Instead, the directors of the 1997 film wanted gospel.
“I said, ‘Really? Explain this to me, please,’” Menken recalled in a phone interview. Hercules’ epic journey to prove he’s a hero involves quite a few Greek gods — and gospel, they explained, is the music of praying to God. “I go, ‘Well, that’s a stretch. But OK. Let’s play with it.’”
The resulting score became a cherished chapter in the Disney songbook. Now the songs are coming to life in a world premiere stage adaptation — and Menken, along with lyricist David Zippel, is adding five more.
But in a turn from Disney’s typical theatrical adaptations — commercial endeavors aimed at Broadway — “Hercules” will be presented for free in a weeklong run at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning Aug. 31.
Tickets for the show, directed by Lear deBessonet, will be distributed through a digital lottery. And unlike “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and, most recently, “Frozen,” there are no plans for future productions, Menken said, on Broadway or otherwise.
“Hercules” will be presented as part of Public Works, the Public Theater’s annual end-of-summer event since 2013, which matches professional actors and community groups for streamlined productions that are part theater, part pageant — and increasingly acclaimed and influential.
Shakespeare has been the usual source material, although in 2015, deBessonet directed a musicalized take on “The Odyssey.” Delving into a hero’s journey, with an abundance of relatable themes for an abundance of actors, was fertile territory for the program.
Menken said he started thinking about a stage adaptation after seeing a condensed “Hercules” on a Disney cruise. He invited deBessonet to his studio two years ago, she said, after attending 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.’”
Visiting one of Public Works’ partner organizations, deBessonet saw the room light up when members started talking about Disney films. A love of those stories was something they all shared — including deBessonet, who traces her affection for musical theater back to watching Disney cartoons as a child in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Those musicals, she said, are a “shared American canon.”
More music ...
That Disney superfan comes back out in deBessonet when she talks about the new songs from Menken and Zippel, which she called “some of their best work.”
“It makes me cry,” she said. “It makes me dance. I squeal.”
The “Hercules” classics that fans know and love will still be there: The Muses remain the story’s narrators, setting up the premise with “The Gospel Truth.” “Zero to Hero” — “possibly the most fabulous musical theater number known to humanity,” deBessonet declared — will still be a spectacle.
And Hercules (Jelani Alladin) still promises to “Go the Distance,” only this time, with the added pressure of Roger Bart — the original singing voice for Hercules in the film, who returns onstage as Hades — listening in the wings.
“The first time I sang ‘Go the Distance’ in front of Roger Bart, I wanted to poop my pants, point blank,” said Alladin, who made his Broadway debut last year as Kristoff in “Frozen.” “This is the man whose voice has made this song iconic.”
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.”
Menken’s favorite addition is a song for the villain, a staple in other Disney musicals from the time period. With “A Cool Day in Hell,” Hades at last gets his number.
“Hades is always blowing his top,” Menken said. “You know —”
“You see the flames come out of his head, and then he takes two deep breaths and goes, ‘OK. I’m cool.’ It’s a little bit ... ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’”
... And many more performers.
Poster-size sticky notes filled with more than a hundred faces and names, color-coded in eight neon shades, line the walls of deBessonet’s Public Theater office.
“You basically have come into my war room,” she said before rehearsal one evening, comparing the array to the ultimate Sudoku.
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.
And deBessonet’s assignment is not just directing a run-of-the-mill musical. She and her team have the Herculean, you could say, task of coordinating a cast of 117 community members, eight professional actors, a featured dance group, a gospel choir and a high school marching band. (Not including, of course, the 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.)
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.
DeBessonet took the photos of two actors from one wall and held them up to a photo of a young girl, playing one of the all-seeing Fates.
“Isabelle Romero’s dad and little sister Maya are in the show as well, but they are in the Agora,” she explained. “So basically we have to figure out: When Isabelle needs to be rehearsing with Fates, how can we be sure that she has a ride home?”
Public Works engagements are a family affair for other ensemble members, who’ve returned year after year. Both Maddie Ramos and her 9-year-old daughter, Noemi, have been in the shows for six years.
“This is where she grew up,” Ramos said. “I consider these people my family. They’re my joy.”
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.”
Michael Roberts, a nonprofessional who is portraying Zeus, said it’s meaningful that roles like his, and Alladin’s, are played by black actors.
“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.”
In the rehearsal room two weeks before opening night, there was a distinct sense of unity among members of the ensemble as they stumbled through the show’s first 12 minutes. Some were still glancing at the choreographers for assistance or moving slightly off the beat — but as members of each group finished running their part, the rest of the cast and crew erupted in encouraging applause.
In a way, they were hammering home the exact message deBessonet wants to get across in the show.
“Togetherness with other people,” she said, “is more valuable than any kind of extraordinariness or perfection.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.