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How Be More Chill, The Prom and Dear Evan Hansen are attracting teens and young adults
"A letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told, a life he never dreamed he could have." That mysterious message, used in the promotional materials for Dear Evan Hansen since its 2015 D.C. tryout, immediately captivated teenager Kelly Myslinski four years ago. Now a college senior and still one of the musical's superfans, she's part of a growing demographic that creators and producers seek to engage: Gen Z theatre lovers.
With six Tony Awards including Best Musical plus successful tours and an upcoming film adaptation, Dear Evan Hansen helped jump-start a wave of high-school-set Broadway musicals aggressively targeting that coveted age group, approximately 12 to 22. Also part of the trend are Mean Girls, The Prom and the soon-to-open Be More Chill, which already has a fervent youth fan base.
For all its heightened emotions, sweeping melodies and artistic ambition, the Broadway musical is, ultimately, a commercial endeavor. And the numbers paint a pretty clear picture. According to the Broadway League's report, The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2017-18 Season, the average age of theatregoers has been steadily dropping, with the latest stats indicating 28.2 percent of Broadway audiences are under 24.
So what appeals to Gen Z theatregoers?
According to Myslinski, who was in the audience for Dear Evan Hansen's second preview at D.C.'s Arena Stage in 2015, it's seeing their lives reflected. "I had no idea what to expect, but it felt really important," she says. "It was the first time I was seeing myself on stage. And that still rings true. There's authenticity at the heart of the show."
Growing up in the digital age, young theatregoers "tap, tap, tapping on the glass" as Evan Hansen sings, navigate a complex world in which real human connections are often first facilitated through social media. "In high school it was hard having social media, looking on Instagram and seeing people having lives that I wasn't a part of," says Myslinski. "But as I've grown up, I've found these communities, and it's been the best way to make friends with people who share interests. When you love a show like Dear Evan Hansen, it's not like enjoying a fun, big, happy Golden Age musical. You like it because you've had similar experiences and it means something to you. It's a bridge to connect with people and feel less alone."
Of course that desire to connect transcends age, and the call for more inclusion and acceptance has reshaped our culture.
"What's interesting to me is that feeling like you don't fit it in never goes away for people," says Casey Nicholaw, the director and choreographer of both Mean Girls and The Prom. "A lot of that is why it feels like everybody relates, not just the kids. But I'm happy that new audiences are going to Broadway -- that's the best part."
The Prom showcases outcasts young and middle-aged, as four narcissistic Broadway performers and their publicist take it upon themselves to invade a conservative Indiana town to express moral outrage that a lesbian teenager is being barred from attending the big dance with her girlfriend. While it sends up both out-of-touch East Coast elitism and small-town small-mindedness, the narrative is also about craving community and acceptance.
"We can express these things in a way we weren't able to before, through an art form that I love," says Nicholaw. "You can be entertained and get a message out."
That message can spread around the world quickly thanks to social media and YouTube. Tellingly, major plot points in Dear Evan Hansen and The Prom hinge on videos going viral online, showing how important that phenomenon is to Gen Z. In turn, young fans create online homages to these shows such as song covers and digital art that propel their popularity far beyond Broadway.
The most notable example of online fan incubation is Be More Chill, a musical that seemed to stall after its brief out-of-town tryout at New Jersey's Two River Theater back in 2015. The creators of the show -- about a geek who becomes popular after ingesting a minuscule supercomputer that tells him how to be cool -- released an original cast album, which was discovered by young musical lovers online. By 2018, it had been streamed more than 170 million times worldwide, and songs like the breakout hit "Michael in the Bathroom" inspired fans to post their own covers, cartoons (known as animatics), lip-synch videos, even an American Sign Language interpretation.
That momentum, along with a hot Tumblr tag that continues to spark fan art, gifs and other tributes, enticed producers to mount the show for nine weeks Off-Broadway last summer to gauge interest. Lead producer Gerald Goehring says that an audience shift began to happen about a third of the way through the run.
"People [of various ages] were discovering it," he says. "We said, 'Wait a minute. Maybe there's something here that goes beyond a single market.' Otherwise, we wouldn't risk so many millions of dollars" moving it to Broadway.
Goehring, who co-founded Connecticut Children's Theatre and is currently the director of performing arts at Sacred Heart University, knows firsthand how to cultivate young audiences, and sees that as a transferable skill for the commercial market. While he believes Be More Chill can achieve cross-generational success, he also recognizes that modern-day fan engagement has become an industry game changer, especially if you want to attract Gen Z. That's why he brought on Marathon Digital, a Broadway and live entertainment social media company that boasts a rapidly growing client list that includes Hamilton and the soon-to-open musicals Ain't Too Proud and Hadestown.
"Here's what we've learned together: It cannot feel like it's been manufactured," says Goehring of the team's social media strategy. "If we're trying to sell something, we're doing it wrong. They're so good at getting the word out in a way that's new to our industry. We're not trying to lay out a narrative, but find ways to include people in our journey."
Community, connection and authenticity seem to be the qualities Gen Zers look for. And as Be More Chill and the Broadway industry as a whole drive off-road to meet these fans, they're finding it's a two-way street. "We're learning every day," says Goehring. "Luckily, the young people who are following us are also teaching us."
Matthew Wexler is the editor and chief critic of The Broadway Blog, the arts platform for Passport Magazine. He also serves as senior editor at EDGE Media Network. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.
Top image: The Off-Broadway production of Be More Chill. Photo by Maria Baranova.