THESPIAN ALUM Jennifer Ashley Tepper comes across as the most extroverted librarian you’ve ever met. Equal parts curator, theatre buff, and social butterfly, she has devoted her life to collecting lesser-known cast albums, musical theatre trivia, and dedicated friends. But how did an animated archivist in her early 30s end up producing the cult sleeper hit Be More Chill, set to open on Broadway in March? Like the production itself, Tepper’s professional path to this fan-favorite musical took some unexpected turns.
Though a graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts dramatic writing B.F.A. program, Tepper says that she got her real degree from New York City. “I applied for like 100 theatre jobs I didn’t get, if not more.” It’s not that Tepper lacked skills or interests. She just had so many all at once. “I would apply for a regular job in a producer’s office, and they’d say, ‘You’re interested in being in the rehearsal room, and you’re interested in creating your own stuff, and you want to study theatre history — you want to do more than produce.’”
Tepper, who now enjoys an ongoing role as the creative and programing director at Feinstein’s/54 Below, has been cataloging tangents and digressions since her days in Thespian Troupe 4992 at Olympic Heights Community High (Boca Raton, Fla.). “If we were doing Annie, I would need to know what else Charles Strouse wrote, and what else Andrea McArdle had starred in. I became obsessed with collecting cast albums and reading Playbill magazine. Every birthday or Hanukkah or any time I had allowance money, I would buy cast albums.”
When she got to NYU Tisch, Tepper spent her time creating her own song cycles, pursuing internships outside her major, peeking into dark corners of the Great White Way, and chronicling theatrical obscurities. During the years she spent “applying for absolutely everything and not getting anything,” in addition to babysitting and tutoring, Tepper continued to do her own thing. Like compiling what would eventually become her three-volume book series, The Untold Stories of Broadway. Or creating “If It Only Even Runs a Minute,” a cabaret series of songs, stories, facts, and photos mined from theatre’s choicer flops or, as Tepper puts it, “underappreciated musicals.”
She also began helping friend and fellow NYU Tisch graduate Joe Iconis, composer and lyricist for Be More Chill, with some early creative projects, eventually leading to one particular underappreciated musical turned cultural phenomenon by the name of Be More Chill.
The comeback cast album
Be More Chill is based on a novel by Ned Vizzini published in 2004, the same year that Tepper enrolled at NYU Tisch and a year after Iconis graduated. At that time, Tepper knew nothing of the novel, but she soon became aware of Iconis, after hearing demos of his songs during her York Theatre internship in 2006.
Her friendship with Iconis came later, through a connection made when she invited the cast and writers of [title of show] to a musical showcase she put on at Tisch. “We hoped to put some of the material from [title of show] in it, and it wasn’t available yet, but we invited them to come see it anyway.” The [title of show] lyricist-composer Jeff Bowen, librettist Hunter Bell, and actor Susan Blackwell came. Tepper kept in touch with them and landed a student internship on [title of show], which led to a subsequent role as director Michael Berresse’s assistant when the show went to Broadway. One producer of [title of show] happened to be producing Iconis’ 2009 musical Things to Ruin. Tepper offered to help with that and got hired.
“Since then, I’ve worked on all of Joe’s projects, whether in an official capacity as a producer, dramaturg, marketing person, assistant — or unofficial,” says Tepper. In 2011, Iconis, the show’s composer and lyricist, and its librettist Joe Tracz received the novel Be More Chill from their agent. By 2013, Iconis was writing songs for its musical adaptation and sending them to Tepper for her opinion. “My credit on Be More Chill in New Jersey was literally ‘Special thanks to Jennifer Ashley Tepper.’ It was just being around for the journey, giving creative input. I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I’m doing as the producer of Be More Chill Off-Broadway and on Broadway now if I weren’t around for all of that.”
The show, a high-tech story of a high school loser who gets a social “upgrade” in the form of a literal chill pill, premiered in 2015 at Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., to a lukewarm reception. “It did not get the best New York Times review,” says Tepper. Iconis and his creative “family,” as they call themselves, were disappointed when the show shuttered, but they did get to record what would soon become a game-changing cast album.
The album ended up on digital platforms such as Apple Music, YouTube, and Spotify, where it rapidly gained traction among teen musical theatre fans. “The same people were also listening to Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton and Heathers. So all these platforms and their algorithms started feeding Be More Chill to people who were listening to these other things, and then it just spiraled. In 2017, Be More Chill was the second most talked-about musical on Tumblr after Hamilton — before Dear Evan Hansen.”
The album’s online following resurrected the production. By 2018, Tepper found herself producing the musical Off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center. In October, six months before its upcoming Broadway premiere at the Lyceum, producers Shawn Levy and Greg Berlanti announced plans to adapt the show for the big screen.
Tepper, ever the historian, points out that this story could only happen in the digital age. “When people ask me, ‘Has this ever happened before?’ I say no, because there was no Tumblr during Phantom of the Opera. It’s the way the internet helps spread information, but it’s also because the show is so good.” She concedes that it’s not unheard of for a cast album’s popularity to eclipse that of the original production, “but it just hasn’t happened in this quick or this big a way. Take Songs for a New World. That show played a very short run in a small theatre in 1995, then over the years, it’s a show that every Thespian knows. Everyone loves that show, and it’s because of the album. But the internet didn’t exist in the same way in the ’90s, or perhaps the same thing would have happened where, within three years, the fandom would have gotten so large that a New York production would have been in demand.”
Choosing your family
Tepper’s versatility and devoted network both come in handy in her role as producer — with Jerry Goehring — on the upcoming Broadway production of Be More Chill. As Tepper explains, the producer’s role requires both professional dexterity and a knack for maintaining social synergy.
“Of course, producing involves raising the money to do the show, so working with investors, but also shaping the brand of the show and the public campaign. We’re overseeing every department, including who gets cast, who the designers are, who the management is. Hiring people you trust and delegating things to them. Then they’re all making decisions in collaboration with the producers. That could be anything from, ‘Do we want to cut this line in Scene 2?’ to ‘Do we need an extra person for security at the stage door?’ to ‘Do we want to tweet this or use this advertising?’ You’re not literally doing all those jobs on a daily basis, but you’re the captain of the ship.”
Tepper’s collaborative skills come in handy here. “A lot of producing is just listening to people and helping forge connections with the team. Knowing that an actor feels a certain way about something, you express that during a marketing meeting.” It helps that many of Tepper’s and Iconis’ team members have worked together closely for more than a decade. Tepper uses the word “family” constantly while discussing her work. The collaborators associated with Iconis even perform immersive concerts in New York and elsewhere for fellow showtune fans as Joe Iconis & Family. Each December, the family hosts the Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza, produced by Tepper, which she describes as “part rock concert, part theatre piece, and part theme park attraction come to life.” Now in its 11th year, the Feinstein’s/54 Below holiday concert has become a New York tradition.
“This is the case with a lot of long-term theatre collaborations. It’s an ever-fluid, evolving group of people who work together. Everyone has their tribe in that way. When Joe’s song ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’ was on Smash, a lot of us who worked on that song over the years, perhaps doing it in a concert and adding a certain riff to it or a vocal arrangement or an instrument, none of us were on TV, but we all watched it on TV, because it was everyone’s victory.”
A consummate multitasker, while gearing up for Broadway’s Be More Chill, Tepper and many members of her professional family staged her longtime project The Jonathan Larson Project, a song cycle of the Rent writer’s unheard work, which Tepper conceived and has spent the past five years developing. She admits that the two parallel projects are “diametrically opposed.” She says, “I’ve been out raising funds and putting together this huge Broadway premiere, and at the same time, I’ve been doing tons of research on obscure Jonathan Larson songs and putting those in a script. But I feel I couldn’t do such a good job at bringing back a writer’s work from the past if I weren’t working so hard on a show now. They each help me understand the other.”
Five years and “endless hours” alone with Jonathan Larson’s tapes and papers at the Library of Congress finally paid off in October with the show’s Feinstein’s/54 Below premiere. “Now it’s this live show that people experience together every night in a room. Theatre is always two things. It’s always this ultra-personal thing created alone, and it’s always this thing you get to share with rooms of people.”
Though she’s no longer a professional performer, Tepper loved the thrill of the stage during her Thespian years. “I did perform in Thespian competitions. I was part of a group musical that won the Critic’s Choice Award at the Florida Thespians State Festival in 2003. We did ‘Forget About the Boy,’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie. My current colleagues who wrote or worked on Thoroughly Modern Millie loved digging that up on YouTube.”
Tepper’s parents, who both work in medicine, have always loved theatre and often took Jennifer and her sister Jessica to shows. “Then I was sent to theatre camp when I was 9, and that really did it.” She recalls that some of her counselors were high school Thespians. “I was so obsessed with Thespians. Even when I was still in middle school, I would pay attention to what the Thespians were doing.”
Her sister, also a Thespian alum, now works as a New York entertainment attorney. In fact, as Joe Iconis’ lawyer, she is twice-family to Tepper. “She has a million Florida Thespians Critic’s Choice Awards,” Tepper says of her sister. “Then we both moved to New York to work in theatre.”
Asked what advice she would give her past Thespian self, Tepper points to the wealth of nonperformance roles available in theatre: from technical careers to theatre archiving to entertainment law. “I would tell myself — and I try to tell theatre students all the time — that there are truly so many jobs in theatre. In high school we think, ‘OK, there’s the person who wrote the play, the person who directs the play, then there are the people who are in the play, or design it.’ But there are also agents, theatre journalists, people in management, and different levels of producing, from line producing to executive producing. There are so many ways to be involved with making theatre happen.”