Seen Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel in spring 2017, the hit musical The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical released its original cast album on Broadway Records July 7. We asked songwriter Rob Rokicki to break down his score track by track.
Based on the best-selling young adult novel by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical tells the story of 12-year-old Percy Jackson, who discovers that he is a demi god and must prevent a war between the Greek gods. The cast includes Chris McCarrell (Les Misérables) as Percy Jackson, Carrie Compere (The Color Purple) as Sally, Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Clarisse, Jonathan Raviv (The Band’s Visit) as Brunner, James Hayden Rodriguez as Luke, George Salazar (Godspell) as Grover, and Kristin Stokes as Annabeth. The book was by Joe Tracz (Series of Unfortunate Events), with direction by Stephen Brackett.
Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled
A loud clap of thunder sets off this epic opening number, where we’re thrown into the world of the show. Tightly syncopated eighth notes chunking on an electric guitar merge with a rock organ glissando into a crescendo. In under eight minutes we establish the rules of how to watch our show: It’s a rock and roll adventure; it’s both silly and scary; the stakes are real. It was important to me that the first words out of Percy’s mouth were from the book. Verse/chorus driving rock is a very good way of getting through a lot of exposition with increasing key changes and tempos. When Mrs. Dodds transforms into a Fury, we go to a more grandiose classical feel (always been inspired by Beethoven, List, Rachmaninoff, Holst, etc).
The first song ever written for the show has not changed much in all the various incarnations of the piece. This is the heart of the show. This was also the scene Joe first adapted. We have to care about the mother/son relationship or we won’t go on Percy’s journey. I love that Sally is a three-dimensional mother who is funny and tough. She delivers hard truths in a loving way. The acoustic guitar is meant to capture the feeling of warmth and being on a beach. The bonding over blue food is a specific that makes their relationship so special and unique. We also introduce the “Poseidon Theme”—a recurring musical motif throughout the show.
The Minotaur/Weirdest Dream
Now we take the “monster theme” of Mrs. Dodds and crank it up to 11 with a counterpoint Metallica-inspired secondary guitar. Props to guitarist Kevin Wunderlich, who is in a death metal band, and brings the heat when we need it. My co-orchestrator, Wiley DeWeese, had a great idea for doing octave slides in the bass up and down, and matching it to the toms in the drums, to sound like ocean waves.
Another Terrible Day
When you have an actor like George Salazar, how can you not give him his own song? Joe had written this hysterical scene, which I cannibalized one day in rehearsal and turned into a song on the spot. It was the most organic a song has ever come together. Since Mr. D is a very grumpy guy, I went to a traditional Broadway show-tune/vaudeville-comedy vibe. A walking baseline pairs nicely with fun jazzy licks in the keys. I don’t know why but D minor/F Major is always my go-to key for musical comedy.
The acoustic guitar plays a slow arpeggiated melody of “Strong” as Percy realizes his mother is truly gone. To unify a lot of plot, it’s important to have a lyrical hook with multiple meanings, so from Mr. Brunner to Percy to Luke, each uses the lyrical motif to reflect on how the Gods do (or don’t) reveal themselves. Mr. Brunner is a Centaur so the 6/4 time signature feels equine to me. Jonathan Raviv has such a glorious voice, I feel bad I didn’t give him more to sing! At least you’ll hear him in the upcoming The Band’s Visit on Broadway.
Put You in Your Place
Because it’s a duet between two fierce warrior women, I looked to fierce women of classic rock for inspiration: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Heart. I wanted snarling dueling guitars (something we couldn’t do live but could do with the magic of the studio). Capture the Flag is a game of life or death and the song needed to be exciting enough to support a dangerous fight sequence. Sarah Beth Pfeifer is one of my dearest friends; good god(s) can she sing!
The Campfire Song
Joe and I wrote this late one night and it was one of my favorite memories of writing the show with him. We get to live in the world of camp for a moment, where Percy finally feels like he belongs, until it’s all ripped away. The sense of community and storytelling around a campfire means I bring back the acoustic guitar for an off-the-cuff, 3/4 meter, rollicking gripe session. Each character has a slightly different orchestration or key for their verse. The campers’ communal rage against the failings of their parents unite them as a family.
I wrote this for the very first demo trying to get the job of writing the show. I use textured creepy electric guitar and cymbal scrapes for atmosphere and use the ensemble as a frightening chorus. The thudding deliberate quarters of the bass gives an ominous sense of doom as Percy is told his prophecy. We use sounds of a theramin and crotales, which evoke the supernatural.
Percy has had so much thrown at him and he finally can’t take anymore. The buzzing of the electric guitar at the top are like the bees in Percy’s head. I use an off-kilter pushed beat pattern in 3/4 for the verses that opens up to land into a driving 4/4 meter chorus. The song has a great sense of build, both through dynamics and through layering backing vocals and instrumentation. The glockenspiel represents hope through adversity to me—taking a cue from Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” Can we talk about Chris McCarrell? He gives 110 percent to this character. He is so physical and dynamic and you hear it in this incredible performance. It’s absolutely thrilling.
The song wasn’t working on piano, but suddenly when we switched to guitar it felt alive. The pulsing rhythm is the excitement of the beginning of going on the journey. Each time we add a new character coming along we add a new instrument (notice Annabeth’s rhodes keyboard in her verse, that’ll come back later).
My nod to Scooby Doo and Sondheim. A crazy patter song, complete with a verse sung in squirrel chirps. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The supernatural danger comes out again in the bridge with the theramin against the guitar power chords. I love Wiley’s idea to use the harpsichord with the verses—totally spooky horror-comedy.
My Grand Plan
My favorite song in the show. It wasn’t working dramatically because unlike the rest of the songs, it was written before we had the Act 2 structure worked out. As a result, it originally felt too general. I believe it was Stephen Brackett, our savvy director, who turned it into a moment where Annabeth trains Percy how to fight. It activated the scene. Then the lyrics became more specific and the song fit like a glove. Annabeth’s analytic brain led me to choose rhodes key sounds that felt like a computer. When she opens up about how tough she has to be to combat the sexism and parental neglect in her life, the band comes crashing in with a big Ben Folds inspired funky piano chorus. Kristen Stokes has been with the show from the very beginning and understands this character backwards and forwards; she imbues Annabeth with so much heart.
Who doesn’t love a road trip song? Inspired by my time playing in a country band and by movies like Smokey and the Bandit, I wanted a sense of fun and urgency. Notice the banjo in the second chorus. The song never stops it just, well, it just drives….
Weirdest Dream (Reprise)
We had a great sound designer, Ryan Rumery, who helped give Kronos a scary sound. Also, Kronos is the lord of time, so there’s a menacing clock-chime pattern—like the world’s scariest grandfather clock.
Tree on the Hill
Grover is a fun-loving silly character, who really becomes three dimensional here. The important story of how the gods allowed a little girl to die (and he couldn’t protect her) weighs heavily on him. The structure of the song was inspired by murder ballads and folk songs of writers like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. We use a haunting reverb on the electric guitar, which has that alt-country, Ryan Adams feel.
The Theatreworks artistic director, Barbara Pasternack, wanted a large Underworld sequence. Once we had Carrie Compere cast in the show, I knew we could pull off something as audacious as this. In the books, the underworld is a record company, an idea we take to the craziest extreme, complete with famous dead musicians making cameos, each with their own musical vernacular. I love the pulsing electronic dance music when DJ Cerberus (the three-headed dog of the underworld) makes an appearance a la Dead Maus or Daft Punk. We even lovingly rib my old Interlochen buddy, Josh Groban. The unifying element in this crazy song is the Donna Summer/disco/soul chorus. Many late nights hammering this song out in the basement of my office at iTheatrics.
Son of Poseidon
Written under an intense amount of pressure with very little time, we needed a song that took us from the Underworld, through a battle with a god, and back to camp. I needed a unifying idea. Joe Tracz gave me the title and I ran with it. You’ll notice Ares and his daughter, Clarisse, both share the “Put You in Your Place” motif. A big theme of the books is forgiving your parents and accepting who you are. As Percy defeats Ares, he uses the power of the ocean and embraces his birthright. As a tidal wave washes over Ares, we hear the descending “Poseidon” theme (dad) and the “Strong” theme (mom) combined.
Last Day of Summer
The book and the musical have almost two climaxes, one that is more action oriented and one that is more emotional. Here we see how Luke is the real lightning thief. He throws Percy’s “Good Kid” theme in his face. Like Percy, Luke was someone continually pushed too far but decided to choose the path of revenge instead of forgiveness. The camp chants over and over in a building accelerando as the walls close in on Luke. James Hayden Rodriguez gave Ares such swagger and Luke such empathy. I loved watching the audience sit on the edge of their seats during this song.
Bring on the Monsters
As our Half-Bloods go out into the world, they use the song to embolden themselves. Like at the top of the show, we hear the guitar on open 5ths chunking away, but without distortion—something has changed and clarified for these characters. Inspired by bands like Snow Patrol, Green Day, and Weezer, there’s a sense of bold, almost reckless optimism in the face of fatalism. “We could fail but we have to try,” encourages Annabeth. The song has taken on a bigger meaning as we all struggle with the realities and dangers of the world we live in. “We can’t hide at camp, waiting for our parents to fix things,” realizes Percy. “We have to do it ourselves.” All the main musical themes of the show return here, over-lapping and swirling around him (and brilliantly staged by Patrick McCollum) as Percy takes the next step, ready for the dangers of the real world.