[Interview] Jennifer Ashley Tepper talks Be More Chill, Joe Iconis and dreams

Words by Moira Armstrong 

Jennifer Tepper wears many hats: producer, author, historian, programming director, and overall musical theatre maven. Her works, from the Jonathan Larson Project to the Untold Stories of Broadway series to Be More Chill, are staples in the Broadway community. She took a break from her busy schedule to talk to Curtain Call about the Feinstein’s/54 Below experience, the authenticity and integrity of Joe Iconis’s works, and what it’s like to have so many of her dreams come true at once. 

When did you fall in love with theatre?

I fell in love with theatre when I was introduced to touring productions, cast recordings, and eventually theatre camp when I was a kid. At the age of 9, I appeared as Drake The Butler in Annie at the Jewish Community Center in Boca Raton, Florida, and from then on, I was hooked. I devoured every cast recording I could get my hands on and wanted to learn everything I could about theatre.

How did you decide what career path you would take to become a part of the industry?

I always knew I wanted to be a part of making new musicals happen, and a part of celebrating underappreciated musicals of the past, and that whatever job I had would not fit into an exact mold. I have always just tried to lead with both of those things.

Your “day job,” so to speak, is as Creative and Programming Director at Feinstein’s/54 Below. What all does that involve?

I am responsible for programming our 18 shows each week, that range from Broadway stars doing solo concerts, to emerging actors and writers presenting work, to group concerts celebrating different musicals and music genres, and everything in between. At any given time, we have hundreds of shows coming up, so it’s a lot of balancing both booking shows with making the shows that are already booked happen. Much of my job is talking to artists, agents, music directors, concert producers, managers, publicists, musicians and others about various elements of making each show happen. And I do this alongside an amazing staff.

How do you decide what’s going to be a successful show there?

A lot of my job is determining if someone can sell enough tickets to break even and if so, for how many performances and at what ticket price and what fee and what slots of the week and with what kind of show branding, and so on. A lot of it has to do with their following, both in real life and on social media, and their engagement with their following. At the end of the day, what I really want is to present shows that are great, that will be a positive, memorable experience for everyone on stage and in the audience and will be successful enough to keep our club running, so I am always trying to make sure we hit all of those marks.

Why do you think so many people are drawn to it as a venue?

We’re the only truly Broadway-centric cabaret and concert room and a lot of our content is very unique to us. I was obsessed with all of the concert and cabaret spaces in New York for the 9 years I lived here before Feinstein’s/54 Below opened, but when it opened, before I even worked there, the doors were blown wide open in terms of theatre and Broadway-related cabaret content. There is so much more of it now. There is such a wider variety of it now. There are so many more writers presenting their works in progress, celebrations of older work, theatre actors of all ages doing their own concerts, all kinds of things. It’s so special to see something that you know a lot of people care a great deal about, that you can only see once, or a few times. It is such an opportunity to get a more intimate look at the artistry of everyone making theatre right now.

What’s your favorite show that you’ve produced there?

One highlight was The Jonathan Larson Project, this past fall—which I worked on for five years before bringing it to life at 54!

“One highlight was The Jonathan Larson Project”

Right now you’re also producing two Joe Iconis shows: Be More Chill and Broadway Bounty Hunter. When and how did you first become involved with Joe Iconis and his work?

I discovered Joe’s work when I was a student at NYU. I heard a demo of “Blue Hair” that was on a dusty writer demo compilation CD while I was sitting in the back room of the York Theatre interning, at the age of 20. Then I heard some of his songs in a concert and was blown away by all of them, particularly “Helen”, which I felt was everything I wanted current musical theatre to be—filled with craft and artistry in its writing, so relevant and human, completely original and unique and surprising in every way. He wrote in a way that absolutely no one was writing, that managed to be touching and funny and real all at once. I wrote Joe a fan letter on facebook. (I remember going on and on about the lyric “Her favorite candy was smarties and she cried at cast parties”) I started going to his concerts as a fan. I was working on the musical [title of show] and when one of our co-producers was producing a 5-show run of Joe’s song cycle Things To Ruin at Second Stage, I asked if I could assist her because I was just dying to be around Joe’s work and his family of artists, that I thought were doing the best new musical theatre I had seen. Thank god she said yes! In 2009, I assisted on the Second Stage production of Things To Ruin, bonded hugely with Joe and the family both artistically and personally, and became a part of everything from then on.

Why do you think it resonates with so many people?

There’s an authenticity and integrity to Joe’s work. He really listens to people. If he is writing about a teenager hiding in a bathroom at a party, he really deeply gets into what it is like to be that teenager. If he is writing about a woman of a certain age battling an ageist, sexist society who is somehow recruited to become a bounty hunter, he really gets into what it means to be that woman. He deeply collaborates with actors, and with every department in the room to make each story moment truthful. So much of what I just said above about what I responded to in “Helen” echoes what people are saying now about the songs in Be More Chill a decade later. Joe has always identified as a misfit and our family of artists are really a bunch of misfits who come together to build things that are unique. His musicals, while all very different, are often about people who are pushed to the side or who are ‘other’ finding their place in the world and claiming their space, and he writes about that from a place of truth. He wants everyone on stage to feel like a real person and like the lead in their own story to a degree, and I think that’s why we see so much love and identification for all Be More Chill characters, not just the lead! The musicals I loved the most growing up did that too, so I love that Joe does that too. Everyone is special. The Family is something that Joe has built that has made every bit of work stronger. Having a foundation of ongoing collaboration at the root of each project, and then adding in new perspectives based on what’s right for the show, creates this magic dust in the room.

When you first started working on Be More Chill, did you foresee it going to Broadway?

With every one of Joe’s musicals, I have believed in the possibility that it could go to Broadway. Since these are shows not backed by corporations or movie studios, not based on popular existing brands, there is a certain accepted path they need to follow in order to get to Broadway. This essentially includes getting great reviews and buzz out of town and that following to an off-Broadway run and that translating to a Broadway run. Be More Chill broke the mold in that regard. We were able to catapult the show to New York based on the hundreds of millions of people who broke the internet streaming the music. When Be More Chill had only ever played 1 month in New Jersey, its cast recording was already one of the four most streamed cast albums of all time—with the other 3 on the list being existing hit Broadway musicals. There’s a way that Joe’s work is reaching people. Be More Chill came to New York because people decided it was good, rather than critics or the theatrical cognoscenti. I always believed Be More Chill would get its shot at Broadway someday, but could never have predicted it being the first show to get to Broadway because of a viral cast album. I firmly believe any of Joe’s upcoming shows could get to Broadway, and who knows if the path will be traditional or not.

What’s it been like following the show throughout its journey?

It’s been incredible. So much of what’s been incredible is watching the Family expand in this way. I remember when the first song was written for Be More Chill and I was emailed it under the guise of “listen to this new song I just wrote,” and now every week I watch thousands of people cheering for that song. On the night we announced our Broadway closing, I was watching the performance and as I focused on each cast member I had a flashback to their origin story. I remember going with Joe to see NYU productions a decade ago, mainly to support our frequent collaborator John Simpkins, who was directing there at the time, and seeing a student named Will Roland bring all of his weird and unique energy to the role of Bat Boy. I remember introducing George Salazar and Joe Iconis at Glass House Tavern after Joe came to see a preview of the Broadway revival of Godspell George and I worked on. Every single person on stage or in the band or on the creative team or on the crew or on the staff joined this family at a different juncture and it’s the family vibe that has created so much of the magic. We’re rehearsing Broadway Bounty Hunter at the same time right now and Joel Waggoner is both a Be More Chill cover and the vocal arranger of Broadway Bounty Hunter. Danielle Gimbal is the music copyist for both shows, Bailey Ford is the social media and producing intern on both shows, Jason SweetTooth Williams is a Be More Chill actor and Broadway Bounty Hunter writer, Geoff Ko is our associate music director on Be More Chill and our music director on Broadway Bounty Hunter. Eric William Morris who has been part of the Family for a million years is our Broadway Bounty Hunter fight consultant and Jen Werner who has also been part of the Family for a million years is our Broadway Bounty Hunter director/ choreographer. Same thing with Badia Farha, one of the Bounty Hunter stars, and Sara Barnes our stage manager. Gerard Canonico is one of the stars of Be More Chill and then you see Joe Iconis & Family in concert and he’s playing the drums. Lady del Castillo was my star 54 Below intern during the run of “Two-Player Game” and I vowed that as soon as I had a chance to hire her in a stage management department, I would—she is now our Bounty Hunter stage management P.A. We have been joking that it’s the Joe Iconis School of Performing Arts but it really does feel like a theatre company that is bonded by years of collaboration and collective vision now doing all of these commercial musicals together in a way I can’t think of a precedent for. I have read stories about the early days of The Group Theatre or Steppenwolf and gone: Oh! Wow! That! So I think we aspire to our own version of some of those ideals. And truly the best part has been adding more people along the way and having the Family grow and expand. When Morgan Siobhan Green walked into the audition room for Be More Chill less than a year ago, we fell in love with all of her special unique weirdness and talent and now in addition to covering all of the women in Be More Chill (and going on for Christine and Jenna so far!), she has been in Bounty Hunter workshops, she has been in Joe Iconis & Family concerts, she’s become part of the fabric of this family. We have this foundation of Family that grows and grows but is always true to the core values we started with.

“there is a way for musicals to get to Broadway powered by the love of real human beings”

What kind of legacy do you hope it leaves?

That there is a way for musicals to get to Broadway powered by the love of real human beings who respond to them. The reviews of Be More Chill at Two River were not good, so the show died and absolutely no one was interested in doing it again. Those reviews were written by a very small number of people. If we hadn’t recorded that cast album, and hundreds of millions of people hadn’t discovered and loved it, there would still be only a few hundred people who had ever heard of Be More Chill. So I hope that we can find ways to have shows come to New York and be allowed to exist that are not only the shows that either have huge branding/backing already built in, or are declared critic’s darlings during their earlier runs.

Are you hoping to bring Bounty Hunter to Broadway too?

We’ll see! We are staying open to all possible future paths for Broadway Bounty Hunter. I am just excited for people to see the show very soon and to see where it goes from there!

You’re also the author of the Untold Stories of Broadway book series. Have you always been so interested in the history of the business?

Yes! I have always loved studying theatre history and how it intersects with the present.

When you first started work on them, were you planning on three volumes and so many interviews involved?

There will eventually be six volumes, so that I can cover all 41 Broadway theaters (as well as one lost theater in each book)! When I started, my publishers and editor and I thought it would be one book, but as we got into it, we realized that the only way to give an accurate picture of each Broadway house would be to interview a significant amount of people who had worked there over many years and in different jobs, and it became clear that only eight theaters could fit into each volume.

Do you have a favorite memory from putting it together?

Interviewing Hal Prince. Definitely. In 2013, getting to go to his office and having the privilege to sit down with him and talk about his career is something I will always treasure and never forget.

Is it possible to pick a favorite story that you learned?

I truly wouldn’t know where to start! I will say I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Lyceum chapter in volume 1, for obvious reasons, and all of the Lyceum stories I was told.

You’re also going to be the historical consultant for Tick, Tick, Boom!, which sounds like a very unique role that not many movies have. What do you think it will entail and how have you been preparing?

I have been contributing historic knowledge to the project, since I’ve studied Jonathan Larson’s work and life for so many years! The movie is going to be incredible, and that’s pretty much all I can say for now.

Obviously, you’re a very busy woman. How do you decide what projects you’re going to produce or become involved in?

I have spent the last decade planting all kinds of seeds in terms of dreams I had or projects I wanted to do—and now it feels like they’re all happening at the same time! I have spent years trying so hard to get to the point where I could produce one of Joe’s musicals and now I’m producing several of them at once! And my job at Feinstein’s/54 Below is 24/7 and requires my attention day and night. So at the moment, I am just trying to juggle all of the projects that are at stage 2 or 3 at the same time and manage my bandwidth as best I can. I would love to be finishing volume 4 of Untold Stories right now but my books are completely on hold, because I am truly at bandwidth limit. It’s an exciting and crazy time.

What is it like balancing all of these aspects of your career and life?

It’s truly my honor to have the opportunity to be living such a crazy era of my career right now. I feel like I’ve been in tech for the last year. But it won’t always be like this, so I’m just going to treasure this time for everything it is.

Do you have any other projects that you’ve always dreamed about doing?

Oh, many! But all things in time.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to go into any aspect of theatre, whether it’s performing or a more behind-the-scenes capacity?

Just get started, at any level, doing something you are passionate about. Whether it’s doing a reading in a living room with your friends over pizza, or volunteering at a local theater, there is no bad way to get started and no wrong way to get where you’re going. Just make stuff you believe in!

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