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Northville writer strikes "Lightning" with Percy Jackson musical
Having "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical" come to Detroit's Fisher Theatre has special meaning for Joe Tracz.
The Northville native, who wrote the stage book for the adaptation of Rick Riordan's best-selling 2005 young adult novel, recalls seeing his first musicals at the Fisher.
"My parents would always take me to see shows that came through — 'Cats' and 'Annie' and 'Jesus Christ Superstar,'" Tracz, 36, says by phone from New York, where he's preparing for the Broadway premiere of another production, "Be More Chill."
"To now have a show coming back to Detroit and playing this huge, beautiful theater that made me fall in love with musicals in the first place is a beautiful thing."
It also marks a particular high point for what's already been an eventful career for Tracz, a path that began as early as third grade. Back then, Tracz attended summer camps conducted by Northville's Marquis Theatre, giving him his first experience of being on stage.
"That experience of what it was like to be backstage and seeing all the different ... not just actors, but the stagehands, the costume department, the musical director, how many people were involved in making a piece of theater felt like a community I wanted to be part of," recalls Tracz, whose parents still live in Northville.
He continued in theater at Northville High School, including productions of "Fiddler on the Roof," "Grease" and "Anything Goes," but more importantly Tracz began to write his own musicals, collaborating with friends in the theater program.
"They were terrible," Tracz says with a laugh. "We would take them to the drama teacher and try to convince him to put them on, and he was so right not to produce them. But he and the choir teacher were so encouraging of us creating our own things and letting us go to the music room during lunch and plunk out tunes on the piano."
When he arrived at Kalamazoo College, Tracz "realized I was far outmatched by other performers and that writing words for other people to say on stage was a better use of my talent."
He became "an English major and theater enthusiast," moving to Chicago after graduation before attending graduate school at New York University. He began racking up credits, including the animated film "Epic," the TV boxing drama "Lights Out" and Cartoon Network's "Clarence," but most notably as a writer and story editor for "A Series of Unfortunate Events," a Netflix series based on the Lemony Snicket stories.
He was already "a big fan" of Riordan's Percy Jackson books — about a teenager who discovers he's inherited demigod powers from his absent father, Greek sea god Poseidon — when he made a bid to write the book for a musical he learned was in production.
"I didn't have a big résumé at that point, but I had passion," Tracz says. "I went to the producer who had the rights and convinced him my passion for the material made me the person for the job." Tracz also understood why the 2010 film adaptation of "The Lightning Thief" fell flat with fans of the book.
"The story was so big, it had to be a musical," explains Tracz, who worked with composer Rob Rokici. "A musical is so good at letting you into the lives of the characters. The emotions can be so huge that mere words won't suffice. When you have a story of kids of Greek gods you're dealing with huge stakes and issues, so singing felt like it could help us create a world that heightened the fantasy elements of the story."
Tracz — whose script was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical in 2017 — also considers the Percy Jackson story "a great metaphor for growing up and trying to make your mark in the world, especially when it feels like the generations before you had already made their mark. These kids are half god, half mortal, with powers they don't understand.
"Their parents literally created the universe. Percy and the others are just trying to find their place in it."
Tracz, meanwhile, has established his own place in the writing world. Splitting his time between Los Angeles, where he moved four years ago, and New York, he's done a few more episodes of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and is particularly excited about having "Be More Chill," based on the Ned Vizzini science fiction novel, open on the Great White Way.
"That's something I would dream about back when I was doing musicals at Northville High School — having a show on Broadway someday," Tracz says. "It felt like such a remote dream back then. So to be having that experience now, and having 'The Lightning Thief' tour the country and go to places like the theater that feels so rooted in my own love of theater ... it's nice to look and see I'm living the dream I had.
"And now I feel like, 'Oh, man, I've got to find some new dreams now."
"The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical" runs Tuesday, Feb. 26, through March 9 at the Fisher Theatre 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $49 and up. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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