Stephanie Hsu belongs to an elite group of Broadway stars who have originated roles in musicals across two consecutive New York theater seasons. Unlike many of her contemporaries, however, the actress, singer and comedian never envisioned a career on the Great White Way — simply because she never saw herself represented there.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Hsu said, “Broadway was never on my radar because I didn’t know where my place was in it. There are a lot of voices in our heads that keep us from feeling assured in ourselves, especially when we’re young. So I never knew it could be a place for me.”
After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and immersing herself in Manhattan’s downtown theater circuit, Hsu made her Broadway debut in December 2017 with a supporting role in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.” A little more than a year later, she’s playing to young and wildly enthusiastic crowds in another new musical, “Be More Chill,” which opened March 10 at New York’s Lyceum Theater.
Only this time, she’s the show’s leading lady.
Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 science-fiction novel of the same name, “Be More Chill” follows Jeremy Heere (played by Will Roland), a misfit teen who hopes to win the heart of Christine Canigula (Hsu), his high school’s resident drama geek. Though Jeremy commits to auditioning for the school play in hopes of wooing Christine, her affections are focused on a basketball jock, Jake Dillinger (Britton Smith).
Out of desperation, Jeremy consumes a magic pill that contains a “squip” (Jason Tam), a miniature supercomputer that controls one’s actions and behavior — and while the squip rockets him to popularity with classmates, it also makes him arrogant, smug and ultimately less appealing to Christine. (Even more devastating side effects await, too.)
Hsu’s journey with “Be More Chill,” which boasts an anthemic, pop-rock score by Joe Iconis and a libretto by Joe Tracz, began in 2015, when she starred as Christine in the first incarnation of the show at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. She saw the musical then as a “really funny, weird and silly” endeavor that would “allow me to be as crazy as I want.”
“At the time, I was doing experimental theater and not commercial musical theater,” Hsu recalled. “It really felt like playtime. It was just a celebratory experience.”
Directed by Stephen Brackett, “Be More Chill” earned less-than-favorable reviews and seemed poised to fade into obscurity after that initial run. The show’s fortunes, however, began to turn later that year when its cast recording was released and became a viral sensation among teens and young adults specifically.
A New York Times article published in April 2018, months before the show’s sold-out off-Broadway engagement and nearly a year ahead of its current Broadway run, reported that the album had received more than 100 million streams. (Since then, the recording’s streams have reportedly surged to more than 250 million.) At the time, that figure was just under half of the streams enjoyed by the cast album of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which won six Tony Awards and had been playing to sold-out crowds on Broadway for more than a year.
For Hsu, however, the runaway success of “Be More Chill” has a deeper, more personal resonance. Her stint as Christine comes at a time when Asian American representation on Broadway is reportedly at a troubling low, according to a 2018 survey by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. Many shows that do employ Asian American actors are revivals of older works, like “The King and I” and “Miss Saigon” — all of which continue to receive critical and commercial acclaim, but lack the edge of “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Hamilton.”
“If this role had existed when I was younger, I would’ve had an entirely different perception of the possibility of roles that I could play,” Hsu, who is of Taiwanese heritage and a first-generation American, said. “People who are not Asian or Asian American — those who are in the majority — don’t realize that what we consume is not for us usually.”
Noting that “Be More Chill” boasts three Asian performers among its diverse 10-person cast, she’s hopeful the show sends a strong message to aspiring performers of all backgrounds.
“I want to see a world onstage that I want to live inside of,” she said. “That’s why it’s even more important for Broadway to really aim for that kind of visibility and diversity — new stories that are reflective of the world we want to live in.”
Less than a week after opening, “Be More Chill” is a commercial hit, having set a Lyceum Theater box office record in its first week of preview performances. Once again, reviews of the show have been mixed — one main concern being that its bombastic tone and youthful message of self-empowerment don’t resonate with more mature audiences. Still, Hsu says hearing the rapturous applause that greets her at curtain call, not to mention the legions of fans at the stage door, means more to her and the rest of the cast than critical accolades.
“It felt like the odds were stacked against us, and we’re here, and we’re celebrating each other and the people who love it ... I think that this show celebrates every dimension of your imperfection,” she said.
“As adults, we can quickly become removed from the period of our lives that was so saturated with feeling, change and uncertainty,” she continued. “I would invite [critics] to consider the incredible offering this is to future generations and how maybe this wild, unhinged show overflowing with love and joy is perhaps giving them the power, medicine and love to make this world a little better after we’re gone.”