Stephanie Hsu Is a Musical Heroine for 2019 in ‘Be More Chill’
When Stephanie Hsu auditioned for “Be More Chill,” she didn’t really consider herself a musical theater performer. She came to acting in high school after some classmates convinced her to join drama class, and she found her early creative home at the Experimental Theatre Wing in college and in downtown performance spaces.
So when she walked into the audition room, she was thrilled to discover director Stephen Brackett, who’s off-off-Broadway resume is long, and the rest of the creative team were downtown people.
“This was my first union, equity musical,” says Hsu. “My trajectory thus far has felt just like a little angel comes by and peeps open a door a little and say, ‘Hey come in’ and I’m like, ‘Okay.’”
Hsu has been with the show, which is written by Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz from the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, since its premiere at New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2015. She plays the school play-obsessed Christine, who is also the lead loser Jeremy’s (Will Roland) crush. The sci-fi-centric plot centers on Jeremy swallowing a computerized pill called a squip that will make him popular.
Soon after the New Jersey premiere, she began working on “SpongeBob SquarePants—The Broadway Musical,” in which she played Karen the Computer in her Broadway debut. Since the social media explosion over “Be More Chill” led the show to New York, she played Christine off Broadway last fall and is now on Broadway again at the Lyceum Theatre, where “Be More Chill” is playing.
“I didn’t go to musical theater conservatory and yet suddenly I’m here,” she says. “Theater is evolving and the type of work that is coming to Broadway is really shifting and I’m really excited about the spaces that are opening for different sounds.”
What has the “Be More Chill” journey been like for you?
I was never very present on social media. After the show ended at Two River, it did feel like it went away. Then one day out of nowhere, there was so much fan art. I was getting tagged in fan art. I was like, what’s going on? Then the moment that I really realized the scope of the show was when I had my first stage door for “SpongeBob,” and people at the end of the line started singing, “Christine.” I was like, what is going on? People who have never seen me on a Broadway stage were coming to have me sign their self-made “Be More Chill” merch.
How is the show going so far on Broadway?
It’s been really fun. This is the first time I’ve felt that it’s like truly ours now. In the sense that off Broadway it was like, okay, what’s going on? We’re selling out every night. Is this going to transfer? There was always a question of stakes. Now that we’ve opened, I really feel like it’s a playground. We’ve built this really beautiful thing that some may think is accidental, but actually inside the beast, it’s very intentional with the type of humor that we’re using, and the type of play that we’ve infused it with. So it feels like it’s been able to stay buoyant and alive because there’s truly so much joy there. I think it’s really easy for people to discount joy as an artistic choice. You could do a really serious, very different version of “Be More Chill” that is not as raucous, but that’s not what we decided to do.
As someone who started with more experimental work, how does it feel that both of your Broadway credits so far are musicals?
I did “SpongeBob” and “Be More Chill,” which fall under the same umbrella of a new kind of musical, or a little bit weirder. To be honest, I’m happy to do anything as long as it’s something I believe in. The role of a storyteller is to tell stories, and I think we have a certain responsibility as people on Broadway to tell those stories responsibly and from a place of infinite love for the torch that we are passing down to others.
“Be More Chill” is a show that is introducing a lot of young people to theater for the first time. What do you hope the representation in the show does for the next generation of performers and theatergoers?
I know visibility is important, but I’ve been asking myself the question, well why is visibility important? I think it’s something as simple as to make sure that people feel seen. If you don’t see yourself, you don’t feel like your voice is valid. I remember being young and feeling like, just having to go on my own journey of understanding what it meant to feel beautiful in a full way, as a human being. I think that particularly in a love story, if we can offer different kinds of visibility then, especially for young people, it’s really like a salve on their hearts of like, you are truly loved and worthy of love.
I see young, Asian girls and their parents and I’m like, “I know why you’re here.” I know that if I was growing up and this show existed, my mom would be like, “Okay, fine. We can go to one Broadway show and it’ll be that one because I know that, that’s a safe space for you.” So it’s wild to have the feeling that theater can actually do so much for the communities around you.
Every Broadway show does something called the Legacy Robe, where the ensemble member with the most credits is celebrated, but since everyone in your cast is a principal, you started a new tradition of the Broadway Debut Quilt. Can you talk about that?
It shouldn’t be just about how many shows you’ve done. Broadway is so hard. Just to make it here, whatever that means, is something to be celebrated. I ran into Rebecca Naomi Jones [who’s in “Oklahoma!” on Broadway] on the subway one day, and I was like, “So I’ve been thinking about this idea, and I’m wondering what you think. Is it corny?” She’s like, “I love it.” She’s like, “I love it also because I remember at my opening party for ‘Passing Strange’ one of the producers said to me, ‘You’re a Broadway actor now and no one can take that away from you,’”