Not only are the gods real, but so is the beloved group of demigod teens at Camp Half-Blood from Rick Riordan’s iconic book franchise.
Growing up, the Percy Jackson books were a staple among young adult (YA) fans. When acclaimed musical writer Joe Tracz and composer Rob Rokicki joined forces a few years back, they created a fantastical new addition to the theatre scene in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. Following a smash off-Broadway run and touring production, the one-of-a-kind musical has set up camp at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre in New York City for a limited run. The musical’s cast and creative team descended on New York Comic Con (NYCC) this Thursday to discuss the show’s journey bringing the famous books “from page to screen” in a panel designed for both YA and theatre fans.
Cast member Jorrel Javier explained to the panel that his love for the franchise began long before he was cast as Grover for the touring and Broadway productions.
“I was very much in [that] age. … I just missed the Harry Potter-kind of funk, and my sister was so protective over that series that I was not allowed to read it,” Javier says. “And so, I was going into middle school, … and it (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief) was part of the required summer reading for that summer, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to take this seriously; I’m going to read this book instead of SparksNoting it. And so, I read it, and then I fell in love with the characters. I found myself in these characters, and it became this series that I not only found really interesting but also found really relatable.”
Whether the cast members — like us — were longtime fans or picked it up just prior to the production, they were each struck by the book’s heart and overall message.
“I read the first novel overnight and I just fell in love with the imagination and its heart, sense of humor, everything sort of spoke to me,” director Stephen Brackett says. “It’s not every day that you get a script that says ‘Chiron steps out of a wheelchair and becomes a centaur’ and literally in the stage direction it said, ‘good luck, director.’”
“Once I read that, I said, ‘OK, they get it, they know this is a slightly impossible thing to do.’ We knew this was going to be a show that didn’t have big, huge changing scenery [and] that we wanted to capitalize on a lot of the audience’s imagination to participate in the spectacle that was unfolding in front of them,” he adds.
The musical used the audience’s imagination as a way to stay true to the beloved property and the books to create a rich exploration of these loved characters on stage and in song.
“I actually think the story lends itself to the musical art form, I think more than most other stories because it’s these seemingly normal kids with these powers they can’t control, and what better way to heighten a character and story than make them break out into rock songs where emotions are bubbling over,” actor Chris McCarrell says. “So, I think that was one of the strongest possible devices we could use for these characters that aren’t normal kids. … And with this score, oh my gosh!”
In addition to realistic characters portrayed on stage, there are also a plethora of fun cameos that add levity to the performance, including a “brilliantly” wigged James Brown, a drag queen-in-training Mozart, a rock ’n roll-listening Hades, and even a dolphin. These outrageous characters create a larger distinction when paired beside a more “normal” and relatable character.
“In the show, because we have so many mythical characters and out-of-the-box characters, I did want to keep Sally (Percy Jackson’s mother) the most real, the most ‘normal,’” Steele says. “I wanted to keep her someone people could know and relate to and find their mom in that.”
With so many cameos and characters in the show but only seven actors on stage, most of the actors must play more than one role.
“My track is really cool because I get to play Luke, a more grounded kind of character; he is our antagonist, but he’s someone that I can [relate to],” actor James Hayden Rodriguez says. “Then, on the flip side, I can play evil villains, ‘Smelly Gabe,’ [god of war] Ares — which is just the most ridiculous I can be. … We’ve created this incredible safe space where we’re able to try out anything and nothing is too crazy. We get to play all these crazy characters, and then I get to settle back into Luke, which is the more truthful moments I get to play, which are based off my own experience and life. It’s a great juxtaposition.”
While the show brings killer rock ballads, intricate stage combat routines, and an assortment of kooky characters to the Great White Way, The Lightning Thief never forgets its roots and the book’s core inspiration and characters.
“With so many [Percy Jackson] books in this world, there’s so much we know about the characters. So how do we condense that? But, that ended up being a gift. … When we expanded it, it was really about how we can let these characters feel as dimensional as possible,” Tracz said.
It’s a different type of musical that combines the best of musical theatre with a well-known (and beloved!) book franchise. And that’s precisely why fans are loving this show. One thing’s for certain: the Greek god of theatre, Dionysus, would certainly be proud of this work. Cheers.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel