Rob Rokicki is the composer of The Lightning Thief musical. Hypable sat down to talk with him about winning over fans, writing certain characters, and what the musical means to him.
The Lightning Thief is playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 6. They announced they’re releasing a cast recording shortly after this interview was conducted.
Irvin Khaytman (IK): So how’s it been the last few weeks, sending out your baby into the world?
Rob Rokicki (RR): It’s been wonderful. There were a lot of changes made in previews so we were a little, not necessarily nervous, just wondering how they would all land with the audience. Because audiences are the best way to tell what was working and what was not. We also had such a limited time with Joe [Tracz, playwright] when he was in town, that we made a ton of little changes that I think were great. I was really happy with the show and now it’s been just crazy. The fan response has been amazing. We’ve been getting some really great reviews, which is great. I don’t really care one way or another about reviews, but the main fact is that people are liking the show, and that’s great.
IK: Normally when you’re adapting a property, the fans will be wary. But the Percy Jackson fans were so disappointed in the movie that they sort of view any adaptation with open hostility, and have to be convinced otherwise.
RR: Yeah, we had a lot of hearts and minds to win over, for sure. I think we made a very concerted effort, all of us. We [thought] as long as we stayed true to the message of the book and Uncle Rick [Riordan], and stay the course, then we’ll win them over. And I think we have. Rick’s agents, Nancy [Gallt] and Marietta [B. Zacker], have been so supportive through the whole process. They would’ve told us any red flags along the way. They’ve been really helpful and given us wonderful guidance. But you know, if we honor the source material, then hopefully the fans will be happy.
IK: Do you think this two-hour version is the definitive one, or would you add a third hour given the chance?
RR: Oh man, we keep talking about the Minotaur’s big love ballad in Act 3 with the squirrel!
Joe and I had always wanted to expand the show, even when we did the one-hour version. We were like, “Man, if only we could! If only, if only!” So when we finally were able to do it, all the things that we really wanted to pack into the show, we could. We tried a bunch of these other versions over the last two or three years [that] we’ve been developing it, where we got to see things from the book that would be even more specific, like little moments in the book. And some of them had to go away because they just weren’t as theatrical. So I’ve actually seen the version of the rainbow phone or whatever. I’ll always have a place in my heart of things from that. But this is the show. This is, to me, what the show had always wanted to be.
But I love the one-hour version. I saw it the other day, [when] the touring cast was around. And it was a little surreal to see the one-hour and then go back and take a look at the two-act.
I will give a shoutout to Eric Meyers, who originated the role in the one-hour version, and he was great. I love all the people that have helped create this show, [the] people in workshops. I’m an actor as well, so I know how difficult it can be when you work so hard on creating a character, and then maybe [do] not go to the next place with that character. Or your journey is over with the show for whatever reason. What’s been so special about [Lightning Thief], we’ve had all these tours and workshops and readings. And almost everyone has come back to see the show, has come out of the woodwork to be supportive. It’s been truly [special], to see how this show is bigger than me and Joe, [how] it’s affected all these people’s lives. They’ve been on tour all over the country, up to Canada, to Alaska, on the one-hour tour.
It’s been really humbling to see how it’s a lot of kids’ first piece of theatre, and that’s really special. To see [kids realizing that], theatre can be exciting and fun, and use your imagination. And it gets kids into reading too, because the books are so good. I love that. I joke that I think we should get a t-shirt that says “I survived Camp Half-Blood” for the tours, because it’s brutal traveling around the country and putting up a set.
IK: Yeah, it’s their own killer quest!
RR: Exactly. I hope the one-hour tours too… who knows?
IK: What’s been your best fan interaction?
RR: A lot of these schools that see the show, corporate sponsors will pay for schools from underserved areas to come in and see the show for free. So a lot of kids, it’s their first time seeing a show. A little boy named Armando drew a picture of him flying on a dinosaur-pegasus thing, but it had lightning bolts coming out of it, with him on top of it. It was just a thank you that he wrote to one of the donors for letting him go see the show. “Thank you so much, I loved Lightning Thief. I love musicals, I want to be a writer.” Sometimes, when I’m feeling really down about whatever, that keeps me going: knowing that I made a difference to that kid, so I’m happy about that.
IK: I can only imagine how many deleted lyrics there must be!
[Rob puts the number of deleted songs at 27. And yes, this writer has begged for a deluxe two-disc cast album featuring all of them.]
RR: There were so many other lyrics. We like to pretend about other characters who would have songs. [There were] lyrics for the monsters that don’t get a voice, like “Killer Quest” from the point of view of all the monsters. It was really fun.
We wrote a song called “The Littlest Minotaur,” because in one version of the show, Kristin [Stokes, who plays Annabeth] climbed on top of another actor’s body and wore the big Minotaur head. We just didn’t find that it was very easy to do battle sequences like that, but it looked cool. But when she was just walking around by herself with the giant Minotaur head, it just looked like the tiniest Minotaur, so I wrote a song called “The Littlest Minotaur.”
At one point in the one-hour there really was a pit scorpion, but it made more sense in terms of the dramatic arc of the show to do what we do in the two-act. But the pit scorpion did have a name, and I did write a silly stupid song for him too. We love all our characters!
I’d love to write a song for characters who aren’t in the book, who we didn’t get to talk to, like Tyson. I feel like Nico would definitely need a song.
IK: So can we get a Sea of Monsters musical please?
RR: Oh man, wouldn’t that be fun!
IK: You could do it in repertory with Lightning Thief!
RR: It’d be like the Ring Cycle, you’d get an opera company to put it up. I would love to do Sea of Monsters. Actually, my favorite book of all the books is [Battle of] the Labyrinth.
IK: What makes Labyrinth your favorite?
RR: I have always been fascinated by the Labyrinth, and the movie Labyrinth, and just things about labyrinths. You never knew what was around the corner! I know Percy and Annabeth kiss in that one. The stakes are getting kind of real, so I love that.
IK: In the musical, you expanded the role of Katie Gardner. What inspired you to flesh out her character out of all the side characters?
RR: Joe and I had a discussion about what characters would pop as fully fleshed things. [Unlike the first movie], we get to have Clarisse. And it’s great because Sarah Beth [Pfeifer, who plays Clarisse and Katie] is like a chameleon, we can give her anything and she just takes it. I looked at a couple other characters she’s done, like voiceover work, and she’s played kind of a little hippie valley girl thing. And I was like, “Oh my god, we have to do Katie Gardner, and it’s got to be Sarah Beth!” I love that she’s got this flowery shirt going on, just [going] like “I fell off a Pegasus!” I love her, I love Katie Gardner.
IK: The pencil thing with Mr. D is hilarious!
RR: He just made that up! George [Salazar, who plays Mr. D] had the prop and made it up one night. That’s something you get to do when the actors get a hold of the characters too, they find moments that can be so right. That’s a true joy. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve got until you throw it on an actor and see what they do with it. And that makes it three-dimensional, too. Speaking of Clarisse, when we see her at the end, I feel like there is some sympathy for her, she’s not just a one-dimensional character. I love Clarisse. I love Silena. Someday you’ll have to hear the song that Silena and Clarisse sing together, that’s a really fun one. It’s called “Pick a Side,” and Luke’s trying to be like, “No, don’t fight each other, we’ve got to fight others!”
IK: Luke’s a favorite character of mine, a really charismatic and sympathetic villain. How did you approach writing for Luke?
RR: When you’re writing a character you have to empathize with them. You don’t have to sympathize with them, but you have to empathize with them. And writing for Luke, you just put [his] shoes on… I feel like Luke is such a foil for Percy. He’s like Percy if Percy was pushed just a little bit farther, or a little bit in a different way, or didn’t have that system of support. It’s kind of like Hamlet and Laertes. Your story is only as good as the villain. And the more complex the villain, the more interesting it is. He’s got his own justifications and reasons that are totally understandable, for why he acts the way he does. And then he takes it too far and it turns way too bad.
IK: His methods are bad, but he kind of has a point!
RR: Exactly, he really does! Even though it’s such a silly show, I feel like there’s some really hard-hitting themes to our show. It’s a huge lesson, and it’s something that I think everybody has to struggle with, and it’s one of the most powerful themes of the show: your parents are fallible, they’re not perfect. And you can’t fight their battles for them, you have to accept them for who they are. And that’s a really tough thing for a lot of people to accept. I think all of us have some kind of hang-ups with our parents. And I think that’s something Luke can’t let go of, and Percy can, [because he] grows and learns from his quest so much. That, I think, is the difference between them. And ultimately, Luke is a tragic character, a little bit of a hero too. He does some pretty bad things, but he also does some pretty heroic things.
IK: I loved his arc in Last Olympian, it was so powerful.
RR: So cool! That’s one of the things that separates that book series from any other, that you have redemption in a character like that. Kronos is kind of a nameless force, so it’s nice to give [evil some] ownership, to have it be a person, and have it be someone of Percy’s age. Though we don’t get so far in his redemption arc, at least I think we made Luke sympathetic in our show.
IK: And that last song! It perfectly ties up his character for the musical.
RR: Yeah, breaks my heart every time he sings it. He’s so sad.
IK: What are some of your favorite musicals that impacted your style?
RR: I think some rock bands impacted my style as much as musicals. My two favorite musicals are Sweeney Todd and Tommy. I feel like that can kind of tell you my aesthetic. I grew up playing classical music so I love traditional musical theatre shows like Candide or Carousel. Little Shop [of Horrors] always impacted me a lot. I think Little Shop is a great show, especially lyrically. Howard Ashman’s lyrics were so good.
IK: Which cabin would you be in?
RR: I dunno, my mom’s a history teacher so she would want me in Athena’s cabin for sure. Maybe Apollo. I’m a Scorpio through and through because I’m born on Halloween, so part of me is like, “Hades all the way!” But I got this [trident] tattoo because I love the show so much, and I love the sea, so I’m gonna say Poseidon.
Long after @ltmusical closes, I'll have this reminder that this good thing happened to me. This show came into my life when I needed it most & whatever happens we're all fiercely proud of it. It's scrappy. It's about taking your own agency in the world -that parents may not care, that monsters are real, that you have to fight everyday -but the fight is worth it. Thank you @joetracz @theatreworks_usa #stephenbrackett #bringonthemonsters #letsdothis
IK: Was the tattoo premeditated?
RR: I have a couple. That one was premeditated. I wanted another tattoo. I was having a rough time in New York artistically, that I won’t get into too much. But I had booked a Broadway show and then the producers pulled out at the last second. Another show of mine was supposed to take life and fell apart. There was a lot of struggling. Making a musical is so hard, I’m sure my story is nothing new. But I had this show fall into my lap… this opportunity, rather, I still had to fight to be the one who got to write the thing. But when I was chosen to be the person to write the thing, I just jumped at it. And it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve probably ever done in terms of an artistic collaboration.
I love my other shows and I love my other writing partners, but this project in particular has been so special. I wanted something that would remind me, “Hey Rob, when you’re writing your next show that’s going nowhere, what if you have something permanent that you can look at and remind yourself that thousands of people got to see your show.” It was a good thing. And it brought me such joy that I wanted a reminder of that.
IK: Are you working on any other shows right now?
RR: I’m working on a couple of different projects, one of which is an adaptation of another YA novel, called Fat Kid Rules the World with Rebekah Allen. It’s a punk rock musical. I’m really proud of it, it’s really fun, I got to explore a lot of punk. I have an album coming out soon – it’s taken me five years, but it’s gonna happen this year, I know it. It’s called Monstersongs, and it is a graphic novel rock album, all told from the point of view of different monsters. Some of them are really dark and messed up, and some of them are fun and silly. I’ve got a whole bunch of wonderful Broadway friends who were kind enough to donate their time. I’ve got some incredible voices on there: Megan Hilty and Julia Murney and Joe Iconis (who’s one of my dearest friends). I sing a song about a sasquatch and a yeti. I have a Medusa song on there actually, that’s a very serious song from Medusa’s point of view. And the artwork that goes with it is beautiful, drawn by David O’Neill who does the O’Neill Shankman book series. I’m so excited to finally have that out in the world soon.
IK: And what’s next for this show, after it finishes its run at the Lucille Lortel?
RR: That is very up in the air right now. We’ve had a lot of interest from different producers and different organizations that are really excited about the potential of the show and maybe finding another life for it. So I think this show will have another life and I don’t know what that might be, if it’s moving to another theatre or going into licensing for other people to do. I don’t know yet. That’s something that I’m hopeful that we iron that out soon. I know that TheatreWorks [the producing company] has been making meetings with people, I’m a little out of the loop with all of it. I’m just as hopeful as anybody else that the show will get as broad an audience as possible. You never know with theatre! It’s just—it’s like the little show that could. The fact that we’ve been able to do what we’ve been able to do with the show is so amazing. So everyone is happy and it’s so exciting and I’m just like “Yay!” I hope people come see the show, and continue to support new musicals!