Ever since I first interviewed playwright Joe Tracz a few years ago for his musical (with Joe Iconis) Be More Chill at Two River Theatre, I have kept my eye on what he has been creating. It's such a joy to catch up with him on his latest endeavors: Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events (starring Neil Patrick Harris) and the new, original Off-Broadway show The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, currently playing at The Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street), is an action-packed theatrical adventure that will rock your world. "Percy Jackson" has newly discovered powers he can’t control, monsters on his trail, and he is on a quest to find Zeus’s lightning bolt and prevent a war between the Greek Gods. Normal is a myth when you’re a demigod. Based on the best-selling Disney-Hyperion novel by Rick Riordan. Click here for tickets!
1. It's so great to catch up with you after our Be More Chill interview a few years ago. Now you are back with two big projects. The first one is your new musical The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical and the second one is the hugely successful Netflix show A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Neil Patrick Harris. Let's start with A Series of Unfortunate Events. How did the writing process for this show differ from the writing process for your new musical? It's great to catch up with you too! The musical and the TV show actually have a lot of similarities -- they're both adapted from a beloved series of books and they both received movie adaptations that left fans, shall we say, unsatisfied. As one of those fans, I was excited to get to adapt these worlds in a way that, hopefully, captures what readers loved about them in the first place. Also, they both have awesome musical numbers! (You don't cast Neil Patrick Harris and NOT have him sing!)
2. What is A Series of Unfortunate Events that has happened to you that you feel would make a great TV show? I'm getting to work on two dream projects at the same time, so I feel pretty fortunate. And since fortunate events tend to make dull television, I think I'll just focus on continuing to put fictional children in terrible danger.
3. Now, let's get into the depths of your new musical The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. Let's start at the beginning, which is always a good place to start. What initially made you want to take the The Percy Jackson story of The Lightning Thief and adapt it for the stage? What did you see in the books that made you go, this would make a really great musical? I discovered the Percy Jackson books while working in the Young Adult section of a bookstore and I immediately fell in love with them. The premise is brilliant: the Greek Gods are still around and still having kids with mortals -- but what happens when those kids grow up, feeling abandoned by their parents and unsure how to deal with their strange powers? It's a superhero story, an orphan story, a summer camp adventure...It takes the confusion, awkwardness and terror of adolescence, and places them in a story of gods and monsters and quests. The world is big, the characters are big, the emotions are big, and to me, those are the things that make a great musical.
4. What was the easiest part of the story to turn into a musical adaptation and what has been the most challenging? I love adaptation because it's like putting myself in another writer's brain, discovering how their story works and then reconstructing it for a new medium. Rick's characters are so iconic and layered -- he's continued to develop them over several series now, so we had a lot to draw on, which made it easy to find the characters' voices. (I give full credit for this to my collaborator Rob Rokicki, whose songs cut right to their beating hearts).
The plot was the bigger challenge: The Lighting Thief is both a quest and a mystery story, with "Percy" crossing the country to stop a war between the Gods, while solving the mystery of who stole Zeus's lighting. It's a 400 page book so there are a lot of locations and plot twists to include!
5. Was there any part of the story that you really wanted to include, but it just didn't translate as you had initially thought? One of the most fun parts of the book is seeing how the ancient Greek Gods live in the modern day. The book reveals that the current location of Mount Olympus is the secret top floor of the Empire State Building. It's a detail we really wanted to fit in the show, but alas, every time we tried it, it was one location too many at the end of the show. But otherwise, we fit an insane amount of story into a less-than-two-hour running time.
6. The show started off as a one-hour production. After having it tour for two years, why did you and your co-writer, Rob Rokicki want to expand it to a full length show? What do you feel works better in this longer form that you couldn't get into the 1 hour version? Expanding the show was always the dream, but it seemed like an impossible dream until the amazing response from fans and audiences who saw the one-hour version helped create the opportunity. We were excited to have more time to let the story and emotions breathe. If the one-hour version is a roller coaster, then the new version is an entire theme park, a full and immersive experience with something for everyone.
7. In this show, "Percy Jackson" has newly discovered powers that he can't control. What is something you've just discovered that you can do that you didn't know you could beforehand? Well, at the time I started writing this show, I'd never written a musical before. And now I've written several, with more on the way. So I would say that's a power "Percy" helped me discover! Who's the Greek God of writing musicals?
8. "Percy Jackson" also has monsters on his trail. What are some monsters you've had to fight on your life trail? Self-doubt and insecurity are scarier than Medusa any day.
9. The song "Good Kid" is available for download on the show's website. In the video featured on the home page, Chris McCarrell is told, in thinking about the song, "What does it feel like when the world is against you?" When has there been a time in your life when you felt the world was against you? How did you fight back? I think anyone who's trying to make a career in the arts knows what it feels like to face impossible odds. And I think anyone who grows up feeling like an outsider knows the secret of finding inspiration in fictional characters. Since working on this show, "Percy" has been that inspiration for me -- and, I suspect, for the many readers and audience members for whom his story resonates.
10. "Percy Jackson" is also on a quest to find Zeus' lightening bold to help prevent a war between the Greek Gods. If you were possess Zeus' lightening bolt, how would you use it to bring some peace back into this chaotic world we live in? Both the Percy books and the Lemony Snicket books tell a story that feels very timely: how kids grow up in a world where the adult authority figures who are supposed to take care of you are instead corrupt and self-absorbed and responsible for the chaotic state of the world. The Lightning Thief ends with "Percy" realizing that he and his friends can't rely on the Gods to fix things: it's up to the next generation to learn from their parents' mistakes and not repeat the cycle of war and hatred that's got us into this mess. It's a message that I feel very glad to be putting out in the world right now.
Joe Tracz is a playwright with an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Williamstown Theatre Festival: the original musical Poster Boy with composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia (2016), Song for a Future Generation (2015). Joe’s adaptation of the first book in the Percy Jackson series, The Lightning Thief (with composer Rob Rokicki) received a Lortel nomination for Outstanding Musical and toured nationally with Theatreworks USA. His musical adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s novel Be More Chill with composer Joe Iconis premiered last summer at Two River Theater. Other plays have been developed with Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage, Roundabout, Ars Nova, and The Flea, and published in Best American Short Plays.
Film/TV includes the Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Neil Patrick Harris and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, Epic (20th Century Fox) and Lights Out (FX). Joe is a former Playwrights Realm writing fellow, an alumnus of Theater Masters and the Ars Nova Play Group, and, with Two River Theater and Joe Iconis, a recipient of a 2015 Doris Duke Foundation Commissioning Grant. He has a BA from Kalamazoo College.