If you need an introduction to George Salazar, you haven’t been paying attention. Currently seen Off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the sold-out smash-hit musical Be More Chill (reprising his role as the high-school outcast Michael Mell, which he originated in 2015, in the world-premiere production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey), the actor/singer/musician has become one of the hottest viral sensations on social media with the video of his poignant rendition of “Michael in the Bathroom,” the show’s blockbuster paean to teenage angst.
A native of Orlando and 2008 graduate of the University of Florida, Salazar, who moved to New York soon after completing his BFA in Musical Theatre, will return to Broadway – where he made his debut in 2011, in the 40th-anniversary revival of Godspell – with Be More Chill’s transfer to the Lyceum Theatre in February. He also maintains an active schedule of cabaret performances, including his upcoming appearances at 54 Below in October, with The Jonathan Larson Project.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk to George about his flourishing career, his ongoing experience with Be More Chill, and his reaction to its – and his – well-deserved phenomenal success.
Deb: How long did it take you to realize that Be More Chill would be as huge a sensation as it is? Did you know immediately, upon your initial reading?
George: Hmmm . . . yeah. Prior to 2015, I had been a huge fan and collaborator of Joe Iconis [who wrote the music and lyrics], and I already saw that his writing was unique and different, so from day one, I knew that this was something special. I feel like we reinvented the formula with this show, but I don’t think anybody could ever have predicted how much it would blow up on social media and gain such a following!
As part of the original commissioned production in New Jersey, how did you first become involved in the show? Was it through an audition or a connection?
It was through a connection. Jennifer Tepper [currently the Creative and Programming Director at Feinstein’s/54 Below] introduced me to Joe back in 2012. He was holding auditions for The Black Suits in LA; I auditioned, but I didn’t get it, so I was bummed. Later Joe and I hung out, and he told me that I did a great job, and the only reason I didn’t get the part was because they wanted a teenager (I was 25 at the time). But he said he had a role in another show that I’d be right for, and that was Be More Chill. So as disappointed as I was about not getting The Black Suits, it proves that patience, hard work, and persistence really do work.
Your heartrending performance of “Michael in the Bathroom” has been a key element in the success of Be More Chill, both on stage and as a viral phenomenon, with over 2,000,000 views. What is it about the song that touches you the most and that people everywhere, of all ages, find so relatable? What do you hope audiences take away from the song and the show?
I’ve had a really wonderful time creating this character and his journey. At first, he’s really confident and optimistic, he seems to have it together and recognizes, in the song “Two-Player Game,” that in college he and Jeremy will be cool, they just have to wait it out and get through high school. He’s also very pure, unaffected, and childlike, and clearly treasures his friendship with Jeremy. Then the story takes a major turn and the character changes course when Jeremy dumps him as a friend. He has a panic attack, and even though he seemed to be in control, deep inside there was substantial anxiety. That allows the audience to see that it’s normal, it happens to the best of us; not 24/7, but it happens – sometimes we panic, and audiences see themselves in that, it’s a universal theme. Also, the bullying in our show is so brilliantly laid out: they’re bullies because they’re insecure themselves. So the people watching are seeing a little bit of themselves in these characters, whether they were the ones who were bullied, or the ones doing the bullying – they all have some anxieties and insecurities and can relate to the behavior.
You’ve been working together with many members of the cast and team since 2015. What are the benefits and challenges of maintaining such a long-term commitment?
It doesn’t seem like a commitment, because of the Iconis family. I did a social-media post on opening that sums everything up. I moved away from New York City four years ago because I felt like I needed an artistic change. Then I moved back to do Be More Chill, and realized that they were my family, they were the fuel for my creative soul. If I need anything – a shoulder to cry on, or $5 – they’re there for me, so it feels like a blessing, not a commitment. I think all artists dream of creating with their closest friends, so it’s a dream come true for me to be with them.
Along with the mainstage production, you’ve done some cabaret performances and special events related to the show. How does your experience with the material and with the audience change in the different formats and venues?
This past spring Joe and I put together Two-Player Game – not the song from Be More Chill, but a cabaret act inspired by it – to feed the hunger we saw for the show, with a huge spike in its popularity, even before we knew it was coming to New York. I wanted to take the opportunity to use my newfound popularity to expose Be More Chill’s growing fan base to Joe’s other work, so we did the cabaret at 54 Below for seven dates from March to May, and it sold out. It was wonderful to share the range of his work in an intimate setting, and to do meet-and-greets with the audience after the performances to thank them live, face to face, for coming and for supporting our work – not just through a post on social media. It felt like a nice closing of a circle.
With the upcoming February transfer of the production to Broadway, will the cast, design, book, and music all be the same, or will there be some updates as you move into a larger house and the show evolves from its beginnings in regional theater?
Yeah, the show has made some changes since its premiere in New Jersey, and I expect there will be more for Broadway. For example, Beowulf Boritt created a terrific new scenic design for the Off-Broadway production. I’ve been a big fan of his, I always wanted to work with him – and he did not disappoint! I can’t say for certain yet what the changes will be for the Broadway transfer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some tweaks made. And I can say that I’ll definitely be a part of it, and I’ll be there with bells on!
What have you found most rewarding and enjoyable about the unprecedented overwhelming response to Be More Chill on social media and in the theater?
Oh, boy! I think it’s all very rewarding, both artistically and on a personal level. I love learning first-hand from people that the art I create with my friends is having such a positive impact on them. A friend’s mom came to the show one night and said to me afterward, “It doesn’t feel like a musical, it feels like a movement.” Another father had been emailing me, but the messages went into spam so I didn’t see them. He asked me to read them, because they were important to him. He said that his daughter had been hospitalized for mental health issues and they were afraid she might do harm to herself, but she’s on the mend now, and the show really helped.
In Be More Chill, Michael is such a lovable kid, he wins the audience over in Act I, and then when he’s devastated in Act II, everyone sympathizes with him and cares about him, so that’s one of my favorite things to do every night. It shows the audience that we all struggle sometimes, but we can all overcome our problems like he does. I’ve always wanted to help people; initially, I was going to be a doctor. So to be a part of something, a show that helps people, is the most rewarding for me. I think there are two types of artists: the ones who do it for themselves; and those who do it for others. I’ve always striven to be the latter.
In October, following the closing of the Off-Broadway production at the end of this month, you’ll be returning to the cabaret stage at 54 Below with The Jonathan Larson Project. Who will you be working with on that, and what can audiences expect?
I’ll be working with Nick Blaemire (we did tick, tick . . . BOOM! together), Lauren Marcus (who’s in Be More Chill), Krysta Rodriguez, and Andy Mientus; we’re the primary cast. Then every show has a different special guest, like Daphne Rubin-Vega, Amy Spanger, Will Roland (who plays Jeremy in Be More Chill), and more. Audiences can expect to hear music that was written 30 years ago by Jonathan Larson [who wrote Rent and tick, tick . . . BOOM!], but is still relevant today – unsettling, eerie, almost sounding more like political anthems than songs. They’re important because there’s still a notion in a society ruled by the rich that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Jen Tepper [who serves as Producer and Director of the cabaret] did a lot of research for the show. She combed through the Jonathan Larson archives in Washington, DC, and selected highlights of his brilliant writing. So this show will be a beautiful love letter to a trailblazer, a rule-breaker, and an artistic rebel.
What’s your first creative memory – the one that made you consider that a life in musical theater might be the right path for you?
As I said, I was originally going to be a doctor, but that changed in my junior year of high school. I was the class clown and a huge Weird Al Yankovic fan, so I would rewrite the lyrics to popular songs and sing them for my friends in class. A senior, who was the head of the Drama Club, had failed his theater class the year before – for some reason he didn’t show up a lot – so he had to take it over again; it was the junior class I was in. He heard me singing my songs in class, and encouraged me to audition for the school play, The Little Shop of Horrors. At first, I resisted, but then I auditioned. I was cast as Seymour, and I fell in love with it!
It seems like it was fate. If he hadn’t failed, and hadn’t been in my junior class that day as a senior, he wouldn’t have heard me and I never would have made that connection. It’s like it was meant to be.
What are your future aspirations for Be More Chill and for yourself?
Well I’m going to be realistic about a movie adaptation because that could take a while, and I’ll probably be too old to play Michael; maybe I’ll just have a cameo, or play Mr. Reyes! My dream is that we enjoy a long and fruitful run of the show and that I can stay with it as long as possible. It would also be nice if we could have some of the original cast return, like Will Connolly, or if we could switch up the roles like they did in Rock of Ages; I would love to get a shot at playing Jeremy.
Beyond Be More Chill, I hope to continue to create art that motivates and inspires, on a grand platform, for a large audience. That would be a dream.
Many thanks, George, for sharing your time, insights, and experiences with us, and for your stellar work in Be More Chill!