Broadway Has No Chill (and the Youth Can’t Get Enough)

For centuries, the theatre has been the place we go to be unmasked—and it might just be the saving grace of a social-media obsessed generation.

by Olivia Lindsay Aylmer
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Sep 5 2019, 4:01pm

A funny thing happened at the Lyceum Theatre on a balmy Friday evening in early August. While sitting in the balcony during a performance of Be More Chill (directed by Stephen Brackett and adapted from a cultish 2004 YA novel by the late Ned Vizzini), I found myself surrounded by rows upon rows of teens (largely sans parents) periodically erupting into infectiously enthusiastic applause. They were, in the truest sense, Living! For! This!

Wait—where was I?

The totally unselfconscious fandom I observed that night was weirdly refreshing. This specific brand of hyped-up energy felt utterly foreign within the four walls of a historic, old-school New York theatre. (Opened in 1903, the Lyceum remains one of the three longest-standing Broadway venues.) I tried to focus on the story at hand, centered on a milquetoast high schooler named Jeremy who taps into Matrix-esque technology (specifically a Japanese supercomputer called a “squip”) to manifest a certain effortless cool and thereby elevate his social status. But I was repeatedly distracted as my fellow audience members freaked out upon each cast members’ arrival, rivaled only, perhaps, by fans’ emotions when Ariana Grande steps on stage.

As the lights rose on intermission, the energy palpably recalibrated. Within seconds, those same teens, who had moments before lost their minds over a cheeseball musical number set in a suburban mall, disappeared from one another and delved fully into their screens. Filtered selfies were snapped, feeds were scrolled, texts were sent rapid-fire: the usual spiral. It was as if the past hour had never happened. We were suddenly alone, together.

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Speaking to The Paris Review in 2012, award-winning playwright Tony Kushner invoked one of Brecht’s famously misunderstood ideas about staging, referencing what he called “the distanciation effect.” “He wants theater to enable you to see the familiar as strange and the strange as familiar, Kushner synopsized, “so that you greet reality with an appetite to interpret it.”

This Brechtian concept of dual vision may offer some clarity on the phenomenon of Broadway’s overwhelmingly youthful presence these days. (The 2017-2018 season revealed a record 2.1 million admissions among kids and teens, according to a report by The Broadway League.) Part of theater's unique power, when viewed through this lens, lies in its capacity to cultivate in its viewers a more critical consciousness around the ways life as portrayed by actors onstage and life as it’s lived outside the theater’s four walls intertwine and exist in active conversation with one another.

High School, as theme and setting, has recently seen a major moment in the spotlight, with shows like the Tony Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen (starring millennial Broadway darling Ben Platt) , The Prom, and the musical theater-ized version of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls attempting to speak to teens on their level, from the relatability of their subject matter to more inclusive casting efforts. It’s worth noting the lack of actual teen actors in these hit shows’ leading roles ( Be More Chill included), thus raising questions around the underlying accuracy and authenticity of these larger-than-life takes on being teenage today. The youths’ current fervor, it appears, runs deeper than the experiential truthfulness within mere dramatic restagings of senior year melodrama and stereotypical popular kids v. nerds binaries. As its best, the medium offers a window on the world as we think we know it while simultaneously turning it inside out, showing our all-too-human selves to ourselves in our gloriously complicated and messy too-much-ness.

For today’s teens, who report feeling a pervasive undercurrent of loneliness and alienation, intensified as a side effect of growing up amidst social media’s omnipresence, live theater invites them into an experience unmediated by nuance-numbing screens. And beyond the obvious requirement of “silencing your cell phones, please,” it’s rooted in a rare freedom from the pretense of digital platforms and the unrelenting pressures of “performing” one’s carefully cultivated image: the only ask is to show up, sit down, and pay close attention. In return, theater offers its growing community of teen viewers a vision of unabashed sincerity and heightened human emotion in spades. It asks them to be nowhere else than exactly where they are. To feel something.

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In BMC’s closing week, I searched the #humansofbmc hashtag on Instagram. Alongside countless superfan memes, I found that word, ‘community,’ referenced repeatedly, in genuinely tender posts about what the show made kids feel was possible that they hadn’t sensed before.

Some fans explicitly referenced its tangible impact on their mental health, and the meaningful sense of agency they found in the process of making their own Internet fodder in response. The creator of the Instagram account bmc.me.mes, for instance, wrote about how it helped them through the final months of 8th grade, “some of the worst weeks ever.” They wrote, “I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t listen to it,” referencing the original cast album that has catalyzed a thousand downloads and tickets purchased in equal measure.

Broadway has long been a place of potentiality, envisioning new futures and requiring unmitigated vulnerability from both its performers and the audience themselves for maximum impact. So it’s no surprise, then, that teens are taking notice and actively shaping what they want to see—on and off the proverbial stage.

The current slate of shows with obsessive online followings, which have subsequently translated into sold-out performances and multimedia afterlives, have achieved this enviable status because they allow teens to see themselves in the broad strokes storylines, question and challenge their daily reality in refreshing ways, and, most significantly, find their place in that most elusively sought after concept of the digital age: IRL community.