by Mo Brady
From the chorus of West Side Story singing “Somewhere” to the cast of Hamilton proclaiming “The World Turned Upside Down,” ensemble music is employed to elevate theatrical storytelling. Even for shows that don’t employ an “ensemble,” a chorus of singers can be necessary to further the emotional complexity of a show. Composer Rob Rokicki found this to be true working on The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, which just released vocal selections ahead of its announced national tour in 2019.
The Lightning Thief was adapted from the 2005 fantasy-adventure novel of the same name by Rick Riordan and chronicles Percy Jackson, a young demigod, on an epic quest to find Zeus’ lightning bolt and prevent a war between the gods. Its Off-Broadway run at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre was acclaimed, garnering three Drama Desk Award nominations, among others. While the lauded production featured just seven actors, much of the show’s score showcases larger-than-life moments that needed textural and energetic enhancement from the full company.
When the show required expansive, emotional moments, Rokicki relied on the full company to immerse the audience. “For example, choral vocals in ‘The Weirdest Dream’ or ‘The Oracle’ were an important element to create mystery,” says Rokicki. In other songs, such as “Good Kid,” the vocal ensemble represents voices in characters’ minds. In all instances, the employment of group singing was integral to the creation of the score: “The use of the ensemble isn’t an afterthought but very much an integral part of the storytelling,” Rokicki says.
Rokicki himself is an acclaimed songwriter, performer, music director and educator. He was a 2018 Jonathan Larson Grant Finalist and alum of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop.
Much of the ensemble singing that Rokicki created was in conjunction with the production’s choreography - both on and off stage. “When you’re creating vocal arrangements, you have to be mindful of an actor’s backstage show,” shares Rokicki. “If actors are changing into a Minotaur costume, they might not be able to sing difficult harmony at the same time. Wiley (DeWeese, co-orchestrator) and I did a lot of experimentation to get it right. You also have to trust the actors and know that, in some cases, there’s only one voice per part.”
In creating the vocal selections for The Lightning Thief, including ensemble vocal parts were always a part of the conversation. “Since my day job involves laying out scores for many of the large publishing companies in musical theatre, I understand that style guides, page count and formatting standards try to reduce much of it,” admits Rokicki. “However, I was really pleased with what we were able to keep. Some parts aren’t delineated as who sings what but most of them are there - so people at home can sing with their friends!”
Rokicki worked with the team at Hal Leonard, the world's largest publisher of music performance and instructional materials, to create the selections. “Sometimes we had some lively discussions about what the spirit of my expressions and dynamic markings were,” Rokicki remembers. “In the end, I reduced the selections from the score myself and think they’re really fun to play as a pianist.”
Songbook selections include: “Bring on the Monsters,” “D.O.A.," “Drive,” “Good Kid,” “Killer Quest!,” “Lost!,” “My Grand Plan,” “Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled,” “Put You in Your Place,” “Son of Poseidon,” “Strong,” and “The Tree on the Hill.”
These vocal selections stay true to the grandiose, yet playful tone of the original novel of The Lightning Thief. “I tried my best to capture that spirit of fun, heart and adventure as best I could,” offers Rokicki. “I am very proud of the vocal selections. I learned to play piano on vocal selections from show tunes and now maybe The Lighting Thief will inspire other young pianists and writers.”