More than 25 years after its release, the Disney animated musical Hercules is flexing its muscle once again.
Although the Greek-myth movie was only a modest success in 1997, it has built up reserves of affection since. When the Public Theater presented a free stage adaptation of it in 2019, as an addendum to its Shakespeare in the Park season, Hercules showed unexpected strength: Hundreds of thousands of people competed via lottery for the few seats available. Inspired by that response, Disney Theatrical Productions has now committed itself to developing a full-scale stage-musical version of the story, with a Broadway run very possibly in view. This new Hercules will premiere in a monthlong run at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse—within easy traveling distance from New York City—from February 18 through March 19, 2023.
The Paper Mill version will feature new songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel alongside the ones they wrote for the film, including “Go the Distance” and “Zero to Hero.” Although it is being directed by the Lear deBessonet (Into the Woods), who also staged the 2019 version, this will otherwise be a new production, with major changes from the one in Central Park. The 2019 Hercules, with a book by Kristoffer Diaz, was tailored to the Public’s civic-minded Public Works wing, which folds hundreds of locals into the cast alongside a core of professional actors. The Paper Mill one has a new script by Robert Horn, who won a Tony for Tootsie, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of London’s Young Vic.
The stellar cast and creative team that deBessonet has assembled suggests that the project may have designs beyond the Paper Mill. Bradley Gibson, who has played Simba in Broadway’s The Lion King, has the title role; flanking him are Tony winners James Monroe Iglehart (the original Aladdin genie) as trainer Phil and Shuler Hemsley (Oklahoma!) as main baddie Hades. Isabelle McCalla, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Reggie De Leon round out the main-character roster, and Charity Angél Dawson, Tiffany Mann, Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea and Rashidra Scott are the big-belting Muses. Chase Brock and Tanisha Scott share choreography duties.
What does this mean for Hercules admirers? Big fans of the big guy won’t want to miss this production, and the Paper Mill Playhouse—located in Millburn, New Jersey—is only a 45-minute New Jersey Transit ride from Penn Station. But Disney fans will recall that the Paper Mill has served in the past as a testing ground for shows with larger long-term aspirations. Its 2011 production of Newsies leaped to Broadway six months later, and although its 2015 version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame did not do the same, Disney is surely keeping an open mind about the proposition. “There is an expectation that such things could happen,” Disney Theatrical Group honcho Thomas Schumacher said coyly in a recent interview on the podcast D23. (Start listening at around the 24:00 mark.)
Can Hercules go the distance? Time will tell. But it’s certainly on a roll.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.