It’s been more than 20 years since Roger Bart auditioned to provide the singing voice in Disney’s 1997 animated classic Hercules, but he can still recall the sobs he heard from composer Alan Menken when he did.
The Tony-winning actor is returning to Mount Olympus this summer as the devious Hades, though, in the Off-Broadway stage adaptation of the animated classic, which is presented by New York City’s Public Theater in a special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions.
And while he’s in a different role now, the memory of trying out for Hercules — and Menken’s cries — is still crisp in Bart’s head.
“Alan is so lovely, if he’s moved, he’ll just cry,” Bart, 56, tells PEOPLE. “I was singing ‘Proud of Your Boy’ — the cut song from Aladdin which was the audition song we had to learn — and then a song called ‘Shooting Star,’ which was the first incarnation of what then became ‘Go the Distance.’ And I just remember finishing and looking over to him and seeing him weep. Alan Menken was weeping!”
“That was the highest form of praise from Alan!” Bart adds.
Bart would obviously end up booking the role, immortalizing Hercules‘ inspiring ballad that would go on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song (it lost out to “My Heart Will Go On,” from Titanic).
Getting the gig was a dream come true for Bart.
“I was living in Los Angeles in 1994/95, and all I wanted to do was sing for Alan,” he says. “I always loved singing his music and being in that room was one of the highlights of my career. And then to book it? It was an amazing moment for me. I’m just so happy and lucky enough that he chose me.”
“The song is beautiful,” Bart adds. “It’s a song that, from what people have told me over the years, has really struck a chord for people looking for inspiration during difficult times. What I sang it, I tried to open my heart up as much as I could. Because it’s such an intimate song. It’s a song sung when Hercules is basically by himself, so I tried to make sure that it was deeply, deeply personal to me, too. And it was. And so, if that comes across in the performance of it, then I’m thrilled people feel my heart.”
Of course, Bart won’t be singing “Go the Distance” in the Off-Broadway version of Hercules.
That honor will go to Jelani Alladin, the actor who originated the role of Kristoff in Broadway’s Frozen musical.
“Jelani, he’s so sweet, first of all,” Bart says. “The more I watch him, the more he impresses me with his fearlessness to reveal all the qualities in being human. There’s something about him that is so open and earnest and thoughtful and big-hearted. He has made me more of a fan, every day. And his ‘Go the Distance’ is so beautiful.”
Watching Alladin sing the song wasn’t easy for Bart at first. “He’s told me he was nervous singing it in front of me, but I get nervous, too, for somebody singing it,” Bart says. “It’s just one of those things that was such a big part of my life.”
Surprisingly, Bart hasn’t given Alladin any advice.
“I don’t want to guide him in any direction other than the one that’s right for him,” Bart explains. “It should be very personal to him, as it was for me. And he has done what I really hoped any person doing it would do, which is to have a creative moment of great beauty and sensitivity. He captures someone at in a moment of life where they’re trying to figure out why it is they haven’t found themselves in the world yet, but with a deep confidence that it’s going to be okay. He has it.”
Bart will get his own song in Hercules, a new one composed by Menken and David Zippel (James Woods, who originated the role of Hades in the movie, previously didn’t get a tune of his own).
“I can’t wait for the public to get a chance to hear it,” Bart says of the tune. “I don’t want to tell you the name of the song. It’s one of those grey areas, I didn’t read every page in my contract, so I don’t want to get in trouble. But I’ll tell you, it is a cool song!”
He’s also eager to dive into the role of the comic villain, one he’s perfected on stage (in shows like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and on the screen (in shows like Desperate Housewives and Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events).
“I love playing these sorts of roles,” Bart says. “I’ve found that it’s something that, with increasing age, the parts are even more fun, textured and amusing. And there’s always a challenge to them. Like, with Hades, I won’t have pointed teeth and I will not burst into flames — though I wish I did every once and a while. So it requires other tools in my toolbox to be able to convey those things.”
“I’m trying not to look at as bookends because I really don’t want my career to end after we wrap things up,” he says of returning to Hercules. “But yeah, it’s a really unique and rare thing to revisit something like this after all this time. I’m really loving it.”
Mostly, Bart is excited for fans to finally get to see Hercules on stage, especially through the eyes of director Lear deBessonet’s unique vision.
As part of the Public Theater’s Public Works program, the show — from Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater — will feature over 200 New Yorkers in its ensemble from all five boroughs.
“The spectrum of people who are there and the way Lear and everyone else involved creatively with the show have supported, nurtured, and given them an opportunity to shine at different moments of the show… it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” remarks Bart.
“There was a moment the other night when I sat and watched Jelani sing to a group of 120 people sitting on stage, and something about all of those people there, It was so moving… I just couldn’t believe it,” Bart says. “When it was over, Lear said we had just witnessed was a sacred moment in the theater. And It’s true. I have a feeling for everyone who is there, they’re going to have a similar feeling of transcendence and a real affirmation of being human. It’s beautifully realized.”
Someone have the tissues ready for Alan Menken.
Hercules will begin performances on Aug. 31 and run through Sept. 8. For ticket information, visit publictheater.org.