Chilling with Joe Iconis (Between Friends) | Center on the Aisle
By Jennifer Ashley Tepper, with introduction by Steve Schonberg
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 Chill, Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!, Bloodsong of Love, The Black Suits, ReWrite, The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks and We The People. His songs were featured on Season 2 of NBC’s Smash. His concert act, Joe Iconis and Family, frequently plays The Beechman Theater, 54 Below, and Joe’s Pub. The original cast recording of Joe’s theatrical rock concert Things To Ruin, is 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?
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!
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.
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.