At face value, it may seem a surprise that the hottest ticket in New York City right now is a free staging of the least popular of Disney’s animated musical heyday of the ’90s that is purposefully cast to resemble a community theater production.
Yet as the Fates would have it, the Public Theater's Public Works production of Hercules that premiered over the weekend at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater and runs through Sept. 8, has New Yorkers begging for tickets; hello, it’s me.
Tickets to the limited-run, open-air musical are not on sale, but instead only distributed through a cutthroat lottery and to patrons of the Public Theater, drumming up demand for the first major live staging of the musical in New York City.
Hercules’ journey from “Zero to Hero” almost uncannily replicates the details of the film’s most celebrated song. After 1989’s The Little Mermaid kicked off what’s known as “The Disney Renaissance,” in conjunction with the childhoods of the millennial generation, Hercules became the only Walt Disney Animations Studio release of the 1990s to not cross $100 million at the box office.
But millennials grew up, and so too did their appreciation for the otherwise overshadowed film. The movie achieved a cult-like fandom over the next two decades, with its three most memorable Alan Menken/David Zippel songs—the booming ballad “Go the Distance,” torch song “I Won’t Say (I'm in Love),” and gospel barn-burner “Zero to Hero”—rising the ranks of indelible Disney favorites.
Yet as Broadway stagings of Disney musicals became one of the House of Mouse’s most reliable investments, Hercules’ number was never drawn, making the clamor for a live production all the more intense—hence the rush for tickets to the Public Works staging at the Delacorte.
What has also matured nicely, it turns out, is the film’s message. Hercules is based on the Ancient Greek myth, the half-human, half-god son of Zeus. What was a cute morality musical about sacrifice underlined with its treacly message encapsulated in dialogue—“a true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart”—has, under the stars in Central Park transformed into a siren call for Trumpian times.
It turns out that the Public Works production of Hercules isn’t just the hottest show in New York, but the perfect show for right now.
A slight hand of updating—a few added lines here, some modernizing of characters there, the application of a political lens everywhere in between—brings the musical’s values to the forefront.
What do we owe our community, and what are we owed ourselves; the power of the community is greater than the ambitions of one; a “pair of pretty pecs,” at the end of the day, are just that. The romantic storyline and the show’s heroine, Megara, is given a feminist update—and pants!—while the villain Hades is all-but painted orange in case you don't get the message.
More, there’s the fabric of this work itself, staged with an ensemble of nearly 200 New York City locals: dancers, marching band musicians, singers, and amateur community members—everyone from Air Force veterans to retired teachers to 7-year-old elementary school students—joining professional Broadway stars to put together this allegory on the necessity of the whole tribe to come together to better society.
Or even, in its bleakest, most dangerous times, save it.
Perhaps it was lost on a millennial generation that has elevated the middle-performing Disney musical to cult-favorite status that “the gospel truth” at the heart of the songs and slapstick was a profound lesson on civic engagement and responsibility.
Maybe that should have been obvious; we are talking about Greece, the birthplace of democracy, after all. But either way, the Public Works production updates the script in key places in order to blare that message to the cheap seats. (Of course, at the Delacorte that is every seat. They’re free for all.)
The basic plot of Hercules (how closely this adheres to the actual myth, I’ll never know; the curse of Disney!) is that Zeus and Hera, who reign over the gods on Olympus, have their first son.
In a quintessentially Disney turn of events, Zeus’ jealous brother, Hades, who rules the Underworld, is concerned with how Hercules’ arrival affects his plan to overthrow Zeus and rule Olympus.
The Fates deliver a prophecy to Hades. In 18 years, he will be able to unleash the Titans, whom he has imprisoned, and they will help him conquer Olympus—but only if Hercules doesn’t get in the way. So Hades sends his two minions, Pain and Panic, to dispose of the young boy.
The hapless duo only manage to give him half of a bottle of poison before being thwarted—only draining Hercules of half of his immortal strength—and leaving him to be discovered by surrogate human parents back on Earth.
While only half-god, Hercules’ strength is still super-human, which gets him into trouble and leaves him ostracized by his community. After learning who his real parents are and that he can reclaim godhood and return to Olympus if he becomes a true hero, he sets out to become one—as if someone can just announce they are going to be a hero.
During hero training, he encounters what he thinks is a damsel in distress, the seductive Megara. But Meg, it turns out, has sold her soul to Hades, and is working with him to entrap Hercules so that he is out of his way for good.
They fall in love. Hercules learns that heroism isn’t defined by muscles, but by sacrifice. Everyone is saved from Hades’ wrath.
That plot remains largely intact in this production, though it is given an incredibly potent injection of 2019 politics.
When Herc first broadcasts his intent to become a hero, the townspeople are unimpressed. They don’t need someone to lift boulders, scale mountains, and slay mythical monsters. What they want from hero is help securing affordable housing, better jobs, and more respectful civil discourse. (Cue the pandered-to applause of the Delacorte crowd.)
Thanks to the expert training of Philoctetes, Herc does actually start achieving some feats of heroism, in the classic sense, turning him into a celebrity about town. (As recounted in “Zero to Hero”: “Folks lined up, just to watch him flex.”) But when the threat of Hades becomes real, the empty value of that fame comes into sharp focus.
Am I going to use Disney’s Hercules as a cautionary tale and shaming narrative against the banality and uselessness of influencer culture and social media vanity? You can’t stop me!
There are other of-the-now updates.
Krysta Rodriguez reinvents Meg as even more of a feminist badass. If the character’s film journey was that she’s no damsel in distress, here even the notion that a woman needs a man for rescue is enough to make her gag.
The race-blind casting of Jelani Alladin as Hercules is significant in its own right, but so, too, is the blackness he brings to the role—and, in fact, the entire ensemble brings to the production. There are knowing winks at black culture throughout, from both Alladin and the diverse ensemble, that prove how much value multiculturalism brings to the arts—a searing message given the commercial commodity whose mouse ears loomed over this production.
And then there’s Trump. I mean Hades.
Roger Bart’s Hades is obsessed with attaining a position of power he did not earn, for seemingly no other reason than ego: Being seen as being the most powerful is the draw.
When there’s a threat to that pursuit of power, he marginalizes and diminishes so that he can strike easier. He has his lackeys do his dirty work for him, and they do so incompetently. When a hero rises, he attacks them, belittles their character, and attempts to con the community against them.
But in Hercules, the community bands together to unite in a fight against him anyway.
It has a profound effect on Hercules. He’s spent this entire journey in pursuit of something he felt entitled to: not just fame and hero status, but ascension to the elite, to be among the gods.
Here, he realizes what he owes his community is far greater than what he felt he was ever owed himself. He realizes that the individual is not greater than the community. More, he learns what the community can teach an individual about himself.
At a time when subtlety has gone the way of the gods, there’s something very of the moment about this take on Hercules.
The message is as clear as the Muses’ roof-shattering belting, the way we kind of crave it these days. It’s not art as lip service, either. The community is right there in front of you, all 200 of them. In the spirit of Disney hokeyness, it’s all very inspirational, the clunky, concerted effort of it all.
It’s something Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, says himself in the Hercules program. “Hercules is forced to choose, over and over, between his personal aspirations and ambitions and his place in the human community. We, too, face that struggle every day. We are human, we are divine, we are individuals, but we are part of something much larger than ourselves.”
Well, bless my soul.