It's a long way from Steve Reeves playing Hercules in the 1960's schlock movie version, but a stage adaptation of Disney's successful cartoon version of the same now will play free in Central Park from Aug. 31-Sept. 8 – tickets available through a digital lottery – with African-American actor Jelani Alladin in the lead.
Netflix's series Troy: Fall of a City had British-Ghanian actor play Greek hero Achilles in that adaptation and added to the growing popularity of bringing back ancient Greek classics to the screen and theater.
Michael Roberts, an amateur actor who is portraying Zeus, said it’s meaningful that roles like his, and Alladin’s, are played by black actors, the New York Times reported in a feature on the event that has brought a big buzz and clamor for tickets.
“When I see Zeus in the cartoon, I didn’t see Zeus as me,” he said. “But I think that’s what they’re bringing to it – anybody could go on the hero’s journey. Everybody will find somebody that they can really watch and feel connected to,” he said in the piece written by Nancy Coleman.
It came together in an unlikely fashion after Alan Menken who wrote the songs for Disney's animated story of Hercules – bringing gospel music to the mix of playing to the gods – invited into the project Lear deBessonet, Director of Public Works, the Public Theater’s annual end-of-summer event which matches professional actors and community groups for streamlined productions. The presentations are part theater, part pageant – and acclaimed and influential.
Menken said he started thinking about a stage adaptation after seeing a condensed Hercules on a Disney cruise and thought of DeBessonet, after having seen her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Delacorte, part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park season.
“It seemed so nuts to imagine that the world premiere of ‘Hercules’ might be as a Public Works show, but I put it out there to him,” DeBessonet said. “Obviously he knew how much I loved his body of work, and I just said, ‘I think there could be this incredibly special realization of that story in this house that we’ve built.’”
It was an easy sell to an ensemble cast even though this work is a bit overwhelming with a cast of 117 community members, eight professional actors, a featured dance group, a gospel choir and a high school marching band. (Not including three parade-float-size Titan puppets, nor the five 60-foot-long Hydra heads that are ferried across Lafayette Street between the show’s three downtown rehearsal spaces.)
The story's the thing though and Hercules has enthralled audiences for milennia, with the Disney version undoubtedly the most popular to legions of new generations of children and fans and its musical bop adding to the allure.
The Muses remain the story’s narrators, setting up the premise with The Gospel Truth and the acclaimed song Zero to Hergo which DeBessonet called “possibly the most fabulous musical theater number known to humanity,” promising a show that will be a spectacle.
Alladin will have some pressure too with the presence of Roger Bart, the original singing voice in the film who returns as Hades, listening in the wings and gets a new number to sing, one of five added to the production by Menken who just couldn't resist.
DeBessonet said the new songs by Menken and lyricist David Zippel are “some of their best work,” and pump up the excitement and emotion for the audience. “It makes me cry,” she said. “It makes me dance. I squeal,” she said.
In the new version, audiences can also expect a duet between Hercules and his headstrong love interest, Meg (Krysta Rodriguez), and another Zero-to-Hero-esque group number, Great Bolts of Thunder, the story noted.
DeBessonet said the cast was pumped to be taking on something most of them adored when growing up, Disney films, saying the musicals are a “shared American icon” that endure through the decades and new audiences.
It's an arduous undertaking to put together, with what's a mini-version of those sword-and-sandal movies that touted “a cast of thousands,” well, make that scores for this work. The director's office walls are covered with poster-sized sticky notes with more than a hundred faces and names, color-coded in eight neon shades.
“You basically have come into my war room,” she said before rehearsal one evening, comparing the array to the ultimate Sudoku, as the story put it.
Photographs of the “Hercules” ensemble – community members from the five boroughs, ages 5 to 78 – are categorized even further by role: the Fates, the Gods, a corps of puppeteers, various townspeople in ancient Greece.
Before rehearsals began, her team sat down with a model of the stage and planned where every cast member could safely enter and exit each scene. Arrangements carry over offstage, too.
Alladin, as a professional and a newcomer, has been swept up in the spirit. “The community is playing the community,” he said. “The energy is so alive in the room because everyone wants to be there,” he added. So does almost everyone in New York.