New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Beyond NYU: A shy guy’s transformation into Broadway success

After studying music composition and musical theater writing at NYU, Steinhardt and Tisch alum Joe Iconis is creating musicals in unconventional ways.
Steinhardt alum Joe Iconis. (Courtesy photo by Marques Walls)

When Steinhardt alum Joe Iconis started studying music composition at NYU, he said he was known as being shy with a musical-loving personality. He said it was this introverted nature that pushed him to express himself by writing self-proclaimed “weird musicals” for people worldwide — including a show that landed a spot on Broadway.

After graduating from NYU in 2003, Iconis began studying musical theater writing at the Tisch School of the Arts graduate program. His musical, “Be More Chill,” based on a book of the same name, made it to Broadway in 2019 and earned him a Tony Award nomination for best original score and even turned into a film.

In an interview with WSN, Iconis discussed his experience at NYU, how “Be More Chill” made it to Broadway and his journey toward creating an album. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

WSN: What inspired you to study music composition at NYU Steinhardt? 

Iconis: Growing up on Long Island, I was always in New York City and exposed to theater — I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. When it came time to figure out college, I really wanted to stay in the city because I wanted to be around theater and Broadway. My parents were really terrified about me going into music — I come from a family that has a lot of educators, so my mom wanted me to get a degree to be a teacher, or anything other than a life in the arts because no one in my family is an artist. But I was just really dead set on having a life in the arts and writing musicals.

Once his time at Steinhardt came to an end, Iconis said that he felt intimidated about entering the professional world of theater. It was his private composition teacher Steven Rosenhaus who told him that in order to become a composer, he would have to learn how to write his own music or collaborate with a lyricist. Rosenhaus’ advice drove him “out of necessity and fear” to enroll in the graduate musical theater writing program at Tisch. 

Iconis wrote music, lyrics and books for 10 musicals, sometimes doing all three for a single show. He said that he is known for writing unconventional shows that “feel scrappy,” including a rock musical about a family with alien plants. He wrote the music and lyrics for “Be More Chill,” which hit Broadway in 2019, following a 2018 off-Broadway run and multiple years as an internet favorite.

WSN: How did it feel to have ‘Be More Chill’ on Broadway?

Iconis:  It was a really wild experience, because the way that my show got to Broadway was so unusual, and a way that certainly no other show ever had gotten to Broadway, and no other show probably will ever get to Broadway. Based on people just liking it a lot, it opened on Broadway. It’s one of these wild things where the fact that we got to Broadway is so insane and so unheard of. We were such a scrappy show. We had no film company behind us, we had no big corporate anything behind us. The fact that we were able to get there just based on people responding to the material and pushing this thing up the hill really gave me faith in theatrical miracles happening.

After its six-month run on Broadway, the musical made it to London in 2020, but was shut down due to the pandemic. Iconis said that during lockdown, he worked on his biographical show “The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical,” which premiered in 2023 at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.

Iconis also regularly performs his concert act “Iconis and Family” throughout New York City, alongside special guests that include Betty Buckley and Anthony Rapp. In 2022, Iconis released a corresponding 44-song record titled “Album.”

WSN: Can you tell me more about the process that went into creating ‘Album’?

Iconis: It was actually the thing that I poured myself into during the pandemic. Once I realized that it was going to be a while before live performance was coming back, I thought that this is the time when I should focus on recording so many of these songs that I have been performing live for years. A lot of my best-known songs are songs that only existed in the ‘Iconis and Family’ world. It’s always been a dream of mine to make an album that included properly recorded songs. The more I started going through song lists, the more I felt like this actually has the potential to be a massive album — a real behemoth of music. It really was this incredible, very emotional experience to make this huge album that we had all been dreaming about for so long.

He added that once he can secure financial backing from donors, he wants to make more albums in the future, as there are still more songs he would like to produce.

WSN: What are your future projects and ambitions? 

Iconis: My two biggies are the Hunter S. Thompson musical — I’m trying to get it to the next stage of its life — and this musical I wrote called Love in Hate Nation. That’s a love story between two girls in a juvie hall for girls in 1961. I passionately love that show and it got really screwed by its opening right before the pandemic, so I’m trying to get that one on the stage as well. I have tons of ideas constantly and for me, it’s just a matter of how I manage my time so that I’m able to do things that make me money so I can afford to exist in this world while also following all of my artistic impulses. I certainly have dream projects — I’ve always really wanted to make a musical out of ‘It’ by Stephen King. There’s just so many things that I want to explore and so many genres. If I ever got Lin-Manuel Miranda famous, I would just blow all my money on making strange art and weird musicals for the rest of my life.

Contact Aashna Miharia at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Aashna Miharia
Aashna Miharia, Deputy News Editor
Aashna Miharia is a first-year studying journalism and public policy with a minor in business studies. She’s from the Boston area and a novelist, coffee enthusiast and lover of independent bookstores. You can usually find her listening to an audiobook while wandering around New York City or on Instagram @aashnamiharia.

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