RED BANK, N.J.: Joe Iconis is going back to high school. Again.
The songwriter’s show The Black Suits, a rock musical about a teenage garage band, premiered at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2013, and his next show, Be More Chill, a sci-fi tuner about adolescent mind-control based on Ned Vizzini’s young-adult novel, will premiere at New Jersey’s Two River Theater on May 30 and run through June 21.
“When I was first started, I definitely did not want to write something about kids,” concedes Iconis, who was introduced to the book by his agent.
Be More Chill tells the story of a normal high schooler named Jeremy; the only thing unique about him is that he is remarkably un-special. Then Jeremy learns that the other kids at school have “squips,” implanted microcomputers in their brains that instruct them how to be cool. Jeremy goes on a quest to find a squip—you can take it like a pill—for himself. “It’s how I imagine the way people once got weed in high school,” Iconis posits. “I was not into anything but show tunes in high school, so I have no idea.”
Iconis’s inspiration for the show came more from film scores for movies like Halloween and The Thing and ’90s teen flicks like She’s All That and The Faculty. “It has the feeling of a chamber musical of a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” Iconis says. “There’s like a general atmosphere of suspense and dread, much the same way those feelings follow you around in high school.”
Two River commissioned the project from Iconis and playwright Joe Tracz, who wrote the book. While Iconis keeps trying to get out of high school territory, he confesses that he’s attracted to its heightened emotions and communication challenges.
“I’m really drawn to characters who can’t properly articulate themselves, and in this age group you’re learning to be a person,” Iconis explains. “That lack of vocabulary is a really cool way to explore feelings that everyone feels at every age. When you’re an adult you’re better at hiding the fact that these things feel so huge—but when you’re kid you wear it on your sleeves, because you don’t know how to cover it up.”