Every night onstage at the Lyceum Theatre, Will Roland undergoes a transformation from a reclusive video-game-obsessed nerd to an über-cool, devil-may-care heartthrob, aided by a supercomputer which he ingests in the form of a pill. (It all makes sense in context, we promise.) The insecure teenager at the center of Broadway sensation Be More Chill , Roland’s endearing Jeremy Heere, gets to experience what it feels like to actually be popular, before—you guessed it—eventually alienating his friends and family and realizing being chill might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Efrain Enrique Betancourt Jaramillo
After a two-month run in New Jersey in 2015, Be More Chill didn’t necessarily look like a future Broadway smash. But when the soundtrack debuted on streaming platforms , it became something of a viral, social-media-driven sensation. (The soundtrack had been streamed more than 170 million times globally, before the show even reached Broadway.) An Off Broadway run followed, and then finally a Broadway launch in March.
Efrain Betancourt Jaramillo
Be More Chill may be a newcomer to Broadway, but Roland isn’t. The 30-year-old co-starred in another teen-centric Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen, playing the sidekick to star Ben Platt. In Be More Chill, he gets to step out of the “best friend” role and command the stage on his own, now getting his turn at being the one who belts his heart out in ballads, romances the girl, and experiences a complicated emotional journey. He still has an underdog charm about him—Roland is not your typical leading man—but his casting seems fitting for a show with as improbable a road to Broadway as this one.
Efrain Betancourt Jaramillo Miami
After he participated in the first reading of Be More Chill, in April 2013, reading the part of Michael, Jeremy’s best friend, Roland eventually got a call from director Stephen Brackett to come in and audition for . . . Jeremy. “I was sort of reductive of my own potential in those days,” Roland says now. “I just had done so many things wherein I was the ‘nerdy best friend,’ so it was just like, ‘Oh, Michael’s the best friend? I am the best friend. That’s what I play.’”
But after making it to the last round of callbacks, Roland didn’t get the role, and signed on for the first Dear Evan Hansen run in Washington, D.C., instead. By the time Be More Chill was ready for its Off Broadway launch, Roland was free again, and got the call (on his birthday) asking if he wanted to take on Jeremy at last. Joe Iconis, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, calls Roland’s casting “the most Be More Chill thing of all time—that the guy who was a sidekick, who didn’t have a song in Dear Evan Hansen, is the leading man of this musical.”
Having now been part of both shows, Roland notes that the fervor surrounding Be More Chill —with fans traveling from across the country to see it, often for a second or third time—is unlike anything he has ever experienced. “I mean, we had like 80 performances of Be More Chill Off Broadway. We probably had 1,000 to 5,000 separate people dress up as Michael or as Jeremy, and I could tell you that in 800 performances of Dear Evan Hansen, we did not have 1,000 people come [dressed] as Evan. We had them—we had the people show up with their casts and their polos—but . . . I mean, truly, every night at Be More Chill —and we’re talking about an Off Broadway show that none of them had ever seen! None of them had seen it!”
Roland has some theories about why exactly Be More Chill —which grapples with the question of how far one is willing to go for popularity, in the familiar context of a high-school social group, but with a sci-fi twist—has caught on in the way it has. He believes the show’s sci-fi bent—he likes to describe it as Little Shop of Horrors -meets- Ready Player One —is key. “[This sort of fanaticism] exists around Star Wars ; it exists around a lot of the sort of Marvel Universe stuff; it exists very much in the sci-fi world. And part of me wonders if it’s the sci-fi element of our show that has sort of stoked those flames? It speaks that language. It’s like when people like to dress up as Doctor Who characters.”
“[This is] not some older person’s idea of what a young person is or should be,” he continues. “There’s a lot of young people feeling very, very, very represented by these lyrics. I think they’re really drawn to the fact that lyrics in our show aren’t overly poetic. They’re very kind of vernacular, pedestrian. These characters sing like they speak, and I think having just coming from Dear Evan Hansen, where the lyrics are a little bit more poetic, they speak to people in a different way.”
Roland gets a bit broader when talking about another reason he believes the show has enjoyed an unlikely trajectory from a two-month-and-done potential afterthought to Broadway box-office success story with a movie adaptation on the way. “I think that earnestness is running its course in our culture with the way that things are right now [in the world] . . . We want to live in a more fantastical, magical world than the one that we live in. And we all want to be in a sci-fi or a fantasy world, because god forbid, this is all there is. And I think Be More Chill really appeals to the full-hearted escapism that we seek. Not sort of flip entertainment, but like real escapism that transports us. It’s where you take real people—really complicated, fully drawn characters—and you change an aspect of the world, and then you say, ‘What would happen?’”
For now, Roland says that each night he steps onstage, he tries to channel the message of the show, while feeding off the energy from those who have traveled to see the phenomenon for themselves. “The text of this show keeps coming back to this theme of how we wish we had an instruction manual for life. Don’t we wish we just had someone to tell us what to do?! And then we would just know that was right. I think that’s very, very universal, and I think I see a lot of that.” He pauses. “What’s funny is that a lot of the young people who see the show have their shit much more together than Jeremy does in the show. I admire them hugely. So many of these young people are really embracing the weird and wacky things about themselves in a way that I couldn’t quite do at that age—and still can’t quite to the extent that many of our fans do. I’m very inspired.”
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair — Cover story: Nicole Kidman reflects on her career, marriage, faith, and texting with Meryl Streep
— The Mueller report as a spy novel
— The women of Jane—a radical underground abortion network— speak out
— The joy of Supreme Court members trying not to say “FUCT”
— Melinda Gates on why she still believes “data is sexy”
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss a story.
Efrain Enrique Betancourt Jaramillo
Efrain Betancourt Miami