Photography by Jeremy Daniel and Michael Kushner
Toward the end of 2012, it looked like everything was coming together for actor, composer and lyricist, Rob Rokicki. He was about to start rehearsals for his Broadway debut in the John Doyle led revival of the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes. He was also poised to sign a deal with theatrical producers who’d promised to shepherd Strange Tails, a musical he’d written, to a regional production. And, to top things off, he and actress, Amanda Flynn, had just become engaged to be married.
Then, within the span of 24 hours, his life fell apart. The producers dropped the option on Strange Tails when one of them suddenly decided to leave show biz and go to grad school. Next, Doyle’s production of Pump Boys was postponed and, ultimately, cancelled. “By Saturday, it was like, ‘At least, I’m still engaged,” Rokicki jokes.
Fortunately for Rokicki, his fiancé became wife in early 2014. But, his career was in a tailspin. He and writing partner, Michael Ruby, were crushed by the experience and Ruby wound up moving to the west coast. And Rokicki began to fear that his years of struggle – spent on many a frigid sidewalk waiting to be seen for an audition or toiling away at odd jobs to buy himself time to write – had been a waste. “I was floundering,” he admits. “I didn’t know what to do.”
But, spoiler alert, it turns out Rob Rokicki’s story has a happy ending because, eight years later, he’s going to Broadway with his rock musical adaptation of the bestselling young adult novel, The Lightning Thief. The musical is playing at the Longacre Theater – where Rokicki used to bartend – for a 16-week engagement that began in September. “I think nine out of our ten actors are making their Broadway debuts,” he says. “They have so many stories like mine. So, it’s a real victory for the little guys.”
Rokicki and his twin sister were born on Halloween and grew up in the central Colorado city of Centennial. He remembers his home as filled with music supplied by his father, an orthopedist who played classical piano, and his mother, a vocalist with a local choral group. Family road trips were accompanied by Broadway fare like West Side Story and Candide playing on the car stereo. And his parents encouraged his love of music with singing and piano lessons. So, by first grade he was already writing his own songs and landed his first acting role in his classroom’s peppy, anti-pesticide musical Goin’ Buggy.
Rokicki started writing his own musicals in middle school. After a bit of a set back, when he discovered that the Jekyll and Hyde musical he had in the works had already been penned by Frank Wildhorn – “I’d done the album cover art, drawn the poster and written the first couple of songs!” – he moved on to zany romps like a show set on a putt-putt golf course that involved space aliens, a detective, Vikings, the Care Bears and tunes with intriguing titles like Steve Has a Spastic Colon. His father read the piece and dubbed it “mass confusion,” which Rokicki eagerly adopted as the title.
Rokicki explains that his earliest efforts were as much about finding an excuse to do something fun with his friends as they were about artistic expression. “So, I made my shows bigger and crazier,” he says. “Kind of like The Muppets Take Manhattan, where Kermit has a line, ‘We’ll just add more pigs and chickens.’ That was my philosophy. And it has served me well over the years. I surround myself with friends and try to find projects for them.”
Rokicki continued to create original musicals at the University of Michigan. But, the subject matter turned a bit more serious. “Trespasses was a modern day, gritty, pop drama very loosely based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia,” he recalls. “It was dark. Way too self-important and earnest. But, when you’re feeling lots of feelings in college, that’s what you do.”
After graduation, the script and score for Trespasses became a calling card for the aspiring writer and he was able to get it into the hands of no less a Broadway veteran than Stephen Schwartz. “He was great,” he says. “I gave him my demo, he listened to it and gave me some feedback. I’ve always found people like that who’ve taken the time to take me seriously; artists that I admire have really been instrumental in my career.”
Rokicki moved to New York City in the summer of 2001, just a few weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center. And, as fate would have it, he got a day job across the street from Tower One. Then, one of his first performing gigs was a Lincoln Center concert of Babes in Toyland held to raise funds for children who’d lost parents in the tragedy. “It was the moment when I realized that musicals and the arts were important,” he says. “That did it for me. There was no way I wasn’t going to stay in that profession and stay in New York.”
For the next decade, Rokicki rode the roller coaster ride that is many a fledgling artist’s early career. His musicals would be featured in festivals and at venues like 54 Below and Joe’s Pub, where they attracted enthusiastic response and garnered awards. But, full, commercial productions of his shows eluded him. As an actor, he performed in prestigious productions like the 25th Anniversary Tour of Evita, directed by Hal Prince, and Carnegie Hall’s televised concert of South Pacific. But, while the flow of work at regional theaters was steady, Broadway remained out of reach.
Then, that devastating week in 2012 happened. “I understood that was the biz,” Rokicki insists. “That it was arbitrary and the universe wasn’t angry with me. But, I’d worked so hard, for so long, that it really hurt. The arts were the only place that I felt I belonged and had a purpose. So, it was like an attack on my identity.”
Fortunately, the theater friends that Rokicki had become close to over that same period came to his rescue. Marquee talent, like actress Megan Hilty, offered to perform his songs in concert and on recordings. And then, Be More Chill songwriter, Joe Iconis, brought him the news that Theaterworks USA was looking for a composer with rock chops to score their touring TYA version of The Lightning Thief. Rokicki read the book, fell in love with it and called in every favor he could to land the gig. “I made three demos and got the job,” he says. “It was the right show at the right time.”
The next few years were a whirlwind of collaborating with librettist, Joe Tracz, on a one-hour adaptation of the 400+ page novel and then expanding it into two acts as the show crisscrossed the U.S., with two runs in NYC, making it one of Theaterworks’ most successful shows. Along the way, it racked up rave reviews and award nominations against the likes of megahit Hamilton! “It’s a little show that has done amazing things,” Rokicki feels. “We’re getting to celebrate that in a Broadway theater – the tour’s grand final stop.” But, it’s a happy ending that’s only the beginning for Rob Rokicki.