Hypable spoke with Joe Tracz, the patron saint of book adaptations, all about his work on Be More Chill, The Lightning Thief Musical, and Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Irvin Khaytman: Did you always want to adapt to books or did you just fall into this?
Joe Tracz: I do write my own stuff, too. But once you do something, you often end up doing more of that thing. Fortunately, I always was a reader and always was someone who had a literary bent. When I read things, I thought about the movie version, the live version in my head. Even if it’s not the path I thought I was going on, it feels in retrospect like the inevitability of all the things I love coming together.
As an English major who did theater, what I love about adaptation is [that] it gets me in the head of my favorite authors. It challenged me as a writer: you’re thinking about things as a reader and a writer simultaneously. Because you’re asking yourself, why did Ned [Vizzini] or Rick [Riordan] or Daniel [Handler] make this choice? Why did they structure the scene this way? How do I take that and translate it to a medium [where] you don’t have the benefit of internal thoughts or narration? How do I achieve that same effect with a different set of tools? So it’s a puzzle in a way that I think is really fun and challenging to figure out.
But it’s also getting to share stories. I love the Lemony Snicket books so much and I want to share that with a new audience. So to get to take these moments that gave me chills or thrilled me when I first read them in like 2003, and to be on set as that moment’s being filmed, and getting to talk with the director about the performance or the way it’s shot… To really be taking this thing that you envision in your head when you read a book, and having that actually come to life with the benefit of cameras and sets and costumes, is just like the coolest thing.
I’ve gotten to [work with] the writers who really inspired me because I was someone who really loved YA. The writers that you read at that stage in your life, where you’re just figuring out what growing up means and what impending adulthood means, really tap into those feelings. I really have been lucky that I’ve gotten to work on projects based on books that spoke to me.
Living the dream!
I know it every day. I feel very very lucky. The success of those things has been awesome to see. But the fact that I got to do it at all… if nobody had come to see Be More Chill, if the show had never even gotten to have this extra life, I still would have been so happy that I got to have this adaptation and work with the people I loved. The fact that it’s gone on to actually have the effect on audiences that we dreamed it would have, is really the icing on the cake.
Have you seen the incredible reaction to these shows firsthand?
It was amazing during previews [of BMC on Broadway] to be able to be there every night, hearing people experience a new line or moment. At the end of Act One, with our revisions on “Upgrade,” we learn a little more about Brooke, we learn that everyone is sharing this feeling like they are not seen for who they are. [Seeing] audiences being surprised and moved by this discovery is something I looked forward to every night. I live in LA now, so I don’t get back to New York as much. Whenever I do, I sneak in the back, and listen and enjoy.
It’s funny because nobody knows what a writer looks like, so I can go see the show and eavesdrop on people having these like incredible initial reactions without censoring themselves or limiting their behavior because they’re right next to the writer. So it’s fun to go and just be in the audience of these shows, and hear people have such an incredible journey: responding emotionally to the parts that are moving, responding with joy to the parts that are uplifting. And to hear people walking out of the theater feeling really transformed, feeling empowered. For me, that’s the kind of theater I want to make. Whether that’s hearing people in the theater afterwards share that with their friends and family, or people reaching out to me on [social media] to share their stories of how Be More Chill has affected them.
Those are the things that you dream of one day writing. When you put something out in the world, you want to make something that will have an effect on something, the way that things that mattered to you had an effect on you. You want your work to be felt.
I’m grateful that Rick’s work and Ned’s work were already doing that themselves, so I get to translate that to a new audience. Keeping that kernel of why people found something in Ned’s books they didn’t find in any other books in the YA section. Why people continue to find meaning and hope and comfort in Rick’s worlds. To get to shepherd that to a new audience is pretty cool.
For Lightning Thief and for Lemony Snicket, you have the baggage of disliked film adaptations. How do you go about winning back a fandom after they’ve been burned once?
So many things are about tone. Both Percy and Lemony, those movies came out in the wake of the success of Harry Potter. Those movies were really chasing the Harry Potter feel, in a way that betrayed what actually makes those series stand out. For Percy, it’s the humor. And it’s a very American series in terms of the structure of the books: it’s like an American road trip – what gets more classic American than that? Percy’s view on the world is so wry and self-deprecating and comic, in a way that’s constantly undercutting the pompousness of the Greek myths and the gods, in a way that feels like a very American point of view and very funny. And the movie didn’t have that because it was too busy trying to be a Harry Potter clone.
And same thing for Lemony: in cramming three books into one, and trying to sand off the wry bleakness of the books, in favor of something that felt more like a Hollywood holiday family movie… it sort of betrayed the spirit of what those books are. So [we] get to say, “Well, trying to make it something else didn’t work. Let’s let these things be their own selves.”
So the Percy in the musical can be snarky and funny, and commenting on the craziness of his life in a way that is talking directly to the audience. The Lemony series can play with the fact that in a TV series, you can get back to those Gothic serial roots. Because the TV series really is just our modern-day version of Victorian serial fiction. And play up the cliffhangers, and play with form and content, [which] the books do so well. You can use cinematic tricks to play with fakeouts and to play with form, and have that sense of weird experimentation that the books do so well.
As someone who self-identifies as a fan of things, the fandom is important to me. Those big fandom communities were the things that got me through growing up. It’s been interesting to see fan culture enter the mainstream, but then also see the downside of that as corporations try to exploit fandom. And in doing so, sort of misunderstand the sense of community and pride and connection that people have to these series in the first place. So I think it’s something that all creators, and especially people who do adaptations, are going to have to be dealing with going forward. How to stay true to why people like these things in the first place, even as these things become giant money-making enterprises?
How do you vary your writing based on the popularity of the source material? Where a majority of your audience will have read Lightning Thief but not Be More Chill?
I’m going into the adaptation as a fan of the material, with a sense of, “If this thing was missing, that would make it not feel like Lightning Thief or Be More Chill or Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Sometimes that’s lines of dialogue. For example, in Lightning Thief, we knew if [Annabeth] didn’t call him “Seaweed Brain,” that would feel like a huge betrayal. Or “you drool when you sleep.” With Lemony Snicket, it’s “If you’re allergic to something, it’s best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.” There are lines of dialogue that are so memorable that you want to put them on a T-shirt or a tattoo. They’re lines that have transcended the source material in a way that you have to have [them] or it’s not that thing.
Sometimes it’s character stuff or thematic stuff. With Be More Chill, maybe a lot of people aren’t as familiar with the book. So there’s not the same t-shirt lines. But I knew from working at bookstores, and seeing the kinds of people who responded to Ned’s work and who needed Ned’s work, that there was [what] I call “a lack of airbrushing.” There was an authenticity to the way he wrote about being a teenage boy, where if you didn’t have that, it wouldn’t feel like a Ned Vizzini story.
There’s surface things like talking about masturbation, which you don’t get in a lot of stories about teenagers. I think that any teenage boy who picks up Ned’s book is going to say, “Hey, that is part of being a teenager.” Or talking about sex in a more frank way, acknowledging that that’s part of being a teenager. That drug use is part of being a teenager. Struggling with mental health is now part of being a teenager. So it may not be lines of dialogue the way it is for Lightning Thief and Lemony Snicket. But there is a thematic undercurrent that we had to be true to, otherwise it wouldn’t be Be More Chill.
And Be More Chill now has iconic lines from the musical that every fan knows!
When Michael enters in the play and sings, “Michael makes an entrance!” That was originally a different line when we first started rehearsals in Two River, and it never worked. I went through a couple different lines. And finally [director] Stephen Brackett was like, “I just think this has to be the kind of quotable line that someone hears and wants to put on a T-shirt.” I went away and came back with “Michael makes an entrance!” I knew that the show had suddenly exploded when I would see online people making stickers and T-shirts on Etsy and Redbubble that said, “Michael makes an entrance!” That was the pipe dream, that moment! And that was when I knew Be More Chill had tapped into something special.
How was working on Unfortunate Events for Netflix different from writing the musicals?
One huge difference was that we were working with Lemony Snicket. Daniel Handler ran our writers room, so it was a different kind of collaboration. For Lightning Thief, even though Rick gave us his blessing, and his people would be at readings, he wasn’t an active participant in the writing process. We always joke he’s like our Poseidon. He’s like the god that we’re making our offerings to and trying to please, but he’s not interacting with us on a daily level.
So for Lemony, it was fun to be able to have that kind of interaction with the creator of something. To say, “When I first read the book, this is the emotional reaction I had to this scene. Have you thought about this?” So it was a very different kind of process than something like Lightning Thief or Be More Chill, where it’s more like putting yourself in the author’s brain without having the author around to answer those questions.
What about the musicals – does your process change based on whether you’re writing with Joe Iconis (BMC) or Rob Rokicki (Lightning Thief)?
The great thing about Joe and Rob is that they are themselves collaborators. They’ve worked on shows together and Rob’s in Joe’s band. In fact, it was Joe Iconis who recommended Rob for the Lightning Thief job in the first place. When he and I were working on Be More Chill, I was working on Lightning Thief as a play, then we realized it needed to be a musical. And I said, “Hey Joe, you know any composers you think could be good for this?” And he’s like, “Oh my god, you have to talk to Rob Rokicki.”
I think they are very similar in that they write songs that really emotionally tap into a character. Neither of them write generic ballads that feel like [they] could apply to any situation. They approach songs with the character first. So even though they write these awesome melodies that get stuck in my head, they are thinking about character as much as I am as a book writer. Which is so useful because it feels like we’re doing the same thing, we’re just doing it with different tools.
You do a great job of humanizing characters who make really terrible choices, like Jeremy in Be More Chill. How important is it for you that audiences empathize with these characters?
I think it’s really important that we empathize with people who make terrible choices, but also that stories let their protagonists make terrible choices. And that was one thing we really looked at with Jeremy. Because, Jeremy is someone whose arc in the show is making a terrible choice that has a rippling wave of consequences. And in trying to fix that, he creates more consequences. His taking the squip ripples out, affects everybody around him. And then he tries to fix that by saying, “Well, if I give everyone a squip, it’ll make things better.” In fact, that made things even worse. And his arc is realizing those mistakes, fixing them, making this ultimate sacrifice. And that ends up making him a transformed human, a better human, and someone who’s gone on a complete journey.
Percy is someone who who lashes out in anger, who sometimes doesn’t make the right decision. And I think it’s important that, especially for characters who are young and still learning how to be in the world, they’re allowed to make those bad choices. And yet not be marked as bad people in the show. Because all of us, as humans, are constantly struggling to figure out how to do the right thing, and often making the wrong choice. Making the wrong choice doesn’t mean you’re damned forever. It means that it is up to you to then realize how to fix those mistakes.
‘Be More Chill’
As we’ve seen bigger and better productions of your shows, you’ve kept revising them.
One of the things I really love about theater is [that] you can take what you learn and apply it to the next production. In film, sometimes you watch the final cut of an episode, and you’re like, “Oh, man, this is what I should have done.” And it’s too late because it’s already shot, edited, and streaming on Netflix. As a writer, I love to learn. I love to learn by taking a look at the finished product and saying, “Okay, great. Now, what can I apply from seeing that with an audience?” I love that theater gives you an opportunity to do that.
When we first did Be More Chill in 2015, we always thought that was just going to be the first production. We learned so much from doing it in Jersey for six weeks. For us, it was never the sense of “the show is now done.” When it seemed like [w weren’t] going to get that second production, we mourned the show and put it to rest, and all moved on to other things. Yet the fan discovery of the show: [people] discovered the cast album, but also people discovered the script and were sharing bootleg versions of the script on Tumblr. It was like an early draft of that 2015 production. And then audio bootlegs and video bootlegs [were] going around. People discovered not just the songs in the album, but the entire story we were telling.
So it was exciting to get to have the Off-Broadway and then Broadway run, and get to revisit the show in the way that we’d always hoped we’d one day get to do. But we’re in a very strange situation because people really knew that first version of it in a way people don’t often know the first draft of your work.
Will you ever be done revising?
I think at a certain point, writers maybe never feel like we’re done, but do feel like it’s time to move on to the next project. Eventually you get to a point where you say, “Well, my energy is now best served going on and creating something new, rather than continuing to finesse something that is written.”
The newer productions allow for a bit of spectacle – my favorite part of Be More Chill is the Halloween party.
We chose all those costumes on purpose, to reveal some aspect of the character. It’s not just for the joke that Chloe is dressed as a baby. We’re seeing her throw a temper tantrum about the fact that people don’t like her. She’s behaving in a spoiled, demanding [manner]. So the costumes are meant to, as Halloween costumes often do, reflect on some internal quality made external.
Do you have any memorable Halloween costumes at your past?
My mom always made my Halloween costumes. One year she made me a Jack Skellington costume, and I’m really short, so I was like the world’s shortest Jack Skellington. But it was pre- being able to go to Hot Topic and buy that Jack Skellington mask, so she sewed that burlap sack head for me. So one thing I love about our Halloween costumes is they’re also weird and handmade.
Both of these stage shows are primarily a rollicking good time, but both have unexpectedly emotional moments that have audiences bawling in the middle of the show.
Yeah, there’s the point in Act 2 where you give George Salazar a sad song.
How do you balance all those emotions when you’re writing it?
To me, it is just painting with all the colors that you’ve got. Often I find a couple of [sad] songs in the second act, because as the main character makes choices, those choices have consequences, and those consequences have emotionally damaging effects on people around them. Jeremy’s choices have affected Michael in a way that he didn’t foresee, and we see how his actions have had a devastating effect. This is a part of following the story and exploring the consequences of decisions.
I think my voice as a writer is naturally one of like optimism and hope and brightness. So I think [it’s important to have] those moments where we’re going to pull that rug out from under you. You’ve been having a good time, and you’ve been laughing, and suddenly you’re seeing that every human being on that stage has this emotional inner life that can be wounded, can be hurt, can have this ache.
One thing we were excited to do with both Be More Chill and Lightning Thief was to continue to carve out emotional moments for every member of the cast. Back when we first pitched Be More Chill to Two River [Theater], I described it as, “By getting a squip, Jeremy suddenly realized that everyone in his community feels the same way he does on the inside, even if they don’t show that on the outside.” So he goes from someone who thinks he’s the only person who feels in pain, who feels like a loser, who feels like he doesn’t know who he is or how to be the person he wants to be… to realizing that’s actually part of everyone’s life experience. No matter how confident or popular or happy someone seems in the outside, they have an inner life that has more layers to that.
For Broadway, we really worked hard to carve that out for all the supporting characters: to see Brooke’s insecurity next to her best friend, to see Chloe’s fear that she won’t be liked if she’s not angry all the time. So all these characters have more going on than Jeremy (and we) think when we first see them. Growing up means suddenly seeing things from a point of view that’s not your own. That’s what art does, that’s what theater does: it lets us see things from someone else’s perspective. Especially for Jeremy, that really is his journey over the course of the show.
[That] was the story I wanted to tell when I first sat down to adapt the show. Each time we’ve gotten to go back and revise, it’s been about how each version lives up to that initial impulse, and how can I make it do more of that?
‘The Lightning Thief’
You mentioned that you originally envisioned Lightning Thief as a straight play.
I wrote a draft that was just a play, but even then Mr. D sang at one point, and people sang around the campfire. So even though I can’t write music, I clearly kept stumbling into moments where the character should be singing. We were adapting this thing and realizing that music kept wanting to creep into the text.
Have any songs changed a lot in the process?
“My Grand Plan” had a couple different iterations before it came to the version that exists now. Even though it was always Annabeth’s chance to sing what’s in her heart, this song evolved as the story function changed. There was a version where we spent more time in St. Louis and at the Hoover Dam. So we borrowed from a later book the idea that they’d run into a tour guide, that would maybe be Athena in disguise. There’s a version where “My Grand Plan” was sung after that encounter with her mom, and that version of “My Grand Plan” was a different song. The idea was about Annabeth having a moment to share her feelings with us.
And then the big brainwave: we kept having her sing that alone on stage. No, she needs to sing this to Percy, because Percy’s our main character and he needs to learn what is actually going on with this girl who he thinks doesn’t like him. It’s much more complicated than that: it’s about the fact that she feels like no matter what she does, she won’t be noticed. She’s worked so hard. Percy doesn’t understand that, so it’s about a main character who is realizing that he needs to look at the world from someone else’s point of view. Percy’s able to mature himself by hearing what she’s going through.
I’m so happy that at the merch stand for [Lightning Thief], some lines from “My Grand Plan” are on a notebook and T-shirt. As a grown-up fanboy, when something you wrote becomes a line on a T-shirt… that’s like the coolest thing.
[Talk of “My Grand Plan,” Kristin Stokes recently teamed up with YouTuber Evyne Hollens to make a music video of the song!]
When you’re writing a stage show like Lightning Thief, there’s a lot of weird effects and stuff. How much do you factor that in as you’re writing, versus just writing what you want and letting others figure out the logistics?
With Lightning Thief, the fun was that we always knew we would have to be as scrappy and low budget as possible. So it was about finding imaginative solutions. That was something that Stephen [Brackett] brought so brilliantly: this sense of “Let’s find the most playful solution possible.” Let’s hook up toilet paper rolls to leaf blowers! Let’s have a set that is as if a bunch of scrappy punk kids invaded a Greek acropolis! The joy of it was always finding the solutions.
That was always the challenge of the show: we can never be literal with our sets. So we ran the other way as fast as possible. And I think that’s much more true to the spirit of Percy. It has been fun to watch [how] our puppets have evolved, and I’m so happy with our puppets for the touring version. We’ve a Minotaur that I think is a genuinely scary Minotaur.
It is really scary!
And in a show that is still so much about using your imagination, it’s still a guy with a cow head on. Yet we light it and tech it and build the puppet in a way that does, for a moment, [make you think], “Oh, I’m actually looking at a scary monster!” I think those moments pop even more, because the rest of the show is so much about “Hey, let’s imagine this guy has horse legs!”
On tour, we’re playing in touring houses that host a touring production of Phantom of the Opera, shows that have much higher budgets and much more literal sets. So it’s fun to hear the reaction from people who are like, “Whoa, I didn’t know theatre could do that!” Because if you’re only seeing the shows from Broadway touring, you’re maybe not seeing shows [with] that scrappy use-your-imagination energy.
You could tell the entire story of Unfortunate Events through multiple seasons on Netflix, and Be More Chill is a standalone book. But how did you go about making Lightning Thief standalone, given that it’s the beginning of a much larger story?
Looking at how we end the show, on one level, it’s a weird ending for musical because the bad guy gets away. The idea of the song “Bring On the Monsters” allowed you to say, “Hey, the story of these characters is going to continue.” They’ve reached a point where they’re forced to make a decision: “Do I stay at camp? Or do I go out into the world?” And that decision stands in for the kinds of decisions they realize they are going to have to make in their lives going forward: do I take the safe route, or do I do the hard thing that’s building towards the world I want to live in?
The idea of all the camp being called together to make this choice – at the end of [the book], that’s a choice Percy himself makes. He and Annabeth both make their decision, but opening it up to the rest of the half-bloods feels like it’s more in the spirit of those later books. This is borrowing thematically from the later books while keeping the story really focused on The Lightning Thief. Nodding to what’s to come for the fans, while still feeling like your characters went through a journey where they landed at an emotionally satisfying new place.
Have you had a chance to see The Lightning Thief on tour in the current touring production?
I couldn’t get back to New York, to see the Beacon Theater run of it, but I heard it was amazing and the crowds are awesome. Rob [Rokicki] and I were both in Seattle to see the Seattle production of it. It was in this beautiful old historic theater. It just plays so well. And I just think that I’m so happy with this cast, and the fact that so many people are getting to see it. I’m so proud of that show. It’s the little show that could! Now it’s going all around the country and Canada. We’re trying to figure out what’s next for it. But I’m so happy the show [has] the giant enormous life that I’ve always wanted for it.
Any hints on what’s next for it?
We don’t know. We want to keep people seeing the show… we love it and \want more people to experience it. So we’re trying to figure out what’s next when the tour ends now. Personally, I am not ready to [stop seeing] Chris McCarrell and Kristin Stokes playing Percy and Annabeth! It’s one of those things where you now associate actors with the role so much… if I had my way, I would just make Chris McCarrell play Percy forever.
Kristin, the fact that she really [was Annabeth] from the very first workshops… Her audition sides were some of the first Annabeth stuff I ever wrote. She’s just so incredible, she’s someone who I had always been such a fan of. So to get to cast her and then have this multi-year journey with her, where she’s [had] this huge hand in shaping this incredibly important character, has been really really cool.
I’m going to keep asking for this: a Sea of Monsters musical, please!
I will say that Rob and I keep saying we want to just write songs as if we were writing all the musicals, and just make, like, a concept album. It’ll be like, “Oh, this is the song from Titan’s Curse. This is a song from Battle of the Labyrinth.” We go out for a drink after a show, and that’s what we dream about.
Finally, what cabin would you be in at Camp Half-Blood?
I’ve never been asked that question before! I think I’d be in the Hermes cabin. Either by being a reject and not knowing my godly parent, or by being a Hermes kid. That’s where you want to be: playing pranks and having a good time!
Thanks so much to Joe Tracz for speaking with us! We hope he will write many more adaptations of all our favorite books going forward!
At the moment, fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series are the lucky ones, as Joe is currently adapting those books for a TV series on Syfy.
Be More Chill just announced that it’s closing on Broadway August 11th, because we can’t have nice things. But until then, it is currently running on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, where it’s encouraging fans to join it for a “Chill Summer.” It was recently featured in an (uncredited) parody on the Tony Awards about James Corden in the Bathroom. And their shiny new cast album from the Broadway production is now available from Ghostlight Records.
The Lightning Thief Musical is still touring the country through the end of July. You can catch it in Florida next, or in Boston in July. We saw the tour in NYC, and can vouch that it’s bigger and better than ever!