Stephanie Hsu on Be More Chill Fans and the Importance of Diversity
In This Episode
ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you.
I’m your host, Elysa Gardner, and I’m here with Stephanie Hsu, currently appearing on Broadway in Be More Chill at the Lyceum Theatre. Stephanie is a Los Angeles native who made her Broadway debut just a couple of years ago as Karen the Computer in the musical SpongeBob SquarePants. You may have also caught her in the Hulu series The Path or on MTV’s Girl Code, among other film and TV appearances; she has several in the works, including a role on the third season of the hit Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Stephanie also has a strong foothold in the worlds of sketch comedy and improv; she’s a member of the troupe Political Subversities and of the Story Pirates Changemakers, an education, and media organization that turns kids’ stories and ideas into sketch comedy musicals.
Welcome to Stage Door Sessions.
STEPHANIE HSU: Thank you, thank you for having me!
ELYSA GARDNER: Nice to have you here. So by now most or at least many of the folks listening will know the basic background story of Be More Chill, the little musical that could, and did, make it to Broadway—after a long path that started at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey?
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah, [laughs] yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: And it involved a huge push on social media that came after a cast recording and videos exploded online. So, tell us a little bit about where that journey began for you and what the ride has been like.
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah so, I studied experimental theatre when I was in college and I worked a lot with this woman, Liz Swados, who was the writer and creator of Runaways; she was a huge mentor of mine.
ELYSA GARDNER: Runaways, yeah.
STEPHANIE HSU: And that was kind of the extent of my involvement with musical theater. I was doing a lot of theater with music in it, but it was certainly always on the experimental side. And so, the contract at Two River, Be More Chill at Two River, was actually my first ever Equity contracted musical. At the time, I was thinking I was gonna do a lot more TV, even at that time, and so I almost missed the callback actually because I was in L.A. for my first screen test, and they were like the creatives would really like to meet you, and I was like, I don’t really know that I do musical theater, and they were like they think you should really come and it would mean a lot to them, and I was like okay. So I flew in that morning from LA to have an appointment for the callback of Be More Chill, and I remember meeting Stephen Brackett, our director, and he had looked at my resume, and the most recent show I had done was a show called War Lesbian at Dixon Place, which is a downtown, downtown theatre, and Erin Markey was in it, you know a bunch of people who were involved who were actually in the forefront of contemporary theatre, but Stephen Brackett looked at my resume and he was like oh my gosh, you were in War Lesbian? I heard that was amazing! And that’s when I knew I was at home, I felt safe to be a part of that fabric. So we did this little musical, Be More Chill, at Two River, and we, I think the artistic directors of Red Bank, of Two River, had the foresight at the time to record this album and so we did, and for me it was so many firsts, you know. I wasn’t involved enough in the industry of commercial theatre to even understand what a transfer was, and so I wasn’t even thinking about a Broadway transfer an out of town tryout, I was like oh, this is like a summer job. And then lo and behold, this whole thing happened. And what’s so crazy about the album becoming viral was that there really was no push from anyone on the creative team, or in the cast. It sort of just happened organically which has been so special and it’s been really interesting to see this come all the way to Broadway and also definitely notice the ways in which different pieces of theatre Off-Broadway are sort of using it as a stencil almost to propel their shows. So many more Off-Broadway musicals are now recording cast albums and I think a lot of it has to do with Be More Chill and it’s trajectory and how it kind of happened.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, that’s very true. That’s really cool. Your role in the musical is a kind of quirky dream girl; you’re not the head cheerleader or the kind of elusive high school goddess that the nerd gets a crush on in more typical stories; she’s in the drama club, she’s funny, she’s goofy and I think probably a lot more accessible not only to those of us who love musical theatre growing up but just a lot of young women and girls. Is that part of what appealed to you about the role initially?
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah, I think, you know, as someone who has never been seen as a typical ingenue, I don’t think that I even could put myself in those very straightedge shoes. So I think going into the audition I was given “I Love Play Rehearsal” and I saw what was funny in it and so I just brought what I bring to things, to bring to her. I don’t think I had the script at the time, so I just didn’t really perceive what she has now become, which is this vision of a leading lady that is so different from what people usually see. And certainly over the years after meeting fans, I remember at the stage door of SpongeBob, I was meeting so many Be More Chill fans before we even knew the show was going to continue.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, interesting!
STEPHANIE HSU: Oh yeah, my first ever stage door experience of Broadway, of SpongeBob, which was my debut, I came out of the stage door, and people started singing “Christine” [sung to the tune of “More Than Survive]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: And I was like wait, I’m in SpongeBob. How do you know this?! I just could not, I didn’t grasp yet the reach of the album. And meeting these young fans of musical theater in general at the stage door of SpongeBob, I really understood; wow, these kids really do love play rehearsal. It just brought a certain kind of closeness to the perspective. And definitely going into the, we call 3.0 version, the Broadway version of Be More Chill, I have seen the ways in which young people are really needing some of the joy and the medicine that I think Christine Canigula actually provides. So for me, that role has become an even deeper offering for them, to give them permission to be as weird and wild as they are. And to know that they are also, can be worthy of love. Because really when you’re that young, and at whatever point in your life, everyone wants to be a part of a love story. To some extent, I think. And it’s difficult to imagine it if you can’t see yourself in a traditional love story.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s true, well speaking of medicine, you touched on that, this show is very topical, obviously, in addressing technology and the role it plays in teen life today. You have a young person struggling with anxiety who comes to literally use technology as a drug—which I think it has become, for a lot of us, in some ways. What kind of feedback have you gotten from these young fans and from people in general who come to see the show, or on social media, for that matter?
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah. You know, it’s so funny, as an artist, sometimes you don’t completely understand the extent in which art actually has the power to heal. And we are flooded with letters from young people all the time about ways in which the show has helped them, and one that sticks out in my mind, is a really long handwritten letter, that’s what’s so beautiful, like these kids are writing with their hands, yeah yeah, right! Can’t believe they still teach that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Wow, a kid with a handwritten letter! [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: But, this young person was talking about how they were taking medication to help with some health problems and it was a really dark time in their life, and they set an alarm with a different song from the Original Cast Album of Be More Chill to remind them to take this medicine and it really helped them know that what they were struggling with, I think it was physical and also mental, that what they were struggling with actually had light at the end of the tunnel. And that it helped them continue forward as opposed to fall back into their suffering. And that’s the thing, it’s no secret that our show is not for everybody, and a lot of people are like, I don’t get what all the commotion is about, it’s so loud! And meanwhile, young people are at the rush line every single day. And I think that there’s something about it that, young people, they just have never seen a story like that, that is as big as all the feelings they feel inside. Especially on Broadway, when things are much more cookie cutter. But the chaos that is inside of them is as loud and as strange as our little sci-fi musical, you know?
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, I know that. I have an 11-year-old who’s a huge fan.
STEPHANIE HSU: Oh yeah!
ELYSA GARDNER: We saw it together so I know exactly what you’re talking about, those big emotions.
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah!
ELYSA GARDNER: I mean, I can relate to those too, I think we all can. I want to talk a little bit about your own background. I’ve read that your grandmother escaped China during a period of war and went to Taiwan, and your mom eventually landed in L.A., where you were born. At a time when diversity is such a focal point, is representing your heritage something that’s often in your thoughts?
STEPHANIE HSU: You know, it’s something that I think I pretended like it didn’t exist for so much of my life because I was trying so desperately to assimilate to theatre, and what that meant to me. The Great White Way is what we call it. And I hated musical theatre. And I.. I didn’t hate it but I just never saw my place in it. And I didn’t think I had the words or the cultural permission to admit that it was because I just didn’t know where I could be in it, if I wasn’t right for Miss Saigon. Which I’ve just never been right for Miss Saigon, you know?
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: And, it’s a really powerful time to see– I mean, I think we’re still making baby steps but there is a shift happening and to be knowingly a part of that shift is so wild, you know? I mean, my mother even said to me when she saw the show Off-Broadway, she said, you’re so lucky that the director took a chance on you and put you in a white person’s role. And she didn’t say it as like a… She just said it as a matter-of-fact. And that is shocking to many people who are not in minority… Or actually I’m not using the word minority anymore because we are not minor, but in marginalized groups, that’s shocking to some people, but for people who get it, they’re like oh yeah, my parents would say that too. And so, it’s been really beautiful to see so many young Asian people, and just young kids of color at our stage door, and you know exactly why they’re there.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. That’s wonderful. I know you write in addition to performing, and as I mentioned you’re involved in sketch comedy and improv and you’ve mentioned having a background in experimental theatre. You went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and have studied with Atlantic Theater Company. At what point did you know you might be leaning in that direction, and who were your influences?
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah, so, you know, I joined theatre relatively late. I was playing basketball all throughout high school…
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] That’s awesome.
STEPHANIE HSU: What I like to say about my career thus far is that there have been a series of guardian angels, who have been like, Did you know that you can do this in college? or did you know that you can be an actor, actually, for life? And those concepts were so foreign to me. But even when I was young and we were supposed to write essays for science projects, I was always trying to make like a dumb video instead. And I think definitely, meeting Liz Swados my first year of college, completely changed my life. She really taught me not only what it means to be an actual holistic artist but she taught me and all the people that she held really close to her that art has a power to shift the culture around you. And in fact, its job and its necessity is to do as such. And so I think she was an incredible mentor that came into my life that gave art purpose for me. Because for so long I felt very ashamed to be an actor.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh really?
STEPHANIE HSU: I was like I can do so much more than just act. You know, I should be in journalism or something, cause that’s sustainable!
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh yeah, right. Let me tell you! [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah right, oh I know! [laughs]. But I do believe, especially even with Be More Chill, it has taught me in a very tactile way that the work that we do as artists has a very real and necessary impact.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, certainly does. And I looked at your resume online, and among the special skills you list, in addition to sketch and improv and Mandarin and farming—which I love—are beatbox and various Spanish dialects. You’ve done voices for animation as well; you have a very distinct voice, a very distinct vocal ability as a speaker and as a singer.
STEPHANIE HSU: Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: Is that ability to make different and interesting sounds something that.. a talent you’ve had?
STEPHANIE HSU: I just–sometimes I step outside of myself and outside of my life and I’m like who gave this to me? I don’t know.. No one in my family, my grandmother you know, escaped in the cultural revolution, my mom was sent over here at an early age. No one had the permission really to even entertain the idea of a life in the arts but also I’m like I’m the weirdest one where did this come from? So I don’t know. But that’s definitely something Liz also brought out of me too. She and I were in Abu Dhabi together working on something and I remember us being in the airport and she was like I just don’t want you to forget, that you’re funny.
ELYSA GARDNER: Good advice.
STEPHANIE HSU: [laughs] Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: I read you described in one bio, and someone else may have written this, you can tell me, as an “actor and performance collaborator.”
STEPHANIE HSU: Oh, my goodness.
ELYSA GARDNER: And I thought that was an interesting term, it made me think of “performance artist.” With your various skills and interests, have you ever thought of yourself in that capacity?
STEPHANIE HSU: As a performance artist? Definitely not as a performance artist, but I do believe myself to still be a collaborator at heart. I mean, I feel that downtown theater will always be my closest love. To be sitting on the floor in a room with a new piece of work and trying things out in a way that’s not just a 29 hour reading, is my favorite thing. To be really trying to push the boundaries of what performance can be is very exciting to me. And I think it’s really happening, I look at Broadway–I don’t know that I’ll ever be a producer but I will say that I walked out of What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theatre Workshop and I was like this has to go to Broadway and then it came to Broadway and I walked out of Slave Play and I was like this has to come to Broadway and the announcement just came out today!
ELYSA GARDNER: Just announced, yes!
STEPHANIE HSU: So it’s exciting to see work that is really close to home for me in terms of my community come to the forefront of commercial theatre cause the reality is that Broadway reaches so many more different people and to have work that is pushing boundaries in that way for people from all over the world is so amazing and awesome.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s another hyphenate you can add, producer. [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: [laughs] Producer, yeah, in theory. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: I’ve seen you have a number of projects in post-production right now. There’s a TV series called Karate Tortoise?
STEPHANIE HSU: Oh my god, yeah! That wrapped awhile ago, yeah. But..
ELYSA GARDNER: You’re the title character.
STEPHANIE HSU: I am. I’m plastered in prosthetics as a literal karate tortoise. So they’re figuring that out right now. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: And, you have TV movies called Guap and another film called Asking For It?
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah, Asking For It is actually one that we are truly in post-production for right now. Gonna be sending it off to festival circuits at the end of this year. Janeane Garofalo is in it and it’s a really, really special film.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, very cool. A comedy?
STEPHANIE HSU: It’s like a comedy thriller, I would say we have likened it to… It’s slipping my mind right now… It’s like Get Out, there we go. It’s like Get Out meets the #MeToo movement. It’s a comedy thriller, yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh! A comedy thriller is pretty descriptive. And of course, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is pretty special. Tell us about how you got that and who you play.
STEPHANIE HSU: So I can’t tell too much about the character, but yeah, the audition came to me when we were still in tech and I hadn’t been auditioning cause we were in the thick of Be More Chill and they sent me this appointment and I was like okay.. And so like on a dinner break a friend helped me self-tape in my dressing room. And I think my brain was just so truly fried that I was like, I’ll just throw this to the wind and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. So I guess it was meant to be, we’ve been shooting for a few months now, and I’ll be in it the whole season, and it’s been one of the biggest gifts of my life. Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] just… it’s such an honor to work with people who care so deeply about the work that they’re making and do so at such a high caliber, and care about every detail in a way that really shows, I think, in the final product. That show is just done with such excellence. It’s so smart, the writing is so good, and the production value is just so extraordinarily beautiful.
ELYSA GARDNER: A lot of people think so, absolutely.
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah! I’m excited.
ELYSA GARDNER: But you can’t tell us anything about your role?
STEPHANIE HSU: I can’t. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.
ELYSA GARDNER: Okay, can you tell us if it involves your comedy chops? That’s a pretty broad question. [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah I think there is definitely–yeah. She’s fierce.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, excellent, she’s fierce, I love that. Do you like to garden in your free time, by the way? It sounds like you have so much you’re doing that I did want to ask you about that because I read you once worked on a farm..
STEPHANIE HSU: I love.. Yes, I did.
ELYSA GARDNER: And on your site you mention picking radishes and fantasizing about having an avocado tree, so..
STEPHANIE HSU: [laughs] Yeah. I think I need to update my website, because I definitely.. it’s been like years since I’ve even touched that thing, but that’s okay.
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] But I love those images!
STEPHANIE HSU: But those are true. Actually this year my best friend and I built some raised beds in her backyard and we’ve been growing lettuces and different medicinal herbs.. Regular medicinal herbs, everybody calm down. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: But it’s been actually.. I have very little free time these days but the biggest gift has been that garden. Just to be able to really see and observe seeds growing in real time is such a peaceful and humbling witnessing. We are also nature and so to be able to surrender to the actual rhythms of what growing is, is such a parallel to a life in the arts, a career, a life in general. So that’s been such a blessing. And I definitely.. Agriculture is a very big part of my brain space.
ELYSA GARDNER: Wow. Agriculture, basketball, improv, you’re a renaissance woman!
STEPHANIE HSU: [laughs] Yeah yeah!
ELYSA GARDNER: I imagine theater and live performance are gonna be things you’ll return to before too long, hopefully. Do you have any ideas or goals about what could be next, now that you’ve contributed, on Broadway, to these two musicals that really capture the pop zeitgeist? Does that up the ante for the next one or..?
STEPHANIE HSU: For sure. Yeah, well you know what’s so funny, as someone who never really expected to be on Broadway, I’m looking forward to the time after Be More Chill closes, just to, what I like to say, come home a little bit and just..
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, you mentioned that, Off-Broadway and experimental and..
STEPHANIE HSU: I’ve been going nonstop from Broadway show to Broadway show for the last two and a half years and SpongeBob, I also was in development with since the very beginning so it will be nice to kind of actually wonder and really listen to what I actually want to be next. California–I’ve been trying to move to California for the last two years and Broadway has pulled me, not pulled me back but Broadway has been like, do me instead!
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: [laughs] So I definitely.. Which I’m grateful for but I’m definitely thinking about spending more time in Los Angeles, just cause there’s a lot of work out there that I know I’m really great for, and would be excited to try something new over there for a little bit.
ELYSA GARDNER: Great, well we hope to see you soon, downtown, uptown, on the other coast. [laughs]
STEPHANIE HSU: Yeah! Yeah yeah! Thank you for having me.
ELYSA GARDNER: Thank you so much for joining us and chatting with us Stephanie, it’s been a pleasure.
STEPHANIE HSU: Thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct, your source for all things Broadway, and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner and hosted and produced by, me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.
In this podcast, we’re speaking with Stephanie Hsu on her roles in Be More Chill, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the upcoming season of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Tune in to this podcast to hear about how she should be named “Broadway’s Renaissance Woman,” her love of gardening, and why she needs to update her website.