Be More Chill’s Stephanie Hsu: A Comedienne on a Journey to Inspire
By: Ellis Nassour
May 3, 2019: Broadway’s newest musical, Be More Chill, had a storied path. The show, at the historic Lyceum Theatre, is adapted from the late Ned Vizzini’s 2004 young adult novel, joins New York’s already-crowded field of tales of teenage angst with huge youth appeal: Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, and The Prom.Like those musicals, audience members are polling quite young, with a huge sampling of high school to post graduate students.
Joe Tracz, who wrote the show’s book, is an apt choice. He knows how to attract a cult following. Tracz was a contributing writer on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and author of TheaterWorks U.S.A.’s 2015’s The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, based Rick Riordan’s best-seller about an epic quest to find Zeus’s lightning bolt to prevent a war between the gods, which ran briefly Off Broadway before touring.
Be More Chill is about a teenage geek, portrayed by Will Roland, who many will recall from his Broadway debut in Dear Evan Hansen as Jared, Evan’s equally-uncool protagonist and partner in deceit, who sells his soul to the devil, in a manner of speaking, to ingest a supercomputer in pill form complete with a personalized voice with instructions on how to be, well, more chill – how to dress, speak to girls, win friends and influence people.
The musical has music and lyrics by Tony nominee Joe Iconis, recipient of coveted grants from the Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Larson (Rent), and Ed Kleban (A Chorus Line) Foundations and a contributor of songs for NBC’s Smash. It premiered in 2015 at Red Bank, NJ’s 350-seat not-for-profit Two River Theatre (celebrating its 25 Anniversary), where its cast recording not only became a Billboard Top-10 album, but also an internet sensation. An enthusiastic group of 30-plus investors did a seven-week test run Off Broadway last summer. Seasoned Broadway producers took notice, and what began as a quirky, little show has become a main stem hit – happily, with its fabulous cast intact. Now, a film adaptation is in the works.
One of the fabulous is the sublimely-talented young Asian comedienne Stephanie Hsu, who made her Broadway debut in 2017 after seemingly a decade of Off and Off Broadway roles as Karen the Computer in the Tony-nominated SpongeBob SquarePants, which also garnered a cult following – one of all ages.
“I am so fortunate to have been on this incredible journey, one that I never saw coming,” beams Stephanie, who portrays Christine, a high school free spirit who could care less about being cool – she’s happiest during musical rehearsals. “When we debuted the musical at Two River, we understood how fun and joyous it was but none of us thought about the legions the show impacted. Along the way, the two Joes have made incredible efforts to deepen the characters, and certainly my role. She has really developed. I point to the demin jacket I wear. At Two River, it was a plain jacket. Now, it’s loaded with all manner of patches. Christine has become a stronger totem of impassioned beliefs!”
Stephanie, who’s 26, is an L.A. gal, predominantly raised by her Chinese mother, who immigrated to Taiwan, and then was sent to the States for her education. Her background is important to her “as it makes people ask about the culture and history.” She also started doing musicals in high school “because I wanted to work with a number of older people who I called my guardian angels and who kept telling me, ‘You should try out for this show.’ I said, ‘Okay!’ When I was a sophomore, a senior said, ‘You can study this in college.’ I didn’t know that. I said, ‘Okay!’”
And she did, at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which brought her east and soon led to workshops and Off Broadway with Ars Nova and the Public Theatre; and regionally with Harvard’s Tony-winning A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater), and MA’s Williamstown Theatre. Stephanie has also been equally at home, back home in countless TV shows since 2009. Her first series was doing three seasons as Joy opposite Hugh Dancy and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) on Hulu’s acclaimed 2017 drama. “The best thing aboutg shooting in New York,” says Stephanie, “is you work with theater actors. It was a gift to be shooting with some of the best.” They included Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Adriane Lenox, Tony nominee Raúl Esparza, and Tony nominee and Oscar winner Kathleen Turner.
She never felt it difficult to break into theater because of her Asian background. “One of my strongest mentors was [acclaimed, late Tony-nominated and Obie-winning writer, composer of musicals dealing with social issues, and director] Liz Swados. I was one among the many who were ‘Liz’s kids.’ She wasn’t a huge fan of corporate art. I was with her for so much of my development, I wasn’t thinking Broadway. That may have had to do with my not knowing where my place in it was. Of course, I never thought of the concept of originating a Broadway role, which I’ve now done twice.”
Another mentor is director Tina Landau, with whom she worked with during the nine years of SpongeBob SquarePants development. “She’s a visionary. I would do anything with and for her. What she did with SpongeBob was nothing short of brilliant.”
Speaking of that show, Stephanie relates, “Even at the first table read in 2012 for SpongeBob, I knew it was something special, but I never thought, ‘We’re going to Broadway. It was completely unexpected.’ I was a person in the room, whom Tina kept asking back, and I was enjoying myself. It wasn’t a goal I was striving for.
“I really trust the universe in that way,” she adds. “Be More Chill is a perfect example of when it’s time, it’s time – when it’s your time, it’s your job. This industry is really crazy and part of what can make you feel more crazy is the unmet expectation. I’m always practicing enjoying the ride, surrounded by amazing artists and directors. I’m so lucky!”
Stephanie is quite the high-energy performer and in Be More Chill she has plenty of competition in the cast of 10. To no one’s surprise, she more than holds her own, even bringing down the house with her comic antics and showstopping number early in Act One, “I Love Play Rehearsal” and, late in the act, “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into,” which she reprises in Act Two with Roland.
She describes Be More Chill as “this rambunctious, wild, weird show.” As was the case with SpongeBob, the show is getting a good number of first-time theatergoers, and, states Stephanie, “that is such an honor. Recently, students have really been trying to bring about change following so many tragedies. There’s also been much written about inclusiveness and diversity.
Stephanie tells of the fan mail the cast receives. “It’s quite a blessing to be in a show with the type of response we’re receiving, but it’s also overwhelming. These young audiences look up to us. They handwrite beautiful letters of how the show has helped them through times of sorrow or difficulty. They give us fuel for the fire we try to create onstage. And, no, I haven’t gotten any proposals. Yet!”
Be More Chill is Stephanie and her cast members’ way to give back “at a time when we’re asking one another to step up for each other. They give us so much, we want to please. While we have fun, you never forget your goal. People say, ‘You all look like you’re having so much fun!’ And we are, but we’re also choosing joy as a means of storytelling. It’s not always easy to have the sort of energy to give so much, but we try to give a true gift to our audiences and fan base.”
In discussions with director Stephen Bracket, Stephanie told him, “I want to make sure we’re creating a strong female character we can be proud of.” She says, “There’re special roles that come along that can really empower young people to plug into their own power. When I was younger, I didn’t think I had a voice. I didn’t think my voice was valid because that wasn’t the culture around me. It’s amazing how theater can change that.”
For Be More Chill tickets and information, visit www.bemorechillmusical.com.
The Be More Chill original cast album is available on Ghostlight Records.
Be More Chill Production photos by Maria Baranova