Original Hercules voice actor Roger Bart talks going the distance, playing Hades on stage
They say the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. So when it came time for the Hercules stage musical to cast its central devil, the creative team didn’t have to look far.
More than 20 years ago, Roger Bart voiced the young hero in Disney’s Hercules, providing the singing voice for Herc’s big number, “Go the Distance.” Now, the Tony winner is returning to Mount Olympus, this time playing the flame-coiffed villain Hades on stage in the Public Theater’s new adaptation of the animated classic.
“Of course, now I can actually use the phrase that since recording Hercules in 1996, my career really truly has gone to hell,” Bart jokes.
It’s a homecoming that’s been a long time coming. Disney has adapted dozens of its animated films into stage musicals over the years, from Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King to Aladdin and Frozen, but the 1997 Hercules never got the same love, even with an Oscar-nominated soundtrack by Disney stalwarts Alan Menken and David Zippel. But after two decades, the story of the god-turned-mortal-turned-god-again is finally making its way to the stage, running Aug. 31 through Sept. 8 at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park.
Directed by Lear deBessonet and presented as part of the Public Theater’s Public Works program, Hercules features new additional songs from Menken and Zippel (including at least one number that features Hades). But the new show will still feature originals like “I Won’t Say I’m in Love,” “Zero to Hero,” and, of course, “Go the Distance.”
This time, Frozen’s Jelani Alladin will be the one singing of far-off places and hero’s welcomes as the new Hercules. Bart, a Broadway alum also known for Desperate Housewives and Revenge, will instead take a villainous turn as Hades — the underworld opposite of the fresh-faced hero he originated. (The original Hercules film also featured Josh Keaton as the teenage Hercules’ speaking voice and Tate Donovan as the adult version.)
“Roger Bart is virtuosity-in-action,” director Lear deBessonet tells EW in an email. “He’s a master of musical comedy who also has enormous depth and access to emotion, making him dream casting for Hades. Plus it’s an added valentine for long-time lovers of the Disney film, especially our community members who are over the moon to be working with him.”
EW caught up with Bart between rehearsals to talk about his infernal turn (plus the added thrill of performing live and outdoors).
“I hope we don’t have too many rainy nights,” Bart says. “I want to let the audience know that I had nothing to do with it, even though I am the Prince of Darkness!”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Whose idea was it to bring you back for this new stage version of Hercules, this time as Hades?
ROGER BART: Since the time of recording the singing voice for Hercules oh so many years ago, I’ve seen Alan occasionally throughout the years at different shows. I sang for him recently at Carnegie Hall in celebration of his career, and I sang “Go the Distance,” which was a trip, singing that at Carnegie Hall with an orchestra. It was hair-raising but really fun and meaningful. And according to him, they had done a few readings of the show, and when he saw me singing that song, they thought it would be a wonderful thing to have me playing Hades. So he called me early one morning, and when you get a call from Oscar winner Alan Menken, you pick up. So that’s how it came to be.
Back in ’96, when I managed to win the role of Hercules, I had not played — and haven’t since — a lot of innocent young heroes. But somehow my voice manages to convey [innocence]. Somewhere in my face and eyes, probably not, so that’s the benefit of doing a recording. [Laughs] I spent many, many years playing various forms of comedic villains, so this was a great fit for me.
As Disney villains go, Hades is definitely one of the most dramatic. How do you bring him to life on stage?
You know, James Woods was iconic and just a fantastic version of the part. Although I think even he will admit that he wishes that he had the muscles that Hades had in the movie because neither of us do. [Laughs]
What’s exciting about this is the Disney company is so good at taking their animation and putting it into forms of live-action, whether it’s a film or on stage, and they’ve done it so brilliantly and with such brilliant directors. The idea to let the show take this form in the context of the Public Works program for the Public Theater was a really smart and beautiful idea because the story of Hercules is incredibly affirming, and so much of it is about the community being strong. I think it’s going to make for a template for an incredibly special evening for those who get to see the show. Everything I’ve seen so far has been so moving and beautiful.
Like you said, Disney is no stranger to taking their animated properties and either adapting them for the stage or for a live-action film. What have been some of the challenges of adapting Hercules in particular?
Any time you take something and put it on stage, it’s always interesting to see how you can inventively create an effect. We’re dealing in this case with monsters and titans and hydra multi-headed dragons. It’s obviously much easier to draw them than it is to put them on stage. You have to put on a different kind of creative thinking cap when you do. They’re still being revealed to me, but everything [I’ve seen] so far seems to be magical. I’m really excited for people who are fans of the movie to see how we’ve replaced things that you can only draw.
And we also are outdoors, which is both beautiful in the sense that we are dealing often with heaven and hell and these places that are very outdoorsy feeling. It’s not a living room drama, for sure. So it’s beautiful in a way, but with that, we don’t have the opportunity to be able to create the effects you could do if we were in a proscenium theater in the dark. So Lear is incredibly inventive and so is the Public Theater.
I would imagine it would be fun to play in this larger-than-life world of heaven and hell. It’s not every day you get to play the Lord of All Evil.
Yeah, after that even Hannibal Lecter doesn’t seem [that great]. He’s not lord of the dead. [Laughs] I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now. Maybe Jesus is my next role? The pendulum will swing completely to the other side for me, and I’ll play somebody lovely.
I’m assuming your hair won’t be on fire on stage for this?
No, I don’t think so. My spirit will be, but my hair would be a little dangerous. I’d prefer not having an open flame near my hair, whatever’s left of it. As a general rule.
There have been so many live-action Disney stage adaptations over the years: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen. Why do you think it’s taken so long for Hercules to get the stage treatment?
I’m not really sure. I think the score has always been fantastic in Hercules. And at the time the movie had been released, there had been [a Disney animated movie] released every year, and they were all kind of in the musical theater style, one after another in those days. As far as pure business-wise, I don’t think Hercules was, for whatever reason, as much of a success as Aladdin or Lion King or Little Mermaid.
But things shifted after the making of Hercules, in terms of the way they were rendered and with the introduction of Pixar-style movies. Ours was purposely drawn to look two-dimensional. So over the years, as I’ve clocked it quietly, it became more of a favorite over time and people started to recognize how funny it was and unique and buoyant. I think it’s more popular today than it was years ago. I’m not sure whether it’s that [affecting the stage adaptation], or whether it’s just some of the daunting prospects of trying to capture some of these larger scenes with hydras and battles and the effects of the underworld. I don’t know necessarily whether that was slowing them down or whether Disney just kept having musical movies that seemed to be the more appropriate choice to cultivate into a musical. I’m not sure. They would know better than I. But I’m glad that we’re doing it, and this seems to be a really lovely way to be able to present the story.
Tell me a little bit about your audition process for the original Hercules. How did you wind up singing “Go the Distance”?
That was fun. I was in Los Angeles, and it was my first time living there with my then-girlfriend. I had been on the road for two-and-a-half years with two different Broadway first national [tours]. It was great fun, but it was time to stop and give L.A. a whirl. Between my agents and my lack of experience in TV and film, it was just a quiet time, to put it mildly.
But I had gotten… I want to say down to the wire, I don’t really know, but I was kind of in the mix with Aladdin. And during the process of auditioning for Aladdin in 1990 or ’91 or whatever it was, I became more aware of Alan Menken’s compositions. I sing sort of like Alan in a way, so I was kind of tracking his music after that because I thought that one of them maybe was going to work for me. The style in which I sang seemed to lend itself well to these animated features because the voices were sometimes really trained sounding, and sometimes with the juvenile [characters], they were more pure. And my voice was very pure then, so I thought it was a good fit. The one thing I asked my agents while I was out in Los Angeles was, “Please get me in the room with Alan Menken. When they cast Hercules, if you do one thing for me, get me a chance to get me in the room to sing.” And so I did.
I had to learn a song, a first song called “Shooting Star,” which actually was “Go the Distance” before “Go the Distance” came in. It was the first song they had written for that character. But I think I was very lucky, and Alan responded to my singing, and I guess Disney did too. I’d worked really hard on the song, and I remembered thinking to myself that the song was so much about feeling out of place but also connected to a part of yourself that’s very strong inside. That even though you feel like you didn’t belong where you were at that moment, you knew it wasn’t just you. There was something about yourself that was going to be okay in all of this, even though you knew this was where you were not supposed to be right now. And Los Angeles for a lot of young actors, particularly from the Northeast with theater training, makes you feel a little disoriented out there and alone. So I connected to it in that way. The song spoke to me.
I feel like this is a song that resonates with a lot of people, especially those who grew up with it. Have you had people come up to you and want to talk about the song?
They do! I was just in rehearsal for a show in another country, and a young actor came up to me. And of course, the first shock is that it’s an adult talking to you, saying that your voice changed them when they were a child. That’s always a little like, ouch. [Laughs] The vanity thing kicks in first. But he said it was like his anthem as a kid, and he couldn’t believe that I was standing in front of him.
And then there are times where I’ll go online and I’ll see comments about how it got them through exams, it got them through a tough time, and it’s on their “I can do it” playlist. And then I’ll get times where I get a meaningful letter about things with people’s health or difficult times where they feel moved by the song. So beyond my own joy that my children and their children are going to be able to hear great-grandpa singin’ his tune — which is wonderful for me, and I’m so grateful — but the fact that I was part of a song that has meant so much to so many is so deeply gratifying.
I know Alan Menken and David Zippel have written a few new songs for the stage show. What’s it been like to return to this world and tackle some new songs?
Oh, they’re great. I’ve listened to them, and I am a part of one. It’s fantastic. Can you imagine? I’ve heard these songs and watched this movie so many times over the years, and I know it very, very well, and now I get to rehear it live. I get to watch people learn it, hear “Go the Distance” being sung by a wonderful actor-singer Jelani Alladin and also learn a tune for this character that I never dreamed of doing. So it’s pretty much a complete thrill every day. And the new song that I’m doing is very, very cool.
I can’t wait to be standing there, and I’m just absolutely thrilled that I’m back in Hercules. I really thought that would never, ever happen. I knew my days playing Hercules were long ago, so it’s pretty damn thrilling.