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HOLLYWOOD SOAPBOX: Joe Iconis, still ‘Chill,’ but now in Juvie Hall

by John Soltes

Joe Iconis is not having a moment. He’s having a lifetime of moments.

The accomplished composer has seen his musical projects take off and win over the ears and hearts of thousands of listeners. His beloved show Be More Chill started off at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey; transferred off-Broadway; and then landed on Broadway for a multi-month run. He picked up a Tony nomination along the way.

He’s back at where the magic started with a new show called Love in Hate Nation, a musical that he provides the book, music and lyrics for and that continues through Dec. 1 at the Two River Theater.

In the show, 16-year-old Susannah Son is sent to the National Reformatory for Girls, aka juvie hall, and it’s the 1960s, so her relationship with Sheila Nail falls under the scrutiny of the watchful and discriminating eyes of her peers and the school’s higher-ups. To showcase their rebellious side and demonstrate their inner-truth, Susannah and Sheila sing songs that sound like a combination of punk anthems and girl group tunes from the 1960s.

“It started as a commission from Penn State School of Theatre, so the guy who is the director of the show, John Simpkins … took over Penn State School of Theatre, the musical theater department,” Iconis said in a recent phone interview. “So he became the head of the program, and taking it over he decided that he wanted to start this commissioning program, where he could commission musical theater writers to write a show for the current senior class in musical theater. The parameters are just that you could write whatever you want as long as it was performable by the class, and so if you have five girls and 10 guys, you have to write something for five girls and 10 guys.”

The first year for this commissioning program was 2016, and Simpkins tapped Iconis to be a composer for the students. The decision was an easy one because Simpkins and Iconis have known each other for years.

“He’s directed a bunch of my stuff,” Iconis said. “He asked me if I wanted to be the first person to be part of this commissioning program. I said, ‘Sure.’ It was sort of soon from the time he offered it to the time that the show would have to start being rehearsed, and so he basically said, ‘You have two choices. You can either spend a year working on something, and then a year from now we’ll start going to rehearsal with it as the commission. Or you can just kind of be writing something as we’re rehearsing it over the course of the semester.’ And so I said, ‘When theoretically would I get paid to write this thing? If I wait a year, will I get paid in a year, or would I still get paid now?’ He’s like, ‘Well, no, you get paid whenever you start writing the thing.’ I was like, ‘Let’s write it now. Let’s jump right in.’ Because I needed some cash, and so that was the initial kickstart of the musical.”

Iconis loved the experience of writing the show in New York as the students began rehearsals in Pennsylvania; the simultaneous creativity gave the entire process some “urgency and electricity.”

The actual content of the show was inspired by a song that Iconis wrote in 2012. “I Was a Teenage Delinquent!” had been a standalone song about two young women in juvie hall.

“And the song style was kind of like a 1960s girl group thing, and I really just wrote it as a one-off,” he said. “But the more I would perform it in my concerts … the more I thought this could be something bigger. This could be something larger, and so it was in the back of my head this idea of doing a classic romance set in the ’60s and set inside a juvenile detention center. And so then when this opportunity came up from Penn State, my parameters for the project were that I had to write something for eight girls and one guy, so I thought this might be a cool opportunity for me to take a stab at that juvie hall rock ‘n’ roll romance that I’ve been thinking about writing.”

Iconis has always been a big fan of the girl groups from the 1960s. The style of music has been on his composer’s wish list for some time. Whether it’s the tunes produced by Phil Spector or sung by the Shirelles, the Crystals or the Marvellettes, the catalog of girl group tunes is extensive and creatively inspiring to Iconis.

“I really love some of the girl group oddities,” he admitted. “There were so many ’60s girl groups who existed for one single only, so I’ve always loved that style of music. The thing that really drew me to that music in the first place is that those songs they’re so melodic, and there’s such a strong sense of the women who are singing the songs. These songs sound like these sugary confections. They’re very light and airy, but a lot of times the subject matter of the songs was really, really dark. Obviously songs like ‘Leader of the Pack’ and ‘He’s a Rebel’ are songs about juvenile delinquency, and a lot of times the songs are about death. There are so many girl group songs about, oh, this boy that I loved was killed in a car accident, but the music itself is so light and infectious and dizzily romantic. So I loved that tension between this delivery mechanism that felt so fun and sweet, but the content being something that was darker and more substantial.”

Also, Iconis could not deny that he was influenced by the political climate in the United States at the time of his writing. It was the 2016 presidential election, and he had politics on his mind. So the show’s narrative became quite political, and he started to take the girl group sound and offer a harder edge to the tunes.

“The show itself is kind of equally inspired by girl groups of the ’60s and the punk riot grrrl movement of the ’80s and ’90s, these bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill, who delivered this new idea of what girl group music could be,” Iconis said. “What you end up with in Love in Hate Nation is this score that really, really honors and works within the context of the girl group stuff from the ’60s but is delivered with a harder edge, more punk aesthetic and sensibility.”

The chance to bring Love in Hate Nation to life also afforded Iconis the chance to work at Two River Theater, his artistic home and the birthplace of Be More Chill. He cannot believe how lucky he is to return to where it all started. Now he walks the hallways of the Red Bank theater and has so many more memories of what can happen when creativity and luck come together in a magical amalgam of theatricality.

“It’s such a great place to work,” he said. “Two River obviously commissioned and produced Be More Chill, and they’ve been so supportive of me my entire career. It’s the kind of thing where I work at many regional theaters around the country, and in some spaces that you go to as a writer you kind of feel like you’re tolerated or barely tolerated. And then if you’re very lucky, sometimes you feel like, oh, some people kind of want me here. At Two River, it’s so supportive — not just in the theater, but the town itself. They’re really excited about new theater, which is rare, and it’s this palpable thing. It’s a theater where everyone from the artistic staff who run the place to the guys who are on the custodial staff, everyone knows everybody. Everyone is really friendly. Everyone is aware of what’s going on and excited about it, and it’s a great way to make art.”

He added: “When every day doesn’t have to feel like a battle, it’s a really good thing. Where I am in my career is completely indebted to Two River. Without their support of Be More Chill and without them paying for the cast album in the first place, I would never have had a shot on Broadway last year. I would never be able to have the opportunities I now have, so I love the place a lot.”

Be More Chill, it’s cliche to say, was a dream come true for Iconis. The musical about a magic pill that made a nerdy high school student into a cool guy made a name for Iconis in the competitive market of Midtown Manhattan, and the audiences responded in kind, by demanding more performances and the ultimate transfer to the Great White Way. Word-of-mouth buzz is still a real commodity when it comes to theatrical success stories.

“It’s the thing that doesn’t really go away,” Iconis said of the musical’s success. “I feel like even if I wanted to say I’m not going to think about Be More Chill for a little bit, it’s just right there. It’s hilarious being at Two River working on the show because they have all these posters of Be More Chill and merchandise of Be More Chilljust around. As I’m in the lobby frantically doing rewrites for scenes, I can’t help thinking of the last time I was here, which was four years ago. …It opened here, and everyone thought it was going to be dead. Now I’m back in this lobby surrounded by merchandise from the many lives of this musical that started here. It’s a very surreal thing.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Love in Hate Nation, with book, music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, plays through Dec. 1 at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. Click here for more information and tickets.