George Salazar, Be More Chill ’s Michael in the Bathroom Has Gone as Fur as He C’n Go – at the Lyceum Theatre
By: Ellis Nassour
June 25, 2019: George Salazar is co-starring, scene-stealing, and delivering a unique power ballad as Michael [the one locked in the bathroom] in Be More Chill, Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz’s hilarious, mind-bending Sci-Fi musical paean to teenage angst. At the 115-year-old Lyceum, to borrow a few lyrics from Oklahoma! and Cats!, he’s “gone about as fur as he c’n go.” He’s up, up, up a rusted, narrow iron stairwell – almost to the Heaviside Layer! [of the flies], where in addition to a bird’s eye view of all that’s happening below, he’s created a very cozy dressing room surrounded by his colorful headband collection and art presented by his legion of fans.
Since he’s onstage a lot, you might think Salazar would hang just off stage on a comfy couch in the theatre’s faux green room, but no. He’s up and down those intimidating stairs throughout the show.
“After the opening number (“More Than Survive”),” he states, “I make my way up here. There’s no bathroom or shower, as in dressing rooms in more modern theatres, so I wipe myself down since I’ve perspired so much. There’s a speaker, so I can follow the show. After Will (Roland, as Jeremy) has taken a squip, I go down for our duet (“Two Player Game”). I wear a wig and when I take it off in the middle of Act One, my hair is all messed up, so I run back up. I get my exercise, and look forward to intermission.”
Audiences begin adorning Salazar and wanting to caress him as soon as he makes his entrance. You sense something extra special in this actor who attempts to make us believe he’s actually invisible.
In Act Two, to escape a wild costume party where everyone’s high on themselves, Michael/George has locked himself in a bathroom and is crouched inside his “scene partner,” a bathtub. He emerges bitter and broken to sing his high-octane showstopper, “Michael in the Bathroom,” a most unlikely-titled tune filled with sizzling agony. He grieves he’s no longer half of a pair as best friend Jeremy, all squiped up and the life of the party, has deserted him and comes to the realization that he’s someone no one even notices.
It is a powerful moment. Salazar gives it everything he’s got. The audience is so stunned, you can hear a pin drop. It’s a highly passionate and emotional moment. To no surprise, it takes a toll on him: “I’m such a mess! My dresser, James Strunk is waiting in the wings with a water bottle and towel. I wipe off and try to compose myself, but right away it goes from bad to worse. I have to get out of that costume and get into a bra and this padded outfit and wig that make me look like Dora the Explorer! I will tell you there’s nothing fun about looking at myself in the mirror and seeing myself as a girl, a busty girl – very busty.”
“Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz have written Michael’s arc in such a way that all you have to do is follow their road map. All your questions and the answers are in there. They’re in every quarter note, every bit of punctuation.”
The tune has become a runaway hit that’s the talk not only of the theater community but also across the board. With mostly new lyrics, it was one of the highlights of this year’s Tony Awards, sung by host James Corden telecast live on CBS from Radio City Music Hall’s gigantic, art deco Men’s Room. What would have made it even more memorable would have been to have Salazar pop out of a stall and duet.
Unlike the needy, weed-addicted, lovelorn Michael of Act Two, Act One’s Michael is confident and optimistic, and, it soon becomes obvious, in love. George is not invisible. You can’t help but notice him. That the legion of Tony Award nominators didn’t find him worthy of a Featured Actor nomination is mindboggling. However, he did capture a Lortel Award and was also nominated for his astonishing performance by critics’ organizations.
He says, “That type of recognition or reward has never been a driving force for me. Lindsay Mendez (2018 Tony winner for the Carousel revival; Significant Other, Wicked), who’s like one of my older sisters in this community, told me, ‘You can’t care about that stuff. The focus has to be the work you’re doing.’ For the bottom line of our show or any show, a nomination is a win. I love this show, but my focus is to keep doing good work and finding clever ways to keep it alive.”
Be More Chill follows Dear Evan Hansen and The Prom as shows that attract young and enthusiastic audiences that are moved by the performances. “It seems that forever we’ve heard that theater is dead, that it’s a dying art form. It’s such a joy having a house full of young people who have fallen in love with our show and supported us.
Salazar, who is 33, was born in Staten Island, but, from age five, raised in Kissimmee, FL [near Orlando and Disney World]. “It was a great place to grow up.” His mother is Filipino; his father, Ecuadorian. “Mom was a nurse, which many Filipino women are. Dad, whom I’d call a jack of all trades, works for Universal Orlando. He’s also a drummer, so I grew up in a musical world but it wasn’t theater music. That was never a thing in our family. I was never taken to a musical. I fell into all this accidently. As I look back, I got the music from Dad and the compassion from Mom.”
A lot of his dad’s world rubbed off on Salazar and in addition to being a belter he a percussionist.
In high school, very much as Be More Chill’s Christine (Stephanie Hsu, he fell in love with musicals. “But it only took one, Little Shop of Horrors, where I played Seymour to hook me.” However, upon graduating, he chose a path far afield from musical theater. “At the University of Florida, I was biology major. Yes, I was going to be a doctor, a neurosurgeon, no less.” He kept hearing theater’s siren call. “It wasn’t long before I applied for the musical theater program. I was fortunate to be one of the four accepted.”
In 2008, $900 and BFA degree in hand, Salazar moved to New York, where hit the audition circuit. He remembers his first. It was for Theatreworks USA’s The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks by Iconis. He wasn’t cast, and returned to waitering at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Times Square, until he discovered he had a shrimp allergy.
Salazar’s first break came in 2010 when he was cast in a non-Equity bus-and-truck tour as “Otto” in the second national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical, Spring Awakening. The production toured the U.S. and Canada until closing May 2011. He returned here to begin earning his Equity card.
He made his Broadway debut in 2011’s Godspell‘s 40th-anniversary revival. “It really influenced and prepared me. The essence of the show sort of shifted my mission statement. Its improvisational, on-your-feet thinking guided me into wanting to work with emerging playwrights and composers.”
That led to what Salazar calls his “workshop years, making $100 a week, helping to develop new works.” He auditioned for Iconis and Robert Maddock’s teen band musical The Black Suits set for L.A.’s Center Theatre Group. “It seemed so right for me, but I didn’t get cast. Joe told me I wasn’t young enough. The part was for a teenager. I was 25. But, just to show you how things can happen, he said, ‘I have another show in the works and there’s a role you’re just right for.’ So, patience and persistence, in addition to hard work, pays off — eventually.”
He had to be more patient. “Things don’t happen in a day, month, or year in theater!” He had to work. In 2013, Salazar was cast in Off-Broadway’s F#%king Up Everything [a.k.a. Brooklyn Crush], where he portrayed a rock band’s stoner drummer, impressing with his talent as a percussionist.
Next came a 2014 workshop “where I was finally getting to work with Joe (Iconis). That led to the workshop for Be More Chill [directed by nine-time Tony-nominee Scott Ellis]. “It seems like yesterday, but we’ve all been together for over five years. We’ve really become a family. 100%! In fact, they are the fuel for my creative soul. If I need anything – a shoulder to cry on, or even five dollars, they’re there for me. The job is a blessing, not a commitment.”
Salazar has been around long enough to work with and become close to some of the top performers in the business, and has developed warm friendships. “They know the ropes, and I know I can go to them and seek their advice.”
Some of the advice was not to give up on something you love. But… So, as all hoped for and awaited a full-scale production, Salazar worked that year in director Alex Timbers production of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here’s Lies Love at the Public.
Finally, in 2015, Be More Chill was to happen. Two River Theatre, Red Bank, NJ, long-known for commissioning new works, premiered the musical, directed by Stephen Brackett (Buyer & Cellar; in L.A., Significant Other).
“I’d been a longtime fan of Joe’s, even collaborated with him,” informs Salazar. “I love what he writes, but this was unique. So, from day one, I knew Be More Chill was something special. Joe, Joe Tracz, and Stephen reinvented the formula. The show has universal themes everyone can identify with. For instance, bullying and dealing with our insecurities. It was exciting, and audiences loved it. However, none of us predicted how it would become so popular on social media. Suddenly, we had a huge following!”
It didn’t just hit a chord with the younger set. Producers took notice and a move to Off Broadway was considered.
In the meantime, Salazar did Keen Company’s 2016 two-month Off Broadway revival of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical Tick…Tick… Boom!; and, in 2017, joined Jelani Alladin (Frozen) playing Grover and Mr. D. in Theaterworks USA’s 2017 The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical by Rob Rokicki and Be More Chill’s Tracz (book), and directed by Stephen Brackett.
In August of last year, some 30 investors came together and in association with Two River premiered Be More Chill Off Broadway at Pershing Square Signature, directed by Brackett. A new Act One closer for Jeremy (Roland) was added.
In March, with the transfer to Broadway, Act One’s “Sync Up” was added. “What we love about the new song,” says Salazar “is that it helps to deepen and enrich the show’s various characters so we feel like real people.”
He wants to take a moment to speak of Brackett, whom he met at Two River and then worked with on Lightning Thief. “Stephen is the type of director who gives actors freedom to make choices. In such a creative environment, the actors feel safe to fail. What you have is a treasure trove of ideas and choices that in a room a bit more stifled might not have discovered. If you feel the pressure to impress the director, you’re limiting yourself.”
Salazar notes that “forever” people have said that theater is a dying art. “From Day One, we discussed how we how we need to bring young people into theater. With shows likes ours, The Prom, and Dear Evan Hansen, we are inviting young people to the table to be part of the conversation. Fans of the show tell us they see bits of themselves in the characters we play.”
“Be More Chill has changed my life,” Salazar states, “and, seemingly, from what they tell and write us, has changed the lives of so many young people. My favorite aspect of this journey has been seeing how art and music can affect young people. They’re important to us. They’re smart and using their voices to take stands. I’m learning every day from them. They’re actually quite brilliant. “