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After seven years and multiple incarnations, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical hits Broadway
Since 1961, TheaterWorksUSA has toured lit-based shows for young audiences to 49 states and parts of Canada. But the nonprofit's productions never made it to Broadway… until now. The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical at the Longacre Theatre is the realization of the company's long-held dream to mount a show on the Main Stem. "Sarah, Plain and Tall came close," says TheaterWorksUSA's longtime artistic director Barbara Pasternack. "And Little Women started at TheaterWorksUSA, but another team eventually brought it to Broadway."
From the moment she picked up Rick Riordan's best-selling young-adult novel about a troubled 12-year old who discovers he's the half-blood son of the Greek god Poseidon, Pasternack sensed she had something special in her hands. "I immediately started taking notes about how we could do this with a small cast, and the creative ways we could have a Minotaur and water," she says. "But what I loved most about the book was its heart."
Yet getting The Lightning Thief to Broadway -- or on stage at all -- turned out to be an almost Olympian challenge. "Fox Pictures held the rights, since they had done two movies," Pasternack explains. And since those films were savaged by critics and fans alike, Riordan was gun-shy about any further adaptations.
Then the Greek gods smiled down on the theatre mortals: "Rick's agent came to see a TheaterWorksUSA show and she fell in love," says Pasternack. "She became an advocate for us and, little by little, we were granted the rights, first for a one-act musical and, eventually, a two-act version."
Soon after TheaterWorksUSA got the green light, playwright Joe Tracz happened to be visiting his agent's office and spotted a copy of The Lightning Thief on his desk. A huge fan of the book, he immediately asked, "Is someone adapting that? Please put me up for it!" He talked his way into a meeting with TheaterWorksUSA, where he was paired up with composer-lyricist Rob Rokicki to translate the story from the page to the stage.
When the one-act incarnation premiered in 2014 as part of TheaterWorksUSA's free summer theatre program at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel, "the audience reaction was off the charts," Pasternack says. More importantly, kids weren't the only ones going crazy. In addition to families cheering on Percy and his half-blood besties Grover and Annabeth as they journeyed to the Underworld to retrieve Zeus's lightning bolt, there were "twentysomething lawyers, who would run in from their jobs and go into the bathroom to change into their Camp Half-Blood T-shirts," recalls Pasternack.
After that initial success, Tracz, Rokicki and director Stephen Brackett were asked to expand The Lightning Thief into a full-length musical. That incarnation ran at the Lucille Lortel in 2017, and later embarked on a 32-week national tour, stopping at cavernous venues such as Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center and New York's Beacon Theatre.
Rather than adding more action sequences or flashy special effects, the creative team decided to retain the one-act's low-tech charm while digging deeper into the narrative. "The idea was never about glossing up the effects, because stimulating the audience's imagination was always such a big part of it," says Tracz. "The larger format let us decompress the storytelling a bit. It let us give the characters a chance to breathe and live in the emotional stakes of the moment."
Instead of racing from one obstacle to the next -- what Tracz calls the "roller-coaster ride" of the one-act -- the characters got to have moments of reflection, like a scene around a campfire, where the half-bloods all commiserate that "things couldn't be worse, when your parents run the universe." Annabeth, the brave and brilliant daughter of Athena, also got a crowd-pleasing girl-power anthem, "My Grand Plan."
Just as the tour was wrapping up earlier this year, Broadway's The Prom announced it was closing, opening up a slot at the Longacre. TheaterWorksUSA jumped at the opportunity, giving nine out of 10 cast members -- including Kristin Stokes, who's played Annabeth since the beginning -- the opportunity to make their Broadway debuts. (Chris McCarrell, the gangly-handsome actor playing Percy, previously appeared on Broadway in the most recent revival of Les Misérables.)
While Pasternack admits certain effects have been pumped up for Broadway, "we stay true to the DIY aesthetic that Rob likes to call the 'rough magic.'" For example, the half-bloods still vanquish an enemy by shooting toilet paper (as a stand-in for toilet water) out of leaf blowers, only the TP now goes much higher. However, you won't see Harry Potter or Frozen-style illusions. Instead, a teacher magically transforms into a centaur by wearing a tail and prancing like a horse, and Medusa's deadly stare comes via a pair of plastic light-up glasses.
Tracz -- who also wrote the book for another musical with adolescent appeal, Be More Chill -- recently reflected on The Lightning Thief's evolution. "If you'd told me when I first saw that book on my agent's desk that I'd have a chance to write the Percy Jackson musical, and that I'd still be working on it seven years later, I'd have said, 'Wait, what?!' But I still love writing these characters so much, and the fact that we're ending this stage of the journey on Broadway is pretty fantastic."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. Go here to browse our current offers.
Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who can be heard singing show tunes with her two daughters at all hours of the day.
Top image: Jorrel Javier, Chris McCarrell, Kristin Stokes and James Hayden Rodriguez in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.