about suburbia was Steven Spielberg movies that sort of framed suburbia as this place where there are these magical secrets, like friendly aliens in E.T… in those movies, suburbia is a sort of otherworldly place that’s also very mundane. There are these towns where everything is normal but extraordinary things can happen that no one knows about.

Now, the older I get, the more I’m not in it, every time I go back to visit my family or find myself in a suburban situation, I feel like I look at it through more of a lens. It continues to fascinate me. I think of suburbia, whether it’s Long Island or Jersey or the suburbs in California, as their own little worlds, their own planets. They’re so separate from big cities. I love that there are people there who are inspired to head to the big cities and people there who are suspicious and frightened of them. When I think of what America is, what I think of is suburban America. That’s my instinct. I think about these houses that look the same, and these people who look the same. I think about the idea that that’s the normal, and then there are people there who need to be ‘normal’ for the sake of others around them, even though that’s not who they are… obviously everyone has issues and problems, but I love that there are people who feel like they need to hide them for some reason. It’s a never-ending fascination: suburban culture.

JEN:

One of the first things of yours I saw that really tackled suburbia in a way that relates to what you just talked about was “The War Song”. I saw people get offended and walk out when Lance Rubin was singing it at the Zipper Factory in 2008, before you and I were really friends or collaborators. It made these audience members so angry to hear the truth about this specific kind of teenager that exists in suburbia, and it just wasn’t what people are used to hearing from a musical theatre song.

I just loved that. I loved that people walked out. It excited me because it wasn’t offensive just for the sake of being offensive, it was offensive because it was musical theatre telling this unwanted truth about suburban youth, the same way that The Threepenny Opera or Sweeney Todd, these great musicals, had songs that told truths about society that would’ve made someone walk out on one of their songs. I think you’ve used your fascination with suburbia to write characters into your musicals that don’t often get written about, but who are very real people in the world who are worth looking twice at.

 

“The War Song”: Lance Rubin:

 

JOE:

Also, I’m really drawn all of the time to people who are bored, and I think that’s such a suburban thing. People doing things because there’s nothing else to do. I think someone being bored can go so many different ways. Boredom is a condition that can lead to amazing works of art or to…

JEN:

… destruction.

JOE:

Definitely. Destruction.

JEN:

Another theme that I find interesting that comes up here and there in your work is something we share: a fascination with Times Square and New York in its periods of decay. Times Square in the 1980s, and the fascinating ways that New York has evolved. That’s something that you’ve been able to put in more and more of your work, and I also feel like it’s a general interest in the decay of cities and the decay of eras.

I feel like that is a lot in The Hunter S. Thompson Project. That show is about that man, but also about the American Dream and the decay of it. I know you haven’t talked that much publicly about the project yet, and I wondered if you want to. You know I love the song “Wave” that you’ve written for it, and I want to get into that as well…

One thing I love about your work, which is also one of the best things musical theatre can do, is that it can be so much about two totally different things at the same time. For example, “Last On Land”, which is about a man building a ship in Bloodsong of Love, is also about being a musical theatre writer, or any kind of artist. “Broadway, Here I Come!” is of course is about two different things, but we’ll get to that later. “The Goodbye Song”, which people don’t need to know is about E.T., completely follows as a song about E.T. in addition to the initial meaning of what people think it’s about. One thing I want to know is about Hunter: what you’re writing about with that show… and I also want to know about material like “Wave”, which Hunter S. Thompson’s “Wave” speech charting the end of the hippie era, but can also be about something else.

 

“The Goodbye Song”: Jason SweetTooth Williams:

 

JOE:

I don’t have a great way to articulate why that excites me so much… it’s something that I’ve done so many times and so intentionally. I do it in songs and in characters, and in places where no one would even think at the beginning that it was about something else.

JEN:

Well of course, that’s what we’ve seen constantly with “Broadway, Here I Come!”, all of these kids using it as their graduation songs, thinking it’s about wanting to get to Broadway and not comprehending that it’s also about wanting to kill yourself. And it’s fine- people accept or interpret things on the level that they do, and that’s why theatre has different perspectives. But I love that if you look, there are a few meanings.

JOE:

For me, I love writing about small moments, and these very iris-in close-ups of people in situations in their lives. I love writing about how those moments feel huge to the people who are in them, even if they’re not actually large events. I feel like small, specific moments can be really universal. So for me, a lot of the ‘writing-two-meanings-into-one-song’ started because I was like: At least I myself want to know that this song is about two different specific things, so that no one can say: oh it’s just about this. I know that it literally exists on two levels, because each line works for both. That makes the song universal in a new way, because you can see that it works on more than one level. The song “If You Like It” is one of the first times I did that so specifically…

JEN:

… and it is such a great cabaret song, such a double-meaning statement that isn’t meant to be in a musical, but is really meant to be yelled at a piano. I’m reading the first-ever Cy Coleman biography right now, by Andy Propst, and I’m thinking about these songs that people would play at bars in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, that were these great one-off numbers, not songs from shows the writers were working on, but true cabaret- intended songs. And “If You Like It” is in that tradition. Hearing the double entendre of that one in a room of raucous people always reminds me of what a dirty Noel Coward or Cole Porter list song would’ve been like, to hear around a piano. Audiences discover this cleverness that’s exciting to laugh about specifically in an intimate cabaret setting.

 

“If You Like It”: Mary Testa:

 

But of course the way you do the double-meaning in “Wave” in Hunter is very different.

JOE:

With that song… “Wave”… I tried to write that song for so long. I had all these ideas about it and I knew what the general vibe was going to be, and I knew that I wanted the song to be simple and never get too big or too small.

It was so important to me to quote actual lines from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Wave” speech, because I wanted the song to be very specific to Hunter’s story. But it’s also a song that needs to be a really universal moment. I didn’t want to write it until I could find a way to write this huge song that’s about the largest idea: the decay of hope, in the most general way, in addition to writing it about the historic event, literally using specific lines from this man’s writing. As you said, I love the idea that when that song is in the show, people will hear it and not even realize that it’s quoting lines from Hunter S. Thompson until they think about it… or people will hear the song out of context and think it’s about another event entirely. Maybe they think it’s about the time they dropped out of nursing school.

JEN:

Exactly. It reminds me of… well, you know I’ve always been very moved by A Chorus Line, and A Chorus Line is so specifically about these dancers on a line, but then as you really let the show get under your skin, you realize it’s about anyone who’s ever gone in for a job or anyone who really wants something. Every moment in that show is specific and it’s also universal. So the idea that people experience “Wave” and relate it to the feeling they had when their high school musical closed or when they ended a friendship with a person or when they left a job… that’s really exciting to me. It’s about when things end, but it’s also so articulately about a speech about hippie culture.

 

“Social Worker” from The Black Suits: Nick Blaemire:

 

JOE:

And that’s my favorite kind of art. I love things that are so specific but can be viewed as about your personal experience, and you can identify about it. I want to write a musical about snowboarding, because I know nothing about it. I talked about this during The Black Suits, saying it’s not about the band, it’s not about the contest—the characters could be anything at all. It’s really about friendship, the relationships you have when you’re a teenager, and getting older. So with writing a snowboarding musical… I just feel like I should write something that I have no idea about, in an effort to really prove my point to both other people and to myself, that it’s not about the actual topic, it’s about the idea behind it.

JEN:

Cool.

JOE:

But I probably won’t write that.

JEN:

You might. You don’t know.

JOE:

It would require too much research. Which I don’t like to do, in that way. Research about snowboarding.

JEN:

Well you have Anika now. Anika can do the research. Shout-out to dramaturg and literary manager, Anika Chapin!

JOE:

True!

 

“The Bar Song”: Adam Guettel:

 

JEN:

You and I both have an affinity for specific places in New York City. I wanted to ask if there are like five places in New York City that you really hope will be the same in 50 years. I know what at least one of them is going to be. And then also… if you want to talk about any songs or pieces of a show that you associate with having written them in certain places, whether it be a rehearsal studio, apartment, coffee shop, bar…

JOE:

That’s the best question! As far as places that I hope are still here: Sardi’s, obviously.

JEN:

That was the one I knew.

JOE:

Number one. Then… where else? [Long pause] Ars Nova, I hope never goes away. I like knowing that it’s there, on 54th Street. I wish I could just choose 54th Street.

JEN:

Maybe I’m wrong about The Music Box. Maybe your first Broadway musical is going to be at Studio 54…. Well, now I’ve gone and said it on the record, so if it happens, I win the right of being correct.

JOE:

I never imagined having one that far uptown. Maybe… Also The West Bank Café.

JEN:

Do you want to say things that are gone? Is that why you’re still thinking? I mean, it’s a hard question. I know if I was going to answer, I’d say The Café Edison, but it’s gone, which is still inexplicable and crazy to me. So I don’t know if you want to say places that are gone, too.

JOE:

I know I could rattle off places, but I’m trying to keep it to five.

JEN:

You’re such a good rule- follower!

JOE:

There definitely are places that are gone though, that meant a lot to my idea of New York. I still think about Howard Johnson’s so much. I read that there’s a Howard Johnson’s in Lake George.

JEN:

Oh I know. I’m very excited for you to get to the Howard Johnson’s episode of Mad Men.

JOE:

I know that episode exists because I just read the article about the Lake George one, and how it’s like a restored Howard Johnson’s. I want to go there. Oh, and the Market Diner. I hope that never goes away. Even though it’s under new management… I never want it to leave, ever. It’d make me sad.

JEN:

Those are some good ones.

 

“52”: Joe Iconis with Jason SweetTooth Williams, Molly Hager, and Eric William Morris:

JOE:

As far as writing stuff in specific places, I feel like with everything I write, I vividly remember where I wrote it. With Be More Chill, over the course of writing the show the past few years, Two River Theater has brought Joe Tracz and I out a few times. Now, we’re in production so every day I’m in a room, and I’ll say to someone something like: “Oh, I wrote the second verse of “Voices In My Head” in this room! Right there in that corner!” I’m oddly obsessed with that. I think it’s the absolute coolest thing in the whole world, to remember places where you created things. I do a lot of that.

I so vividly remember that the first time I thought of the idea for Bloodsong, I was sitting outside at the Manatus Diner. It’s no longer there. It was on the corner of Bleecker, near Christopher Street. I was there because it was when Plant That Ate Dirty Socks was happening down the block at the Lortel. Sitting at Manatus, I wrote down the idea for Bloodsong, along with another idea that I didn’t care about, to bring to Ars Nova, when I had to pitch them two ideas for my commission. Then I wrote the outline for the show at Joe Allen, sitting at the bar in the corner seat. I remember that very vividly. What else?

 

“Find The Bastard” from Bloodsong of Love: Eric William Morris & Cast:

 

I read Be More Chill at the Cupcake Café on 9th Avenue, where I literally have never been. I was going somewhere later that night, and I thought: I just have to sit somewhere outside my apartment and read this book. I have to do it today. I had never been there before and have never been there since, but every time I pass the Cupcake Café, I think of reading Be More Chill. I underlined things I was reading, while people were eating cupcakes.

JEN:

As I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking about how I associate a lot of your songs with where I was the first time I heard them. And it wasn’t always a rehearsal studio or theatre. I remember when you sent me the Hunter S. Thompson Project opening number, I thought: I don’t want to have the first time I heard this be in my cubicle at an office, so I went outside and I listened to it for the first time standing in the sun on 49th Street across from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

I listened and kept thinking: This, Hunter S. Thompson, is a crazy topic that speaks so much to the American dream… and this song feels unlike anything else… and this show is going to be an important musical someday. So I heard how the Hunter musical starts, your very basic demo of it, while imagining what it will be when it’s actually in the show, while standing across from the Book of Mormon marquee, another topic you wouldn’t think could ever be a musical. Even now, when I walk by the O’Neill on the other side of the block, I think of the Hunter S. Thompson Project opening. I also remember where I was and what time of day it was when I first heard “Last On Land”, during the summer of 2009.

JOE:

Places are like that.

 

“Adore”, from The Hunter S. Thompson Project: Krysta Rodriguez:

 

JEN:

Some musical theatre writers say that they feel like they walk around with songs in their head all of the time, like they have ideas or music in their head that they haven’t written down yet. Do you feel like that at all? And if so, what makes you sit down and write something when it’s not for a specific musical?

JOE:

I do feel like that. I feel like I have a million ideas running through my head at any given moment. And I’m really bad about getting the ideas out of my head onto something and then remembering them. I’m so messy about it. At various times in my life, I’ve tried to force myself to carry little notebooks to write things down. And it just doesn’t work. I lose the notebook, or I…

JEN:

I’m horrified. I’m horrified. Joe, I’m horrified as your friend AND as a musical theatre historian. I’m reading the Cy Coleman biography—how many times can I mention it—and when it’s like “all of the notes from this early musical written on spec were lost”, I scream. How, Cy Coleman?! Why?! Someone should’ve been following him around with a tape recorder and notepad. Don’t make me do that.

JOE:

[laughing]

JEN:

But who knows? It’s part of your creative process, and if you didn’t have that…

JOE:

I think that it is. And I’m also such a huge believer—I might just be lying to myself—but I think that if you have a great idea, it’s going to keep coming back to you. I’ve felt that in a very real way. There are songs that have been in my head for years, and then one day, I’ll just write it.

JEN:

Wow.

JOE:

But there are so many vague ideas, and title ideas. I try my best to get them down somewhere, so I have many Word documents on my computer that are just like one word. I had a Word document on my computer that just said “Velociraptor” forever, because I thought that would be a great title for a song, and it took me years to actually sit down and write it.

 

“Velociraptor”: Liz Lark Brown:

 

JEN:

I love ideas that stem from a title. I remember you did a concert called “Mamma Cut Me Deeper” before the song with that title, which is now in Things To Ruin, actually existed, because the inspiration for the song came from the title. I thought about that when I read that Matthew Weiner would be inspired to write an episode or storyline from Mad Men because he wanted it to be shaped around a specific song.

JOE:

The other day, Chase Brock said something in Be More Chill rehearsal, and I wrote it down in a Note in my iPhone. I thought it was the greatest collection of words. [He holds up iPhone.]

JEN:

Let the record show that it says: “I thought about a blade”.

JOE:

“I Thought About A Blade”.

 

“Jeff”: Jeremy Morse:

 

JEN:

I’ve always loved that The Joe Iconis Rock And Roll Jamboree feels very Steppenwolf-y. It’s this group or band—for lack of better words—who perform together as a group in cabarets and concerts, but also continually collaborate on different projects. And some of the cabaret work with the Joe Iconis Rock And Roll Jamboree has translated into inspiration for moments in musicals in certain ways.

Take Eric William Morris, for example, who’s an actor in the Jamboree and is currently in Be More Chill. There’s this high level of inspired collaboration that has developed over many years between you two that just makes his performance in Be More Chill even more thrilling than it would be otherwise. It’s like both writer and actor are firing on all cylinders because they know each other creatively so well. How do you feel that writing for someone like Eric in the Jamboree informs something that you might work with him on in a musical?

JOE:

I’m automatically drawn to people who are multi-faceted, and have hidden talents in a way. Someone like Eric William Morris… anyone who encounters him in the musical theatre world sees him as a very handsome leading man, period. And from working with him so much, I know him as that, but also as a great rock and roll singer, and a great front man of a band (which are actually two very different things), and a great character actor, and someone who can play a very, very weird character.

Because of the way this world is set up, most people who cast or work with Eric wouldn’t necessarily know all of that. So working on Be More Chill with him is amazing because I know what he’s capable of and what his secret sweet spots are. I can write toward that in a way that shocks everyone. But it doesn’t surprise me, because I know that that’s the kind of thing that Eric can nail perfectly. That’s what I love so much about having these relationships with these artists who I get to work with consistently. I get to watch them have these great moments surprising audiences with what they can do, which are things I know they can do and am writing toward.

 

“Never Heard Nothing” from Things To Ruin:

 

JEN:

I feel like I respond to that so much in your work, because of my musical theatre historian brain, and my nostalgia for the time when musical theatre writers would have actors who they continually worked on projects with. In the mid-20th century, so many theatre writers would create cabaret or novelty songs for performers that really showed off their exact skill set, and then that experience would lend itself to their further collaborating on a musical together, because the writer really knew the actor then and the actor was really able to interpret that specific writer. But that doesn’t happen as often anymore. I love when there are exceptions, and certainly there’s you, and a small handful of others I can think of.

But there’s also this misconception that comes along… because creating cabaret songs and concerts that are shaped around a cabaret aesthetic is very separate from doing “The Songs of [Insert Songwriter Who Writes Musicals]”. People don’t realize that. If you did “The Songs of Joe Iconis” and it included a couple songs from a bunch of your musicals, that would be very, very different from what you actually do in a cabaret, with The Joe Iconis Rock And Roll Jamboree, which is more of a specific club act.

 

“Party Hat”: MK Lawson & Eric William Morris:

 

Having 12 actors each sing a song from one of your musicals is very different from the idea of: Okay, there’s Eric William Morris singing “Party Hat”, which is very much a cabaret song, and Liz Lark Brown singing “Velociraptor”, completely inspired as a one-off song, and then “If You Like It”, which is a piano-bar sing-along. It’s not this song from Be More Chill, followed by this song from The Black Suits, followed by this song from The Hunter S. Thompson Project… and often, when you do include songs from your musicals, you include them in a very different context than in the musical, either sung by a person who would never play the role, or with an entirely different musical arrangement. And when there’s someone not part of the Jamboree who comes in to sing a song, it’s so cool, and they’re very much a ‘special guest’.

 

“Kevin”: Andrew Rannells:

 

The Joe Iconis Rock And Roll Jamboree has always seemed to me completely separate from your musicals; it’s a group with a cabaret aesthetic, that isn’t singing “The Best Of” the songs from your shows, but are creating these cabaret pieces together. And I feel like that’s misconstrued sometimes, because it’s much more 1960-ish than it is 2015-ish. It’s misunderstood as: “Oh he only wants to work with those people”. But that’s not true. Every time you get to collaborate with a new actor on a musical, I’ve seen you be thrilled to work with someone new. But this cabaret work isn’t just an evening of your songs—if you did that, you would utilize different actors. You’re presenting the work of this collective of artists who create new stuff together.

 

“I Was A Teenage Delinquent!”: Molly Hager and Lauren Marcus:

JOE:

I think Steppenwolf-y is a great way to describe it. It’s more purposeful than people understand. It’s something that’s done in other art forms all of the time. It’s done in movies, where certain collaborators with create an aesthetic together and work together consistently on different projects. And as far as musicals, to each his own! But people who work together in collectives and groups, I think it’s a really valid way to make art. It’s a way I love to work. And it makes it even more exciting when I meet new people and they get to be integrated into the ones that already exist. It forces the new people to think about things in a different way, to think about creating art in a collective way. And maybe it opens up something in them. I love coming at art from such a collaborative place.

JEN:

I enjoy the work of Ed Kleban and Peter Allen, and there are certain writers who were popular and appreciated, but weren’t the huge hit makers. I find pieces of your work that have lines to those writers, the same way that Be More Chill has a line to Little Shop. I think the way that you write about nostalgia and other periods of time in New York or the way you write about real people relate to Kleban and Allen specifically. So my question is, are there writers that are no longer with us who are people you feel like you’d want to sit down and collaborate with or commiserate with, if you had a time machine?

JOE:

Absolutely. As far as musical theatre goes, Ed Kleban for sure. Howard Ashman, absolutely. Of course Fred Ebb. Wait these people have to be dead?

JEN:

Yes, Joe. I’m asking specifically about dead people.

JOE:

I’m really fascinated by Paul Jabara. He’s someone who I feel like I understand. I get his sensibility and how he related to the musical theatre world and other worlds. Bob Fosse. Michael Bennett. And then, if we’re going outside musical theatre, Robert Altman is a huge one.

Harry Nilsson is someone I’ve loved for a long time. He was an artist who was always in the shadow of other artists. He was an artist that so many people who are hugely popular respected and loved, and he was one of those people who others always cited as an influence, even by his contemporaries. John Lennon always talked about how Harry Nilsson was the best pop singer/ writer ever. But Harry Nilsson never approached the level of those guys in any way. He’s someone I’m fascinated by.

JEN:

That reminds me of when I did a talkback after a production of Merrily We Roll Along in Astoria last weekend, because someone raised their hand and said: “We hear so much about how critics hated the original Merrily, but what was the audience reaction? How did audience members feel?”

Immediately, I pointed out the number of young writers and artists who saw Merrily then, who found it hugely influential for the rest of their lives, including theatre writers like Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa. People like that cite Merrily as one of their favorite musicals. So just like Harry Nilsson, who might not technically have been the hugest success but created this amazing work, it influenced the next generation of artists. Other people who ended up making important pieces of art found that work important and inspiring to them.

JOE:

Something like The Last 5 Years is also such a funny show to me, because I was in college when that show came out, and I saw the first preview. I loved it. But it felt like nobody cared about it at the time it was happening. People who cared about musical theatre were aware of it, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was going to have the influence it did. Years later, it’s obvious just how many writers were completely turned on and affected by that show. It’s a show that’s had this huge affect on new musical theatre writers.

JEN:

It’s amazing that in both cases, the cast recording was such a huge reason for the ripple affect that happened.

JOE:

I wish I could liken it to something. It didn’t feel like an event at the time, but it turned out that it was one.

JEN:

It’s like The Golden Apple!

JOE:

I was going to liken it to something more recent, Tepper… but sure, The Golden Apple.

JEN:

So if you had a time machine and could go back and see any five Broadway shows, what would you pick?

JOE:

[with no hesitation] Follies.

JEN:

[cackling] I knew it! I knew that would be first. I don’t know what the other four are going to be, but I absolutely knew Sardi’s and Follies.

[Let the record show that we are only not at Sardi’s because it’s a Monday night, and just like Broadway, Sardi’s is closed on Monday.]

JOE:

Follies… the original production of Carousel… hmm…

JEN:

I always say The Black Crook, but I’m not sure I mean it.

JOE:

Dreamgirls.

JEN:

I’m not trying to pressure you, but do you feel like you’d see the original production of Cabaret? Because I know you love that show so much.

JOE:

I do, but I feel like I loved the revival so much that I’m not sure I need to go back and see the original.

JEN:

I wouldn’t see Merrily, for similar reasons. I feel like I’ve reconstructed it in my head for my entire life, and I’d rather have that version at this point. Maybe. It’s weird.

JOE:

It is a weird thing, thinking about what you’d go back and see. But if I was going to pick a Kander and Ebb show to take a time machine to, I would probably pick…

JEN AND JOE [in unison]:

The Rink!

JOE:

And Carrie. The original Carrie. I just would. And maybe Dorothy Loudon in Sweeney Todd. I think I would’ve loved it. If I was the age I am now in 1980, I think I would’ve just loved Dorothy Loudon in Sweeney Todd so much.

JEN:

What are your writing rituals?

JOE:

It’s so messy. It’s different all the time. It depends on the type of writing. If I’m writing toward a deadline, I tend to do well writing early in the morning. Otherwise, it’s so unstructured.

JEN:

I find this fascinating about you, because obviously you and I write different kinds of things, but I find it so much easier to write late at night. I’m pretty amazed when you send me something you’ve written at 7am. Oh my god… I’m going to bring up the Cy Coleman biography again. He talks about how Dorothy Fields wrote songs so early in the morning, and she’d call him with her lyrics when the sun came up and he’d still be fast asleep, because he was more of a night writer with his music. I think it’s interesting that some writers really like to have lived their day first, and some need to write in the morning.

JOE:

I just feel like in the morning I’m so clear-headed. And for me, the stress of the day makes it harder and harder for me to write as the day goes on.

JEN:

See, I just feel like at night, less people have access to me. No one is looking for me or expecting me to get back to them, so I can write without that pressure. And I know I can stay up all night and write if I want or need to, so it makes me feel like there’s no deadline.

JOE:

And I like the morning for the same reason, because I feel unreachable in the morning, when everyone’s still sleeping. I also like writing when I’m in rehearsal. I love the pressure of being in rehearsal for something and having to write something really fast and knowing that there’s people in the same building in a different room who are working on it while I’m writing it…

JEN:

That’s SO Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies!

JOE:

I just love it. I wrote two new songs for Be More Chill, one at Ripley Grier and one at Two River, essentially with people in the next room waiting for the song to be finished so that they could work on it. In each case, I wanted to write the song and be done with it because a moment was tripping us up and I wanted to solve it. And if I’d had two weeks to write each of those songs, where I was just at home, I think it’d actually have been harder.

JEN:

There’s this song in Be More Chill called “I Love Play Rehearsal”—which coincidentally, I heard for the first time while sitting across from the Alvin Theatre, so I guess I have a history of listening to your demos and hearing your songs for the first time while staring at Broadway houses—and I love that song.

I LOVE “I Love Play Rehearsal”. But sometimes I think about how if I’d actually heard that song when I was 12-year-old Jen Tepper, growing up in Boca Raton, Florida, listening to cast albums… that song would’ve made me feel completely understood and overwhelmed… in the way that the rare song does when you’re a kid falling in love with theatre. I love it just as much today, but I can’t help thinking about how I would’ve reacted to it then. Thinking about how much of your work has such resonance with teenagers, songs like “I Love Play Rehearsal” and of course “Blue Hair”… do you feel like you’re channeling yourself as a teenager when you write that kind of material? Or teenagers you encounter today? Or teenagers from teen movies you like? Since you’re in your early 30s now, what kind of inspiration occurs to you when you’re writing about teenage characters?

JOE:

I think that the ultimate thing I tap into with teenagers is their optimism. Their un-jaded-ness. Their lack of bitterness. That’s the thing that I think I most respond to in teenagers. When I write them, I feel like I’m channeling myself now… or what I want to be now. Writing teenagers includes all of the complications and anxiety of being a person, but with this notion of losing the “I’ve done this and it sucks” feeling you sometimes have to contend with as an adult. That’s the main thing I feel when writing teenagers. And then it’s bits and pieces of other things: me as a teenager, sometimes… And then during my adult life, I’ve been lucky enough to be around great kids and work with kids, so I channel that too.

 

The Black Suits montage of songs from Barrington Stage production: Ben Platt, Jason Hite, Sarah Cetrulo, Will Roland, Harrison Chad, Annie Golden:

 

JEN:

I know it’s not the “hit song” but I’m always tempted to say that my favorite song from The Black Suits is “Black Suit On”, because I think it captures this sense of possibility that you feel so much as a young person, but you might only feel as an adult if you’re lucky, or more sparingly. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why so much art is made about young people in general.

[Giant Kinky Boots digital advertisement lights up Times Square. Image of Cortney Wolfson floats by.]

JOE:

And look, it’s Cortney Wolfson, who introduced “Blue Hair”.

 

“Blue Hair” from The Black Suits: Cortney Wolfson:

 

JEN:

I was talking to Tom Viertel the other day about how YouTube is the new Tin Pan Alley, because it’s so often where songs by new musical theatre writers are introduced and how word spreads about their songs and their sheet music. Just the idea that someone can popularize a song like that… So we’ve talked about various themes that consistently play into your work, such as the darkness of suburbia… are there other themes you feel like characterize your work or fascinate you, that we haven’t talked about?

JOE:

There are… it’s a hard question, but a good one…

JEN:

Well I know there used to be this idea that every musical had to have this big love story… and to a degree, that idea is still prevalent on Broadway, although there are more and more exceptions. You write a lot about friendships, and about individuals. You write stories that aren’t necessarily love stories.

JOE:

The Be More Chill team has been talking about that a lot. I’m just bored by this idea that a story has to be a romantic love story at its heart. I think life is more than that. There are other relationships and there are other things that define people.

I love writing about friendship. And I love writing about an individual and what they’re going through. Of course, I’ve written love stories in musicals that I care about, and I’m sure I’ll write more of those. But still, I always want to see the people as people first. And I think sometimes, especially in a musical, the idea is front and center that “the guy has to get the girl” and that’s how you know the show has a happy ending. I don’t love that.

JEN:

I love the classic Broadway musicals that are about more than that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Sweet Charity.

JOE:

Yeah! Sweet Charity is a great one.

JEN:

And of course the central love story is an interesting part of that story, but the show is about a lot of other things also, that this person is going through. I find that more interesting.

JOE:

Me too.

JEN:

It’s why I love ensemble musicals, where there’s a love story, but it’s really about a group of people.

JOE:

There’s a Robert Altman quote I’m obsessed with, where he talks about endings and how he doesn’t understand endings, and the only real ending is when someone dies. But like, why is the story over when someone gets married? I so get that. Why does Beauty and the Beast have to end with them getting together? I want to not write that. I want to write the story where that’s not what the ending is.

In Be More Chill specifically… there’s a part of the story where the main character, Jeremy Heere, has this crush on a girl named Christine, but the creative team is all on the same page about the show not being a love story about the two of them. They’re their own characters, who are both going through things over the course of this story that’s about something other than that crush. Very technically, Jeremy and Christine are the romantic leads. But the real love story of Be More Chill, if you need to have one, is between Jeremy and his best friend Michael. And who knows if, next year, all of these characters are going to still know each other. We don’t know that.

 

[SPOILER AHEAD]

 

We talked a lot about if the final moment is going to have Jeremy kissing Christine. And everyone thought: No. It can’t happen. We want to see him by himself at the end. This isn’t a show that wants to end with the two of them arm in arm, or making out. We want to see at the end that he’s okay with just being himself.

 

[END OF SPOILER]

 

JEN:

I think that’s a great, interesting, true-to-life thing about what you’ve written. And also, there’s a love story in Black Suits, and there’s a love story in Bloodsong, but in both cases the love story is not the end-all be-all of what the show is about.

 

“Last On Land” from Bloodsong of Love:

 

At the last Be More Chill reading, I remember being completely struck by what a feminist character Christine is, written by you and Joe Tracz. She’s a character who happens to be a woman, and she is making her own choices, and interested in her own things… and for people who see the show, I feel like no one can think that Christine is an appendage of the lead character, or this perfect idea of a girl he has a crush on. She’s very much a real person with her own individual goals and thoughts, in a way that I feel like teenage female characters are not often written.

JOE:

I get very frustrated when I see any female character in a musical who isn’t her own person. I feel like I see musicals where the lead females could actually be interchangeable from show to show. They have the one song where they talk about their hopes and dreams to fall in love, and that’s it.

JEN:

I feel like that’s another reason why I love ensemble musicals like A Chorus Line and Hands on a Hardbody. Because you have to hear what multiple people want and they can’t all want “to be in love!” So you get to hear more complicated stories about what people are wanting and feeling.

JOE:

Absolutely.

JEN:

And before we leave here today, I want to hear you talk about the beginnings of “Broadway, Here I Come!” Why did you write that song?

JOE:

I wrote that song because I was in a very not-great place and it was a song that was born out of me feeling very conflicted about theatre… I say that, but it wasn’t conflicted about theatre in a way where I felt like: Oh, I’m gonna leave and go to LA and write movies, or I’m gonna leave and become a millworker… or a mason.

JEN:

I get it. Working reference.

JOE:

But I was not in a great place. We closed Bloodsong. And I wanted to write a song about the conflicted feelings I had about theatre in general. I’ve always wanted to have a show on Broadway. I love the idea of Broadway. I love the idea of having one of these musicals that I care so much about on the Great White Way. And I think it’s possible. So I just wanted to write something about that.

I had the title, “Broadway, Here I Come!” before I had the song. And immediately, I thought: I love the idea of writing a really sad song called “Broadway, Here I Come!” that’s about how terrible I feel about theatre right now… with the exclamation point. Then I tried to write it so many times and couldn’t…

Eventually, I sort of forced myself to write it. And I forced myself to write it so I could sing it in this little show at the Duplex, this concert that you sort of forced me into doing. It was the first thing I’d done since Bloodsong, and I thought: I better finish this song for the concert.

I sort of stumbled upon the idea of “Broadway, Here I Come!” being about jumping off a building and sort of literally heading for the street, Broadway. And to me, that was so funny, and exactly what I wanted to say with it. So I wrote it, and I finished it the morning of the show. It was June…

JEN:

26th. 2010.

JOE:

Nice! And then I performed it at the show.

JEN:

It was really funny that night. Because I think it was so great that you did it at the Duplex. It was so intimate, and so many of the people in that tiny room knew about the disappointment of the ending of Bloodsong. There was a lyric that night that you sang that’s no longer in the song:

It’s a little morose

But Broadway’s gettin’ close

…Broadway, Here I Come!

JOE:

Yeah.

JEN:

And just the closeness of those two phrases in itself was so funny. People laughed because it was so real and truthful. I freaked out when I thought we lost the recording of that night, and then when I found it, I was so shocked by the laughter. The song was so funny to people, that night.

JOE:

I haven’t even really listened to that recording, but I still remember that night during the performance, hearing a lot of laughter up top, and then having it sort of peter out as the song went on. And I couldn’t tell if the laughter petered out because the song ran out of steam… or because people were worried for me…

JEN:

I think it was just people realizing that the song was somewhat serious. At the beginning, it only seemed funny, but then the audience gradually understood how dark it was, too. I loved hearing that happen, live. I think it’s similar to the way I’ve seen people react to “The War Song”, where at first it’s a funny song about this wacky teenager, but then you see how deeply disturbing it is.

I just find it so fascinating the path that “Broadway, Here I Come!” took. From what it started as, this song you wrote at your darkest hour and played for 40 people on Christopher Street, to the song of yours that became the most famous so far, when it was on national television, on Smash. It’s just huge.

JOE:

I’ve done quite a few songs in concerts that I’ll do once and think: Eh, that doesn’t work. And I just put them to bed.

JEN:
Like [song title redacted].

JOE:

Oh god yes, [song title redacted]. And with “Broadway, Here I Come!”, I did it and then kind of put it to bed because I didn’t care to revisit it yet. Half a year later, I decided I was ready, for a concert at the Laurie Beechman, where Krysta Rodriguez would sing it.

 

“Broadway, Here I Come!”: Krysta Rodriguez:

 

I rewrote “Broadway, Here I Come!” at my parents’ house on Long Island, on the piano that I first learned to play piano on. That’s where the song kind of became what it is now. I so rarely do a song in concert and then really rewrite it. I haven’t done that a lot, in the way I did with “Broadway, Here I Come!” I don’t even know what made me revisit it. But I just felt like I needed to, for that concert. I had some distance from it, but still felt ‘in it’, and what happened next just feels like a weird sort of happy accident.

Sometimes I don’t know how to talk about it. It was just a song that… it was so much about disappointment to me. And I think it’s a really funny song. Funny and sad. It’s the double meaning thing. I so love an audience where people are laughing at “Broadway, Here I Come!” and then other people are like: Why are they laughing at this? It’s my favorite thing. I love that two people can be sitting next to each other and having a totally different experience, from something that I’m putting on the stage.

JEN:

It’s kind of amazing that it’s now this song that people know most of yours, that kids are singing at their graduations not fully knowing what it means.

JOE:

I love that. It should exist like that. That song… it’s about hope and the completely un-bitter point of view of someone who just wants to make it on Broadway and has that just-got-off-the-bus feeling. And it’s also about wanting to kill yourself because of knowing what that world can be.

 

“Broadway, Here I Come!”: Jeremy Jordan:

I truly cannot believe that’s the song of mine that’s gotten out into the world in the way it has. And I love that there are young people out there singing it, in the way that it’s meant for them. It’s about both things, and I like that it’s sung sometimes with emphasis on one and sometimes with emphasis on another. It’s absolutely about both. It’s thrilling that young people can sing that song, making it just about hope—and it works! It can completely just be about that, and every line works. They’re singing it about what they think the song is about.

 

“Broadway, Here I Come!”: Kaho:

 

JEN:

There’s this Cy Coleman- Carolyn Leigh song called “It Amazes Me”. Randy Graff sings a killer rendition of it. It was a pop hit of theirs, originally sung by Tony Bennett in 1958. And it was written because Carolyn Leigh wanted to pen a song about her gratefulness for the support and encouragement of their publisher, Buddy Morris, who had done a lot for them when they were just starting out. And it’s this torch song, this love song, that everyone thinks is about romance. And really, it’s Carolyn Leigh’s ode to their publisher and their friend. I just find that fantastic. It’s about both. It can be about different things. I think that always makes the song better.

JOE:

Dolly Parton wrote this great song for this album called “Halos and Horns” that came out in 2002, when she was working with this independent record label called Sugar Hill Records. She loved them, and they sort of reinvigorated her career in the late 1990s, because they released these blue grass albums. They were timed really well, and it was just on the cusp of people liking blue grass albums again. So Dolly Parton wanted to write this song literally for her record company. She wrote “Sugar Hill”, and the song is this story of a young girl skinny dipping and discovering her sexuality with boys, in a very sweet way that feels very authentic. It’s an amazing song. And it could’ve been written in 1910 by someone on a porch, but it was written by Dolly Parton in this century about the love she felt for her record company. It’s the coolest thing ever, and the song can be enjoyed on so many levels.

JEN:

We’ve covered a lot. And I really feel like this is a thing we’re going to continue to do. I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever interviewed you.

JOE:

We definitely will.

JEN:

I was trying to think of some historic reference for it…

JOE:

Well, Truffaut did a series of interviews with Hitchcock. And that’s the thing that I’ve been thinking of.

JEN:

That’s very sophisticated.

JOE:

It’s a film reference.

JEN:

The only thing I’ve really referenced during this interview is Cy Coleman, so…

JOE:

Well I love that this is a thing we’re going to do. It’s perfect. Like… of course we are.

JEN:

I think in the world we live in though—and I know you understand this… there’s some things you might want to do, like sitting down and having this conversation… but you don’t need to do everything right away. Sometimes it’s good to wait for a moment that feels right, whether it’s the right moment to write a song or a musical or just the right moment to have a conversation on the public record. I’ve learned that more and more.

JOE:

Me too. It’s a journey.

[We laugh.]

 

About #COTA

Center On The Aisle -- or #COTA) for short -- was founded by theater expert, Steve Schonberg in 2014, and the site now boasts a team of 15 expert writers and reviewers. Steve created the site to help casual theatergoers easily access informative and entertaining content to help them engage more with the theater, and make confident and informed decisions when selecting shows. With this mission, the #COTA team applies their deep theater knowledge and attendance at hundreds of shows a year to create the site's content. That's quite a task! Covering Broadway, off-Broadway, cabaret, dance, music and more, the #COTA team provides a range of valuable perspectives to inform and engage readers. After all, the theater is part of our history, heritage and cultural identity - it should be engaged in as often as possible. Welcome, again, to #COTA and please come again.

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