Chris McCarrell

Chris McCarrellLightning has already struck twice for Chris McCarrell.

After making his Broadway debut in the acclaimed revival of Les Miserables, the 28-year-old actor is currently back on the Great White Way starring as protagonist Percy Jackson in The Lightning Thief. Following an Off-Broadway opening and vast national tour, the family-friendly show (which we reviewed here) is now playing a limited engagement on Broadway through January 5, 2020. It tells the story of a demigod teenager on a mission to bring his mother back from the underworld while also preventing a potentially world-ending war between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. No pressure!

As his time with The Lightning Thief enters its final month, I spoke with McCarrell about his journey as Percy Jackson, performing the show on stages across the country before wrapping up its run on Broadway, what he’s up to next, and more.

The Lightning ThiefALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI: Between HadestownHercules, and now The Lightning Thief, why do you think Greek mythology is making such a big comeback this year across New York stages?

CHRIS McCARRELL: I think the concept of the underworld is just begging for theatrical realizations. So when modernized stories are created that include Greek mythology—and in our case a quest to the underworld—I think it trickles to theater because it is so easy to visualize on a stage. Audiences want to be transported, and we want to see our heroes put to larger than life obstacles that somehow feel relatable to our own mundane lives.

Prior to being cast in The Lightning Thief, were you a fan of the Percy Jackson books and/or movies? How did the versions depicted of him in those mediums shape your interpretation of him?

I was completely fresh coming in, which I think served me really well through the process. I saw a lot of Percy in myself, and I tried to just make the character make sense and feel wholesome and realized. But usually I don’t find studying other portrayals helpful. The more I can connect to what the character needs from me and my experiences, the purer the process becomes.

If you were speaking with someone who was coming to New York and could only see one Broadway show, how would you pitch The Lightning Thief?

It’s a family show that has a style and artistry that is so deeply rooted in Off-Broadway storytelling. It’s bold in its script, its tone, and its theatricality because it was born and raised in a highly creative environment. If the glitz and glamour of Broadway is something that removes you from the story onstage, I think The Lightning Thief is a breath of fresh air when it comes to theatrical storytelling in its most magical, scrappy sense.

Before landing on Broadway, you toured with The Lightning Thief across the country. What was your favorite city you visited on the tour and why?

Oh, that is a loaded question! I had a friend ask me if every place kind of seemed the same, and I learned that each city has such a distinct culture and personality. This country is far from homogenized, even as you might expect from how connected we all are. There’s really nothing like New Orleans, it’s a living breathing movie. You feel the voodoo in the streets, and the joy for life. We loved that place. I also really loved Fayetteville, Arkansas. My warmest memories with the cast are there.

How did your Broadway debut in Les Miserables prepare you for The Lightning Thief’s Broadway run? 

Chris McCarrellLes Miz helped me in dealing with the pressure to get a beloved character right. I stuck to my guns (literally) with Marius and cut out a lot of noise about others’ portrayals of him. In the end, I found a newness that kept the show feeling fresh for me as I did over a thousand performances (yes, one thousand)! 

However, Les Miz is a behemoth. The sets, the lighting, the costumes all do so much of the storytelling for you. The Lightning Thief team put a lot of the storytelling on our shoulders and imaginations. So I feel much more in charge in this show when it comes to the magic of what’s happening. If I don’t make those shoes look like they are truly flying, or that pen actually turn into a sword, the magic is lost. When the barricades came out, I was just kind of a spectator along with the audience at how grand it was. So the pressure to hold up a show’s stagecraft is something I’ve had to learn to deal with along the way. And I love it. I feel like a magician.

Musically, Les Miserables and The Lightning Thief are very different shows. Where Les Miz is that classical musical theater sound, The Lightning Thief has a very contemporary rock-infused pop score. Which style do you prefer performing and why?

I love both. When I sang in Les Miz, I felt like I sang straight from my heart, with all the flutters, power, and warmth that holds. Percy is a straight toned, gritty, powerhouse of a part and I worked really hard in college to get that side of me sustainable and authentic. So it feels like such a feat vocally. Les Miz felt like I was channeling. The Lightning Thief feels like I am a rock demigod fully owning the score.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice at the show was how diverse the ages of the audience were. There seemed to be everyone from super young kids to some elderly adults. Why do you think The Lightning Thief has such a universal appeal, regardless of age?

It’s a show that has been praised for its stagecraft from day one. We were nominated (Off-Broadway) in the same Drama Desk Award category of Hadestown, The Band’s Visit and Come From Away. This show has gotten buzz among the theater community who want to see how the heck we are pulling this off. I think that brings in a lot of theater lovers of all ages.

But more importantly the story hones in on a kid that feels very modern in his struggles – ADHD, dyslexia, a broken home, with a pack-and-go father. Our show has just as many lessons on parenting as it does being a kid navigating the gauntlet of adolescence. Parents want these stories too and very few shows attack the kind of struggles our show deals with.

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Though The Lightning Thief is a very fun and upbeat show, is there a more serious and/or deeper message/theme that you hope audiences take away from it?

Get off the sidelines! The world being passed down does not have to be accepted and repeated. We can break the cycle if we are strong enough to step out of our safe havens and draw the weapons we need most: our hearts and our voices.

What would you do with your newfound powers if you one day discovered that like Percy, you too are a demigod?

I’d be a Camp Half-Blood counselor. I’d be like, “Yo. Look at this cool water trick.”

It’s so obvious from the chemistry on stage that everyone in the cast really gets along. What are some of the best pranks you’ve all pulled on one another?

The script is so crazy that I feel like the pranks are built in. This cast has been through a lot together from Off-Broadway to touring to getting calls we are all going to Broadway. We have been there and rooted for each other. You can even see it. Jorrel got me to pierce my ear. Stokes made me vegan and now I own a jumpsuit. Jorrel started taking photos. There’s a low stakes energy in the building that has allowed really real friendships to form where we have room to talk about our interests and loves outside of theater.

How do you think this Broadway production of The Lightning Thief is the definitive version of the show? How has the show evolved since you first working on it?

It’s definitive because it protected the heart we found Off-Broadway! That is a feat in this day and age.

Where can your fans catch you next after The Lightning Thief wraps up?

I am working on a new musical adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. It’s a folk rock retelling where I’ve been developing the character of Gilbert. It’s an original musical based on a book (I know, I don’t know why it keeps happening to me!) and it reminds me of some of the steam I felt that The Lightning Thief had in its early days. So keep an ear to the ground for it as well! It’s really imaginative and warm, and centered around a young strong girl which I feel ready pass the baton off to after my time with Percy.

Thank you so much, Chris! Is there anything else that you want to add/plug that we didn’t discuss?

I love this show, it’s been my heart and soul for the past three years. The hundreds of thousands of people who have been able to see what we made when we once thought none of this was possible has been a theater boy’s dream come true!

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, now playing at the Longacre Theatre through January 5, 2020.

The Lightning Thief

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.