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A Refreshing Lack of Romance

Percy Jackson Cast
From left to right: Kristin Stokes as Annabeth Chase, Chris McCarrell as Percy Jackson, and George Salazar as Grover Underwood in “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical”
 I was just as shocked as the next person to learn that “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” exists — not as a college student-written, “A Very Potter Musical”-esque parody, but as a genuine professional, off-Broadway show, set for national tour in 2019. But I was even more surprised when I discovered that the musical is actually good. Really good.

It is not just the energetic score, clever lyrics, and talented cast that makes this show so enjoyable. It is the all-too-rare lack of a romance at its core. Based on the first book in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series, which follows the paths of modern Greek demigods, the musical is remarkably faithful to the novel. In the book, the main characters are 12 years old, and unlike the writers of the widely panned Percy Jackson movies, the creators of the musical didn’t choose the pandering, lazy tactic of making the leads five years older and including a romance. Instead, the serious abandonment issues of the characters — most of whom have never met their godly parent, let alone been raised by them — are given the spotlight, alongside themes of forgiveness, morality, and what it means to be a family.

This decision breaks a long tradition of injecting romances into stories to ensure commercial success. One of the most well-known examples is the recent Broadway version of Disney’s “Newsies.” The Tony-winning show, like the Disney film it’s based on, takes its inspiration from the newsboys strike of 1899 in New York City. Protesting a harsh price increase, child newspaper hawkers — known as “newsies” — stopped buying and reselling papers to convince the publishers that they deserved fair pay. The leader of the historical strike, Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti, was described by the New York Times as “an undersized boy” who was blind in one eye; when the story was adapted by Disney, Kid Blink was replaced with the clichédly charming dreamer, Jack Kelly, and a female character was added as his romantic interest.

The writers of the musical did a much better job than those of the film at creating a three-dimensional young woman who plays a key role in the strike, but the romance between the characters is unnecessary in both iterations. The heart of the story is teamwork and righteousness, underdogs rising up to demonstrate the power of their collective voice. If the writers wanted to add female characters to the narrative — which in fact they should — they could easily add young women as fellow strikers. Instead, they reduce the only woman in the rebellion to the object of the male lead’s infatuation.

“The Lightning Thief” is a model example of how to showcase strong women in their own right without tying their worth to men. Annabeth, one of Percy’s companions on the quest, is a fully fleshed-out character with her own motivations, backstory, and personality, a crucial member of the trio. The token love song is not missed on the cast recording. Instead, its absence leaves room for the regretful ballad “The Tree on the Hill,” which takes details familiar to readers of the book, reframes them, and creates a new narrative that is compelling for both established Percy Jackson fans and first-time audience members. Rather than celebrating the union of a couple like so many finales, “Bring on the Monsters” is a triumphant closing in which the characters choose to face the monsters — both mythological and metaphorical — in the real world over the easy route of remaining in their safe haven.

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In a society where everything from comedies to car commercials flaunts happy couples, there is something special about a musical that does not treat romance as the only indicator of success. “The Lightning Thief” highlights the values of friendship, bravery, and believing in oneself when no one else does. It provides a much-needed respite from an otherwise hyper-romantic culture, reminding the audience that there is more to life than dating.

​—​Contributing writer Jessica N. Morandi’s column, “The Might of Musicals,” explores the societal implications of musical theatre, with a focus on Broadway and off-Broadway shows.

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