Interview: LIGHTNING THIEF's Rob Rokicki Shares Why JTF is the Best Way to Kick Off His Year, and More!
When it comes to the Junior Theater Festival, Rob Rokicki is all in.
This weekend, thousands of students have sung, danced, and theatre-geeked their hearts out in Atlanta at the Junior Theater Festival, an event celebrating student-driven theatre. Featuring performance competitions, workshops, and special appearances from high-profile theatre artists, over 6000 students attend from all over the world.
Broadway songwriter Rokicki (THE LIGHTNING THIEF) makes it a tradition to attend JTF every year, doing whatever is needed from adjudication to hosting the "Tech Olympics," to leading a workshop.
Below, check out our conversation with Rokicki as he reveals what the recent Broadway run of THE LIGHTNING THIEF meant to him, what working with iTheatrics has taught him, and more!
Congrats so much on THE LIGHTNING THIEF finishing its Broadway run!
Thank you! It's been a wild 8-year journey and a wonderful one, so it was a very joyful last day. It was lovely.
Wow, eight years, been to Broadway. How are you processing all of this?
Well, you know, one day at a time. It truly hasn't sunken in. The global reach of this thing is so much bigger than me right now. I'm just so grateful that this show that gives me so much has also given so much to all these other people. I'm very grateful. I really am. We never expected our little one-hour TYA show to turn into a two-act, to turn into a national tour, to turn into a full Broadway musical. It's a dream come true.
Speaking of Atlanta, we're so excited to have you at JTF this weekend!
Oh my! It's my favorite thing in the whole year! It's like my year can't start unless I have a JTF. It's an absolute joy to me. It's one of those random coincidences that my day job is working for iTheatrics, one of the lead producers of the Junior Theater Festival. I'm a music editor there, and I do music directing, workshops, department of education, and stuff like that.
It's taught me so much by taking Broadway shows and reducing them down to one-hour versions for MTI, or whoever. It's taught me economy in storytelling, and I'll tell ya, when we were adapting THE LIGHTNING THIEF the first time, I think having all the experiences of working with the iTheatrics team, I realized, "Wow, I think I know how to do some of this pretty well!" It's a real education on "less is more" and getting to the meat, saying exactly what you need to say in the story. Otherwise, there would have been no way we could have adapted a 400-page beloved children's novel into a 1-hour musical.
I love that all aspects of theatre are celebrated at the Junior Theater Festival. It's not just relegated to the actors, but the people behind the scenes get celebrated. The whole thing is like Coachella for musical theatre kids. It's this place to connect, inspire, and learn from each other. Yes, it's a bit competitive, but it's in a way that's like, "Wow, that group was amazing! What could we do next year like that?" Lift each other up, which is so wonderful. [Seeing this, I think,] "Yeah, that's what we should be doing more of!"
Until last year, I had no idea that such an event happened, let alone in my own city. We have a few different theatre conferences throughout the state, so I think I just thought it was one of those.
Right, and there are other large ones, like the national thespian one, but this is one of the largest, if not the largest. The quality of talent, the folks that come in for JTF- Tom Schumacher, the head of Disney, is coming. We had Alan Menken come, like two years ago, and last year we had a concert with Pasek and Paul. Caissie Levy is coming, and I can't wait to see her just freak out. Last year, Cynthia Erivo was just overcome by seeing all these incredible performers and how talented they are, how enthusiastic they are. It truly is inspiring and jaw-dropping the level of talent. It's a little overwhelming, quite honestly.
Last year it was so cool to me because I was sitting behind Tom Schumacher and Pasek and Paul during one of the performances. It was so fun to see their reactions when the kids were previewing all of the new MTI shows.
Oh right! That's my favorite night when they get to test out the new adaptations, when they get some of the best schools to try out the new shows. It's incredible! You just lose your mind! We were all losing our minds. I turned to Justin [Paul], and I was like, "I can't believe it!" The dancing, the connection, the acting, the singing, the storytelling! It's really thrilling.
I loved seeing everyone's attitudes towards these young performers. That was the sweetest thing to me.
Well, they're the future of our industry. They're the pacemakers, the caretakers, the stewards of our art form, and they're the ones shaping the history of theatre as we know it right now.
Fhe fact that shows like THE LIGHTNING THIEF, BE MORE CHILL, WE ARE TIGERS, these YA kind of properties, are popular, is amazing. It's an untapped genre, quite honestly. You see it in film, you see it in TV, but you don't really see this YA experience in Broadway. But it's starting to have this big change, and it's really exciting to be a part of that conversation.
These young people are gonna be the next gatekeepers. They're gonna make theatre more inclusive and more diverse. They're the ones that are more willing to support new, inventive, riskier theatre. I'm very grateful to them and also mindful that these are people that I'll be working for someday.
I think young people are often a dismissed demographic because they're not taken seriously, but quite honestly, they're a very colorful one, and they are being more outspoken. They're more apt to engage. You see that on social media, in community outreach. And theatre is such a collaborative communal thing.
I think it's so thrilling to support young people and say that being an artist is a worthy endeavor. It's creating empathy, telling stories, doing things that help make the world better. So I'm very, very honored to be a part of validating and cheerleading that notion. We see you young people, and we lift you up too. We appreciate you and what you're doing.
If you could pick, what are you most excited for with this year's festival?
I know that's not one big event, but it's truly just, when you get to walk around and soak it all in, it warms your heart. I don't know how you could be cynical after going to JTF. You just can't. It's like an adrenaline shot of why we do theatre in the first place.
This business is tough, and as you become a Scrooge, it's harder and harder through the years to try to "keep the spirit of JTF with me all year long." I'm so excited to just watch.
Also adjudication is the best. It's the best. Whether the group is brand new to the festival, and there are, like 6 or 8 kids, and they are a little greener, but they're trying really hard, or whether it's a group there for their seventh year, and there are like 30 of them, and they're all killing it, dancing and singing their faces off, I love all of them equally.
I love to see the newcomers getting inspired, feeling lifted up by the other groups that have been there before, feeling like they can push themselves to do better.
It sounds like collaboration and empathy are at the heart of this whole thing.
It really is. There are so many different facets to it. There are concerts and parties and all the other little things that go with it, but at the end of the day, it truly is about connection, and through all of that, yes, we're learning, we're competing, and all of those things, but it's about connection. Finding yourself a larger part of a community. It's a beautiful thing. It makes me very happy, and I could talk about it all day.
I love that you keep coming back and that you'll be back again this year.
Oh I wouldn't miss it!
It sounds like you are just so all-in and so looking forward to it. And that's really special to experience.
Well, I've been in this business forever. I started as an actor, so I've worn a lot of hats, and I know both sides of this industry, and as an educator as well, because I teach college, and I've taught all over. I think it's such a beautiful thing to come back and reconnect with the joy of theatre, and that's what JTF is. It's addictive. You have to come back every year because you're like, "I want that!"
Rob Rokicki is composer/lyricist whose shows have been nominated for Drama Desk, Lortel, and Off-Broadway Alliance awards. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, Actor's Equity, and an alum of the Tony Award-winning BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing workshop.
Rob wrote the music and lyrics for the critically acclaimed Broadway musical THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL, for Theatreworks USA (book by Joe Tracz). The hourlong adaptation ran in 2015 and was nominated for a Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical before touring the country. The two-act adaptation played Off-Broadway in 2017 and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical before launching a six month tour across North America. The show recently concluded its Broadway run at the Longacre Theatre in 2019.