Known to millions of fans for creating the book for the musical stage adaptation of viral sensation Be More Chill (based on the young-adult novel by Ned Vizzini), writer Joe Tracz is about to open his second show on Broadway this year with a limited engagement of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical at the Longacre Theatre. Adapted from Rick Riordan’s best-selling Disney-Hyperion children’s fantasy novel, the family-friendly musical (which enjoyed successful runs Off-Broadway in 2017, and on a recent national tour) combines ancient Greek mythology with epic adventure and an original rock score by Rob Rokicki (music and lyrics).
In addition to his work for the stage, Tracz was a writer and producer on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and is currently adapting Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books for a TV series on Syfy. Now living in LA, Joe spoke with me while he was in New York, during the busy final week of rehearsals for the Broadway debut of The Lightning Thief.
What do you love most about sci-fi?
Joe: I’m a big fan of the genre and was a reader of Ned’s and Rick’s books before I adapted them. I especially love the use of metaphor. In Be More Chill it’s the use of a computer pill to change your life; with Percy Jackson, the lead character in The Lightning Thief, he feels like his parents and other authority figures are untouchable gods who run the world, and he’s trying to find his place in it. That spoke to me – how to make your mark on the world. And you can do that with fantasy and with the imagination it stirs in people.
What do you find rewarding about writing for young audiences?
I always think I write for all audiences, and for myself. If you write honestly, with an emotional core, everyone can relate. With Be More Chill, Joe Iconis and I were writing honestly for ourselves, but other people could find themselves in it too. And when Rick Riordan created The Lightning Thief, he told the story to his son. That’s the common thread of the two: if you create things you care about and believe in, and there’s a raw vulnerability in what you write, people respond.
What’s the biggest challenge of adapting the work of another writer?
I do a lot of it, and I love getting into another writer’s brain. Writing could be a very lonely process, but when you’re adapting a work, even if the other writer isn’t there, it feels like a two-way process. There’s a kind of conversation that goes on, when you take what is internal on the page and make it external for the stage. With sci-fi/fantasy, even the flashiest Broadway show can’t fully recreate the special effects and technology used in movies, so you rely on imagination and let the audience share in creating the vision with their minds. In that way, your adaptation is a two-way process with them as well.
Is there a different approach between writing for stage and screen?
Yes and no. Theater is so dialogue driven, that you have to try to find visual equivalents to the words. For musicals, the songs make the ideas come out of the characters’ heads. With TV it’s basically the same, you get the ideas and emotions through the actors’ faces. What I love most about both is being able to tell the story I want to tell.
How closely do you collaborate with the composer and lyricist when creating the book of a musical?
Very closely; the farther they are apart, the less likely the show is to succeed. For The Lightning Thief, I crashed on Rob Rokicki’s couch, so we could be together, to work together, to find the heart of the scenes. I’ve been lucky with Joe Iconis and Rob, they are both incredibly talented and creative collaborators who love to work in tandem.
Is there one character you most relate to in your work?
I feel like Percy Jackson all the time! He’s constantly surprised by the world, with powers he doesn’t understand. I definitely feel that is closest to my voice – the wonder of the world around us. He speaks in superlatives (“WOW!” or “OH MY GOD!”) and I found myself doing that when I first went into our theater on Broadway. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by world, and especially by the theater.
If you could be a sci-fi hero, what power would you have and how would you use it?
I think we all want to fly! What do you do in your dreams? You see the world from that higher perspective of flying over it. Multi-tasking would also be a good power – very useful when I’m working on so many things at once!
At what point did you know that you wanted to become a writer? What’s your first creative memory?
I really don’t think I could do anything else, though it took an embarrassingly long time for me to know I wanted to be a playwright or adapter of books for the theater. In elementary school, second grade, we had to write a story and then we would bind it, like a book, with wallpaper for the cover. The school librarian put mine on the shelf and made a library card for it so you could check it out. I was so proud; she made me feel like I was a real writer, like I could do this thing!
How gratifying has it been to get the response you’ve received from fans of Be More Chill? Do you have any updates you can share about the upcoming movie version?
It’s humbling and powerful to see how great an impact Be More Chill has had and to read all of the posts online about how much is has meant to the fans. Everything about musical theater resonates, from the storytelling to being in a room with other people who can also relate to it. But it’s especially amazing with Be More Chill, since the show was gone after its original run in New Jersey, and then it was brought back by the fans through social media. And that’s ironic, because the theme is a cautionary tale about advances in technology and how we should be careful of the dangers – but it has a second life because of technology! Now, with the release of the Broadway cast album and CD, it will continue to live through tech. Things always seem to move slowly with films, but Joe and I are now in the very early stages of developing it with the producers, and still having weekly conversations about Be More Chill seven years after we first wrote it. I never could have known then that we would be at this point now.
Do you have another story in mind, or in the works, that you hope to tell on stage in the near future?
Joe and I have a show that we’re working on, so yes, we know what we want to do. I love working with Joe and Rob, and I’m excited to be collaborating with them on something new again!
Thanks, Joe, for sharing your experiences as a writer with us. I’m sure all of your fans look forward to seeing The Lightning Thief on Broadway, as do I!