It's well known that the fans of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson book series didn't like the movie version of The Lightning Thief. It's just as well known that Riordan himself didn't particularly care for it. So when it came to creating a musical-theater version, everyone was extremely skeptical.
Enter book writer Joe Tracz, also obsessed with the Percy novels, sci-fi fantasy, and YA literature, and composer Rob Rokicki, a longtime fan of young adult horror and Greek mythology — with a particular affinity for the film Clash of the Titans. Tracz knew he was the ideal writer to adapt The Lightning Thief for the stage when TheaterWorks USA gave him the opportunity, and he knew that Rokicki, who understood the book's aesthetic right away, was the perfect songwriter.
An hourlong version of their Lightning Thief musical premiered in 2014 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It toured schools and libraries, as TheaterWorks' theater for young audiences productions always do. In the process, the writers and their producers learned that the fans were going nuts for this show. This was the adaptation of the story they wanted to see. Tracz and Rokicki further adapted the property into a full two-act, two-hour musical that received three Drama Desk Award nominations in 2017, including Outstanding Musical. A national tour earlier this year sold out some of the largest auditoriums in the country.
But Broadway, where the musical is playing a holiday season run at the Longacre, was a surprise for all involved, especially the writers. "It was the call I least expected to get," Tracz remembers. Rokicki agrees, saying that it's a testament to the fans that it's gotten this far. "YA is so popular in film but it's an untapped resource onstage. But if you make it and people respond to it enough, who knows where it could end up?"
What was it about The Lightning Thief that made you think it was ideal material for a musical?
Joe Tracz: I loved the books and was disappointed by the movies. They threw a bunch of special effects at the stories but they missed out on the heart and humor. Adapting for the stage allows for a more intimate version that relies on imagination and humor. Forming a community connection with live performers makes you feel like you're on a quest with Percy and his friends.
Rob Rokicki: I read the book in a fury, and when I realized what the aesthetic of this was, I immediately understood how to write it.
Joe: Rob tapped into exactly the things I responded to in the books: the connection between kids and their parents. The movies, I think, were trying to fit Percy into a Harry Potter box. The stories are similar: Both are about kids who discover they have a special gift, go to a place where those kids are nurtured, and then go on a quest to save the world. But Percy's voice is so much more of an American voice. Percy is funny and snarky and is self-aware and self-deprecating, and he's got this punk-rock spirit. That was missing from the movies. Plus, all the special effects in the world can't compete with our own imagination.
It's well known that Rick Riordan and the fans were disappointed by the movie, too. What did it take to get them on board with this version?
Joe: I met Rick at the beginning of the process, and we had dinner with his literary agents, who have been the hugest champions of this project since day one.
Rob: His agents were very, very hands on. We'd try to combine a character or a moment, and they'd be like, "You can't do that." That actually helped with the storytelling, because we had to be as inventive as we could. There were six actors, now seven, and they play 47 characters.
Joe: Rick is still writing the characters — he's on his third series with Percy and friends — so he has not seen the show. But because the fans have embraced it, Rick has been supportive of it. I check Tumblr way too much, and I remember when the first press release went out for our original hourlong version and I saw all the skepticism.
Rob: "There they go. They're gonna ruin it again."
Joe: It was fun to be watching Tumblr during that first run, and then during that first tour where we would visit schools and libraries.
Rob: People would be reporting back to the fans.
Joe: "This does it right!" "This feels like Percy!" The online response to it was, "I know you think this is gonna be like the movie, but this is the thing that we've been waiting for." It was that fan response that allowed us to get the rights to create the two-hour version, which had always been a pipe dream. We've gotten Rick's godly blessing.
What kind of effort does it take to make sure the fans are happy, while simultaneously making sure that new viewers aren't alienated?
Joe: There was a balance in writing for people who take these characters seriously, while also writing for people meeting them for the first time.
Rob: The fans will let us know if something isn't working or if they don't believe in XYZ. We invited a group of fans to come see an early reading of the show and they were like, "Well, the fight with Aries has to happen on a beach," and we were like, "Yes, noted. They will fight on a beach."
Joe: These characters are so real to people. They all know that the character Grover is a vegetarian. We had a line where he talks about wanting a cheeseburger. In my mind, cheeseburgers could be vegetarian. But it was important that we specify that the cheeseburger is actually a veggie burger, and we did that the other night. It was important for us to emphasize that we take these characters as seriously as people who look at them as their heroes.
Rob: They went crazy about that. They were like, "They care!" And we do.
Joe: It's also about making the fantasy storytelling as clear as possible. Many of us are entering the theater with a base awareness of Greek myths, so when they talk about the big three gods, we have to know who those big three gods are. So while we make sure the fans know we're taking it as seriously as they are, we're also letting people who don't know the books know that we've got their back.