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Stephanie Hsu on why her role in Be More Chill is so groundbreaking
Stephanie Hsu realized something was happening when she started getting tagged in fan art of her Be More Chill character: theatre-obsessed teenager Christine Canigula. She was surprised that young people from all over the world had discovered an obscure musical that only ran for a month at New Jersey's Two River Theater back in 2015. "We had so much fun while we were out there, but I wasn't thinking that it would generate such a huge following," says Hsu. "It really felt like one day I woke up two years after we did the show, and all of a sudden I had all of this fan art being sent to me. And I was like, what? That was the experience of a lot of the original cast members."
Indeed, the show became an internet phenomenon thanks to its cast recording, which has been streamed more than 100 million times in the U.S. alone. Thanks to that impressive online fandom, Be More Chill -- which has a book by Joe Tracz (The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical) and songs by Joe Iconis (Smash) -- was remounted Off-Broadway in summer 2018 with many original cast members intact, including Hsu. That sold-out run convinced producers to bring it to Broadway, where it's currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre.
Based on Ned Vizzini's eponymous young-adult novel about a geeky teenager named Jeremy (Dear Evan Hansen's Will Roland) who becomes popular after ingesting a minuscule supercomputer that tells him how to be cool, Be More Chill humorously explores serious issues such as anxiety, depression, peer pressure and unrequited love. Jeremy has a secret crush on Hsu's character, Christine, but he doesn't seem to notice that she's as much of an outcast as he is.
Hsu has made a career out of playing wonderfully wacky supporting roles on screen and stage, including Karen the Computer in SpongeBob SquarePants, which marked her Broadway debut. But Be More Chill is the first time she's been cast as a romantic lead. "What I love so much about Christine is that she's the ingenue, but she's also such a weird bird," says Hsu. "It's so important to have leading female characters that are not like, you know, six-feet tall, a size zero and blonde and perfect and live in a castle. Christine is this girl who's kind of dorky but she has such a head on her shoulders and, in a way, she does understand who she is. She just doesn't have the social setting to flourish. I am so grateful that I am getting this opportunity to have so much heart but also be so strange at the same time."
Hsu is also excited to further the representation of Asian Americans on stage, since they are depressingly underrepresented in the industry. "I had the amazing pleasure of working with Sandra Oh last year [in Wild Goose Dreams at the Public Theater]," says Hsu. "I realized that, growing up, she and Lucy Liu were the only Asian actresses I had to model a career after. I remember my mom said, 'Well, you can't go into this business because nobody looks like you.' And she wasn't wrong. What I love is there isn't anything about my character's ethnicity in Be More Chill. She just happens to be played by me and I happen to be Asian. Our fans who are Asian American or from Asian countries are so grateful. That visibility is important for me."
Of course Hsu is thankful for all of Be More Chill's devotees since they're the reason the show is getting a New York run. "I really realized the magnitude of it when I started doing SpongeBob on Broadway," Hsu says. "At the stage door, people were more excited to talk to me about Be More Chill. People brought copies of the script for me to sign. They sang "Christine" to me -- kids and their parents! It was insane."
These days, Hsu is receiving more Christine fan art than ever -- just check her Instagram. To her, that reaffirms how resonant Be More Chill is. "It's inspiring to see kids who are so moved by a piece of art that they then make art about it," she says. "I feel like this crazy fandom has taught us what's so special about the show."
To read about a student's experience at Be More Chill, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Stephanie Hsu in the Two River Theater production of Be More Chill. Photos by T. Charles Erickson. Fan art by queeniie_art.
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