Sci-fi and video games come to Broadway with the musical, Be More Chill, which debuted at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in 2015 and enjoyed an off-Broadway run in 2018. The show, based on a 2004 novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, opened on Broadway on March 10, 2019.
The creative team includes sound designer Ryan Rumery, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, projection designer Alex Basco Koch, and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. Live Design chats with Boritt about his work on this new hit musical.
Live Design: How did you initially approach the design of this play off-Broadway, and how did it change for the Broadway theatre?
Beowulf Boritt: I was hired very late for the show, maybe five weeks before load in off-Broadway. I hired one of my younger assistants to help research for me, because it’s a teenage show, and I wanted the perspective of someone closer to that age than I. But it turns out high school stinks in the same way now as it did when I was in high school, and all his research felt very familiar to me!
At its heart, the set is trying to create the psychological landscape for a temptation story (like Faust or Macbeth) where Jeremy “sells his soul” by implanting a computer, the Squip, in his brain to try to get popularity and love. All of our lives are deeply influenced by our phones and computers now, and the visuals of the set reflect that. It’s the shapes of iPhones and computer screens, but the space where the “screen” ought to be is open and filled with live actors and scenery. As the show progresses, the Squip starts to take over Jeremy completely. We begin to see the ugly, messy computer gak inside the frames of the set. We’ve all made a bad decision in our lives which seemed to make our world fall into chaos, and that’s the feeling the visuals are trying to represent.
Interestingly, for Broadway, we kept most of the off-Broadway set (beautifully built by Proof Productions in Philadelphia), and just enhanced it. I added a portal that sits downstage of the set and covers a lot of the Lyceum proscenium. Building a giant steel and Lexan light up frame that fits into a 120-year-old plaster proscenium with ½'' of clearance was scary, but the Broadway shop (Hudson Scenic) did a great job, and it fit perfectly. We were able to automate almost all the scenery, which mostly was pushed by actors off-Broadway, and get much brighter, fake neon, and better set electrics for Broadway. And we added flying actors!
LD: How does the video-game technology inform your design?
BB: I’m not sure it really does. I’m actually not much of a videogamer. But the swipe-right/swipe-left of smartphones certainly inspired how we bring scenery on and offstage!
LD: How did you collaborate with Tyler Micoleau on the lighting and Alex Koch for the projections?
BB: The three of us spent many hours together. The first challenge was that the portals need to be transparent so we could see all the gak inside them, but also opaque when we wanted to hide it, and able to be projected on. I ended up building them from smoked Lexan with a layer of textaline over it. The two together worked like a scrim, and had a slightly glossy “techy” quality about them. We did lots of tests of fake neon to get something bright enough for Broadway, and ended up with Qolorflex Nu Neon (RGB) by City Theatrical. We also added lots of blinder LEDs and video monitors inside the portals.
You don’t see it, but because the stage is so tightly packed with stuff, we had to cut away a lot of framing from the header of portal 2 so we could hang a projector there to hit portal 3. Because portal 2 slides left to right, we had to carve away about 12' of structure so the projector could hang there in space as the portal slides just under and in front of it.
The three of us worked closely all through tech as Alex developed the video content so that we were sure we were all telling the same story.
LD: Does the soundtrack influence the design in any way?
BB: The soundtrack was what made the show well-known and is the reason it’s on Broadway now. So even though the initial design process was rushed, I listened to it constantly to feel the mood of the show. It’s also why the band is upstage center and seen several times through the show. The music is the heart of Be More Chill, and we wanted to honor that in the design.
LD: What was your biggest challenge in moving this to Broadway, and how did you solve it?
BB: The challenges were time and money. We had to work within a budget, and so I couldn’t have everything we wanted. I still miss a toaster trap I designed to pop the Squip magically out of the floor.
Trickier was trying to keep the backstage crew numbers down to a level the show could afford, and still make all the shifts and changes we wanted. Even though the scenery is automated, it still takes people to get the scenery on and off the automated tracks, and to shift all the scenery around backstage.
One trick we came up with was in the Forever 21 scene. There wasn’t time or the crew to hang all the clothes hangers on rods that we needed. When we tried making the clothes rods with the hangers attached to them, they got too heavy. Finally, we took groups of 20 metal hangers and welded them together with thin steel rod, so that one person could lift a group of 20 hangers, with clothes, from storage onto the part of the set that was going onstage. It worked well.
My other challenge was that I had a cluster of shows all happening at the same time this January and February, and I ended up opening six musicals in 26 days, which was stressful and exhausting, but ultimately, very rewarding.