‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’ star talks race & theater

James Hayden Rodriguez
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The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, based on the best-selling tween fantasy adventure book series Percy Jackson & the Olympians by Rick Riordan, is currently on stage at the Ordway in St. Paul with a multi-ethnic, multi-talented cast.

The first book in the Percy Jackson series and the musical’s namesake, The Lightning Thief, is the story of “half-blood” children on as much of a quest for self-discovery and purpose as they are for learning how to use their demigod powers to bring about good – or evil – in the universe.

The MSR checked out the opening-night performance which was filled with excited children and young adults who were likely familiar with the five-novel series that has sold more than 45 million copies and recently hit the 500th week (nearly 10 years on the New York Times bestsellers list for Children’s Series Books — just a few months shy of how long the Harry Potter series has been on the list.  It was released in 2005 as the first of two movies to hit the big screen in 2010.

We caught up with triple-threat James Hayden Rodriguez who plays antagonist Luke Castellan, alongside actors Chris McCarrell, Jalynn Steele, Kristin Stokes, and Jorrell Javier. Rodriguez’s Luke character is the son of the Greek god Hermes and a human mother.

James Hayden Rodriguez (l)
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“I was actually not familiar with the Percy Jackson universe when I first auditioned for the musical,” says Rodriguez. “So, I went and read the books and really fell in love with these characters. Here are these kids who are going out, fighting monsters and trying to change the world. I loved it. I understand why young people have such an infatuation with this story. These characters are role models and young people strive to be more like these characters. It’s inspiring to me.”

Rodriguez says he spent many years in his youth separated from his father, which helped him relate to the characters who grew up not knowing their Greek god parents.

“My father wasn’t around when I was growing up and I wrote him off because of that. I never needed him or a relationship with him,” he says. “As I grew up I realized there was a huge part of me that was missing. I was resentful, but even more so I just wanted answers. 

“When I finally got a chance to get those answers and find a sense of closure, everything changed for me. It was a huge part of my personal journey, and something I inject to the character of Luke every night.”

Rodriguez says his mother was very supportive of the choices he made in life as a kid. “For a while it was sports, then music, then theater. She just wanted to see me happy and successful.” He acts, he dances, he sings rock music, and he is the fight captain for the fight scenes in The Lightning Thief.

“Above anything it needs to look believable and dangerous,” he says of the sword fights and various fight scenes in the musical. “If you’re not scared for us while watching us go for each other’s throats, then we are doing something wrong. That being said, it’s my job to make sure that everything is actually safe while just appearing to be dangerous. We spend 30 minutes before each show doing a fight call where we troubleshoot any safety issues.”

The topic of race has also played a role in Rodriguez’s career. His African American and Latino heritage has presented challenges, but also impacted his work ethic.

“When I got into the business it became very clear that I was going to have to work 10 times as hard as my White male counterparts just to receive one-quarter of the job opportunities. It was frustrating to watch privileged White kids get opportunities without always deserving them when I was working my butt off just to play in the same field.

“While my friends’ parents were paying for their college education, I was sprinting to a minimum wage job after class to get myself through school. But, it instilled a work ethic in me that I am grateful for.”

Rodriguez adds: “Yes, I have been faced with roadblocks and I smash through them.”

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical runs through Saturday, with performances at 7:30 pm Friday, June 21, and 2 pm and 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 22 at the Ordway, located at 345 Washington St. in St. Paul. For more info, visit ordway.org/event/lightning-thief/