This week sees the release of the much-demanded original cast recording of The Lightning Thief musical, and we chatted with composer Rob Rokicki about some of the songs on the album.
The cast recording for The Lightning Thief will be available from Broadway Records on Friday, July 7. In our chat with Rob, we break down the songs.
“Another Terrible Day” is the audience’s introduction to Mr. D (George Salazar), a chair-throwing tantrum of a song that left audiences in stitches.
Rob Rokicki (RR): Here’s an example of a song I had to come up with in a day. I was under a ton of pressure. And I didn’t know what it was gonna be, because it was for a character I’d never written before – for Mr. D.
Joe [Tracz, the bookwriter] basically wrote this really funny scene. We originally had this big sprawling magical moment where Chiron is showing Percy around camp. And we found that exposition, when told in moments of panic or high drama or comedy, is a better way of getting out a lot of information in a fun digestible way. So we wanted to throw Percy in the deep end of camp, with Mr. D explaining how camp works, rather than some kind of majestic way of looking at things. [It] is also true to the spirit of Rick [Riordan]’s take on things.
There are things that [only] a movie camera can do. You can have that great big camera shot that backs up way far away and overlooks all of camp. But on stage we can only use what we have and our imagination. So I took those scenes and I just turned it directly into a song. A lot of the lines I turned right into lyrics.
When I’m stuck with something or having trouble with something, I just say, “Everything’s the worst!”
My wife’s always like, “Don’t say it, that ‘everything’s the worst!’”
Mr. D would so say, “Everything’s the worst! Another terrible day!” This is me at my grumpiest, when I haven’t had my coffee, I know exactly how to get into this song. I write from the hook primarily, the central idea. So there it was: another terrible day, everything’s the worst. That idea has a melodic hook to it, as well as a lyrical hook, so I can go from there.
“The Campfire Song” sees all the demigods of Camp Half-Blood kvetching about their godly parents. It sets up the overarching conflict of the PJO books, the resentment of demigods towards their godly parents, and manages to be hilarious all at the same time.
Irvin Khaytman (IK): Can you talk to me about writing the “Campfire Song,” because that’s everyone’s favorite new addition [to the show, from the one-act version]. It really establishes the camp as a great place for Percy, which makes it so gut-wrenching when he leaves.
RR: I know, I’m so glad you picked up on that! We really wanted to have a moment where Percy felt like he finally belonged. And we wanted to have that sense of loss, of that getting ripped away from him. The song’s a little long, we have too many verses. I’m told, “Oh, you gotta cut those verses.” [And] I’m like, “But I love them, they’re so fun!”
Joe [Tracz] is so busy in LA on Netflix [writing A Series of Unfortunate Events]. He comes into town, and Joe and I work on hyperdrive. We have like eight billion ideas that come out. We wrote the Mr. D song, “Son of Poseidon,” and “Campfire Song” in a weekend. I’ve never written that fast before. Those songs then needed a lot of love and work and trimming and all that stuff, and honing in on the craft of them. But [“Campfire Song”] was so organic. Joe was at my apartment; he spent the night. He was on my couch, and I was in the bed. And my wife was like, “You guys should just stay in the piano room!” because we started texting each other.
Joe had written this beautiful play. Before anything had ever been written in terms of music, Joe had adapted a treatment of [The Lightning Thief] as a play. And Theatreworks [the production company] said it needs to sing. There was this whole thing where the whole play originally revolved around a campfire, so Joe really wanted to have something to do with a campfire. And he’s like, “What if there’s some guy with a guitar?” Because there’s always some guy with a guitar at the campfire, and they’re always singing.
What if we had fun with a song where they just gripe about their parents? What would that be? I don’t remember whose first verse it was, I think it was Annabeth: her mom’s sworn off gluten and she’s sworn off guys. What if Demeter’s daughter had gripes about her mom, who’s always making her do yardwork or something? And we were literally texting it back and forth between the two of us, me in my bedroom and Joe on the couch. The next morning, we put it together, and it was really fun.
“Good Kid” is Percy’s [Chris McCarrell] big solo after he finds out that he’s being blamed for Zeus’s Lightning Bolt being stolen, full of angst and feelings.
RR: “Good Kid” was another one where I had to write a song for a moment, I knew Percy needed a standalone song. He didn’t have a song that was just a song for him in the one-hour version, because there was so much plot to be told. I wanted so badly to have a song that was Percy’s Song. I’m really proud of “Good Kid.”
“Killer Quest” serves as the finale to Act 1, with Percy, Annabeth [Kristin Stokes], and Grover [George Salazar] departing on their quest.
IK: How’d you approach the question of where to put an intermission when you were expanding the show?
RR: I always thought, even in the one-hour [version], that intermission was “Killer Quest.” It was always “Killer Quest” for me. It was one of the first songs I wrote when I was writing. I wrote a demo for Theatreworks when they were interested in writers. My name came recommended from a mutual friend that Joe Tracz and I had worked with, named Joe Iconis. He’d recommended me, but I had to write songs, and one of the songs was “Killer Quest.” The other one was “Strong.” Ironically, one of the only songs that has not changed from the one-hour version as opposed to the two-hour version. And they’re pretty important.
“Killer Quest” was always the end of Act 1, even in the one-hour version I think of it as the middle point. They’re off on a quest! What’s gonna happen? They’ve gotten all their stuff. They’re all ready to go. They’ve bonded together as the three that are going to go on the journey. And then Act 2 has got to be what happens after.
“Drive” a.k.a. everyone’s new road trip anthem, sees the trio traveling west from New Jersey, trying to stay alive, and having a run-in with Ares [James Hayden Rodriguez].
IK: Tell me about the process of expanding a one-hour show into a two-hour one. You just sort of insert bits here and there or do you approach this as a whole new project?
RR: Oh, no, no, no. We tried that a little bit in one of the first readings where we were like, “Oh, we can expand this, just expand a couple—” And then we were like, “Oh, no, no, no!” The things that work so well in streamlining the story in the one-hour version were things that were actually getting in our way when we were trying to expand. We can actually have a little more complexity, a little more nuance, a little more substance from the character’s point of view, a little more ability to sit with an emotion.
And I love the one-hour version, I think it’s very elegant at what it does and tells so much story, in a way, and it’s kind of its own thing. We had to kind of break it apart, and the fan favorite in the one-hour version is this song called “In the Same Boat,” which takes us from Medusa all the way through the underworld in one big sequence. And it just wasn’t working. I kept saying to our director (Stephen Brackett) and playwright (Joe Tracz), “You guys, we have got to cut this song.”
But they went, “No, no, it’s such a good song!”
[I said], “I know, I wrote the song, and I want to cut it! It’s gotta go! We’ve got to write something else, because we want more adventure and more moments in between that song. We’re not getting enough of the adventure in and we’re not getting enough of how the characters are growing as people with a song that’s going so quickly.”
When Joe came into town in January, a year and a half later, we were trying to make that song work. He came into town and [said], “Yeah, I think ‘Same Boat’ has to get cut.”
I’m like, “I told you!”
So I wrote a new song, the “Drive” song, that was doing something similar. But it allowed us to have other things happen before and after it, and I could have this big underworld song. Once we kinda figured out what we want to do with Charon we were like, “Oh we can really do a fun big underworld sequence.” It was something actually that Barbara Pasternack (the artistic director at Theatreworks) suggested, “You guys should have a really fun underworld sequence!”
And I didn’t know what to do with that so I was like, “No matter what, we gotta get rid of ‘Same Boat.’” And it ended up being the best thing for this version of the show. I cut 27 different songs.
IK: Would you say “Same Boat” was the most painful cut of all?
RR: Actually, no, I don’t get too precious about songs, because they have to serve the plot. There was a really cool rock ‘n’ roll-like super fun [song] – it sorta felt like a Rocky montage – that used to start Act 2. That was all the kids at camp picking sides with their parents, Selina and Clarrise and Luke, and we had a rainbow phone sequence with all this stuff… That was a little sad to see go, but at the end of the day we were like, “Let’s just get back to our trio and move on.” So the bus explosion was a part of a bigger sequence. And we even had a prologue into the bus sequence that we chopped out in the middle of previews. We wanted to get right back into it.
“My Grand Plan” is an epic girl-power anthem sung by Annabeth as she finally opens up to Percy, a.k.a. your new go-to song when you need to feel empowered.
RR: One song that was on the chopping block that I refused to let them cut was “Grand Plan.” I think it’s my favorite song in the show. They were like, “Oh I don’t know if it’s quite fitting where it needs to. We like the song but it’s just not really working.”
Unlike most of the songs I wrote, I wrote that one a little away from Joe. Joe had been busy and we hadn’t had a chance to be in a room together. So it felt a little unspecific. I had to come up with the right scenario. We knew it needed a home, and we tried like eight different places to make the song work. It’s a rarity, usually songs come right out of a scene or I’ll take Joe’s dialogue and turn it into song. That one I wrote beforehand, and that’s the danger of writing a song beforehand. It’s great to reveal a character or emotion, but it’s not doing much in terms of “Where is this happening in her arc in the story?”
And they were determined to cut it and I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll write an alternate song. I’m adamant we keep it, but I’ll try a version where I write a different song.” And I wrote a different song and we all hated it, and one day I had this [epiphany], “Oh my god, what if it’s after Medusa and what if we…”
Part of it was [that] getting rid of “Same Boat” also helped open some real estate in the show, in Act 2, where we had a place we could put it. And I think it was Joe – or it might’ve been Stephen, all three of us work so closely – [who said] that it should be her teaching Percy how to train as a part of it. That opened up the lyrics to be much more specific. There’s a version on YouTube of what I used to do for the song in a concert, versus what it turned into in the show, and you’ll see the lyrics are so much more specific and so much more right for the show now. And I think the show is the definitive version of the song. It’s so much better.
“Tree on the Hill” is a heart-breaking solo by Grover, when he tells Thalia’s [Sarah Beth Pfeifer] story to Percy, which had this writer crying every single time.
RR: “Tree on the Hill,” this version is closer to the very very very first idea I had for the song, which was in the tradition of a murder ballad, that Woody Guthrie kind of song. And that was really fun, that I got to go back to a more folky place with it. That was different. I thought that was an emotionally powerful thing, to deal with Thalia, so I’m glad we covered it.
“Son of Poseidon” serves as the climax of the show, as Percy comes into his own and faces down Ares.
RR: Another song that was really hard to write because I was under a lot of pressure to write in a very short amount of time was “Son of Poseidon.” The whole big sequence. We were at dinner, Joe and Barbara and Stephen and I, and they were like, “Fix it. Just write a song that takes us from the underworld all the way to the beach and includes the fight with Ares.”
And I was like, “What?”
IK: Don’t ask much, do they?
RR: Right, and I was like, “How in god’s name do I…?” So I’m taking that whole giant sequence. I have to have a hook, a thesis. Because I was an English major in college, I always make up songs like English essays. What’s the thesis? What’s the hook? And everything else has to support that.
So Joe was like, “He’s the son of Poseidon. He’s reclaiming his birthright, and embracing who he is.” Oh, so then that’ll link to seashells, that’ll link to the fight with Ares, and his power with the water, that’ll link to everything! It was such a great hook, that when Joe said, “It should be called Son of Poseidon,” I was like, “Okay, I can write the song!” And I went off and wrote the song.
Thanks to Rob for speaking with us! The cast recording for The Lightning Thief will be available from Broadway Records on Friday, July 7th, though those who pre-ordered it are already getting it this week.
Once you listen to it (again and again), let us know what your favorite song is! When we asked Rob, he said, “My favorite song to play is ‘Killer Quest.’ My favorite is either ‘Good Kid’ or ‘Grand Plan,’ those were really fun.” Do you agree?