How Rick Riordan's 'The Lightning Thief' became a stage musical
In The Lightning Thief, the first of five books in Rick Riordan’s bestselling Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a modern teen named Percy learns he’s a demigod, battles Medusa, and gets framed by Hades. Now, he’s coming to the stage in a one-hour musical aimed at young audiences, and the show will hit the road on a nationwide tour in September following a stint in New York City this summer.
At first, Riordan’s book might seem like an unlikely choice for a stage-musical adaptation. Percy’s sarcastic, wry sense of humor, for example, may not work well with the big, emotional ballads stage musicals usually go for. So composer-lyricist Rob Rokicki set out to make the music more rock-oriented, with specific instruments paired to each of the main characters. Percy gets an electric guitar sound, while Grover, Percy’s happy-go-lucky satyr friend, is backed by an acoustic guitar. The hope, says Rokicki, is that “kids that wouldn’t necessarily see a musical would come in and see this kind of musical.”
The play also eschews big, coordinated dance routines for more fight-focused choreography that lends a sense of real danger. “I looked at a lot of sporting events, like obstacle courses and things like that, where people use their bodies in really rigorous ways, but not necessarily dancing,” says choreographer Sam Pinkleton.
The Lightning Thief stage show wasn’t always going to be a musical, and Percy likely won’t strike many as the type of character who would sing, or even see a musical. But in adapting Riordan’s 400-page book, the show’s creators realized that a musical could help in the condensation process. “You can get to big emotional moments sooner because music is so good at being a shortcut,” says writer Joe Tracz, who previously worked with director Stephen Brackett on a 10-minute musical featuring Nintendo characters Mario and Sonic playing every Winter Olympic sport. “You can do passage of time in a way through a song that is usually hard to do in a play.”
Unlike the big-budget movie adaptation that hit theaters in 2010 starring Logan Lerman, the play creators had to get resourceful in creating CG-less monsters in a space too small to swing a sphinx.
The play is presented for free courtesy of Theatreworks USA, an organization that produces and provides access to theater for family audiences, including disadvantaged youth and underserved communities. That means that they don’t get the budget of a flashy Broadway musical—but for the people making the play, that’s one of the more significant parts of the experience. Percy, after all, probably wouldn’t be able to afford to see a play, even if he wanted to go. “One of the coolest things about Percy, to me at least, is he’s not a very cool kid, and [he and his mom] don’t have a lot of money, and he lives in New York,” Pinkleton says.