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Jelani Alladin on Reimagining ‘Hercules’ for the Stage

August 27, 2019 by Suzy Evans
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Jelani Alladin (Photographed by Jenny Anderson)

While a Greek god and a Broadway star might not have much in common on the surface, Jelani Alladin sees himself in Hercules, the mighty titular hero in the animated film turned stage musical that’s coming to Central Park Aug. 31-Sept. 8.

The musical, which is produced by The Public Theater’s Public Works program at the Delacorte Theater, follows Hercules as he tries to make his way back home to find love and belonging. Like Hercules, Alladin also left home at a young age, going from Brooklyn to Connecticut for boarding school when he was 13 to “reinvent himself,” and he sees his life paralleling the god’s story. 

“The only way for me to become successful was for me to leave Brooklyn and discover more of the world — kind of like Hercules’s journey. He decides to run away from home and set off on this quest with this hope of finding something greater,” Alladin says. “But I came back to New York City for college, to find that the thing you wanted isn’t some far off thing. It’s actually right where you are.”

He’s also coming full circle with this production, which gathers community groups from Children’s Aid to the Military Resilience Foundation and more to form a large ensemble under the stars. And one of the groups participating, Brownsville Recreation Center, is just blocks from the house where Alladin grew up. As we’re talking on the phone, some of the community members walk by and stop to chat about Alladin’s home neighborhood. 

“Miss Jett, who runs that program, was like ‘When this is over, we’re going to go back to Brownsville, we’re going to have a nice barbecue for you, and we’re going to celebrate the show,’” Alladin says. “I cannot wait for that barbecue.”

Alladin also knows a thing or two about leading a Disney musical, as he’s coming off a run on Broadway playing the lovable Kristoff in “Frozen,” and he’s excited to bring a beloved classic to the stage again. 

“Disney is a shared canon amongst most Americans, but they always touch on something that is far deeper,” Alladin says. “Sure our show has bops like ‘Zero to Hero’ and ‘Gospel Truth,’ but there is an undercut of heart and meaningfulness and depth in all these pieces. I am excited that we really get to go there with this version of ‘Hercules.’”

Tickets to “Hercules” are free and available through a TodayTix Lottery, which closes at 12PM on Aug. 28. And even Alladin is entering. “I’m trying to get tickets too!” Alladin says. “We just need a Broadway transfer so everyone can see it.”

We chatted with Alladin about growing up with Disney, his workout routine for “Hercules,” and why he always brings himself to the roles he plays. 

Were you a fan of the movie growing up?
Jelani Alladin: The Disney movies that we watched growing up were “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” When Hercules came out, for some reason, I kind of missed it. I first heard about it through the McDonald’s toys that they were giving away. And then we finally went to watch the movie and we were like “Whoa, this is an amazing movie!” And now, you’re talking to a guy who, as a kid, ran around the house pretending to be a Power Ranger every day. 

Did you study Greek mythology to prepare for the part?
You wanna hear something really wild and crazy? I actually took an entire course in college, at NYU, on Greek mythology. And now, I am finally able to use some of that knowledge. Granted I almost failed the course halfway through, and the only way I was able to pass was if I got an A on the final. I studied my butt off and you better believe I got that A. But it’s kind of wonderful. I feel like everything I’ve done in my life has kind of led me to this moment.

How do you relate to Hercules’s journey?
Nothing  in my life has ever come easy, and I think Hercules goes through the same things. This is a guy who works his butt off. He goes to the extent of sacrificing himself for another. Think about the generosity that takes and the belief that takes and the humanity for someone to do an act like that…We’re trying to tell the story that a hero is not one person who is just standing tall and muscular and gorgeous. A hero can be anyone; the hero lives inside all of us.

I’ve lived my life with that belief that I can accomplish anything. Everything I need is already inside of me, and that’s what Hercules comes to discover. And then I get the chance to reinvent the character a bit because I get to bring my own authenticity of me being an African-American man growing up in America. That is a unique experience that then begins to shed new light on the themes in our play.

One of the most famous songs from the show is “Go the Distance.” What does that song mean to you?
That song is for every African-America man who’s ever been enslaved, who’s ever been incarcerated, who’s ever been assassinated, or who’s ever been held back by the world deeming them as “less than,” as ugly, as anything but the beautiful magic that we are. That song is about finally understanding the inner calling that is within all of us. We have all been called to do something. We have a task to do on this Earth. And in that song, Hercules realizes that his dream is truly a calling and that he must run towards it. Every single time I sing it, I feel a part of me kind of like surrender to the song in a way unlike any other song I’ve sung before. 

This is your second time leading a Disney musical. What do you love about reimagining these stories?
I never imagined I would play one Disney hero, let alone two within the span of two years. But my approach with this, as was my approach with “Frozen,” as is my approach with anything that I do, is that you have to come from you. It should reflect the world that we live in now. Why would I try to make Hercules something it was before? Why not pull from my own experience and ground it in Hercules grew up from Brownsville? That’s my truth so that’s his truth. I cannot leave myself behind; I must bring that to the work.

Hercules is also known for his superhuman strength. Did you have a special workout routine to get ready for the part?
The gym has become one of my close friends because of the roles I’ve played. It is extremely physical and they demand a lot, so I have been working out six days a week…I’ve always been the skinny kid, so I’m not looking to tone — I’m actually only looking to build so I prefer a full body workout. I’ve also been on a protein-plus diet. I’ve also taken tumbling classes because there are some special skills that are required for this part. And I’ve also taken boxing classes, and I began running, trying to make sure my heart rate is always up because it’s number after number in this show. I’m finally excited that all the work is paying off.

Is there any other Disney role that you’d love to realize onstage?
What do you even do after Hercules? Truly, my dream is to play a villain. I would love to voice a Disney villain in an original Disney film or in one of the new live actions they have coming up. I have played now two heroes, but I feel like I have a bad side. And I want to share that.

Do you have a favorite Disney villain?
I do like the VooDoo priest in “Princess and the Frog.” That would be really cool to play in a live action. And obviously I want to play a Marvel superhero at some point in my life. That is my dream of all dreams!

What has it been like working with Public Works and performing alongside so many community members?
I remember the first day that we gathered together at The Public Theater, and they had a potluck dinner for the community before they started their first rehearsal. And we all stood around in this huge circle full of about 200 people, they each went around and said their names and where they were from. And to stand in that circle, and to see [composer] Alan Menken as the minority in that circle, it was the wildest thing. It was like, look at all these beautiful diverse people coming together to tell the story of Hercules.

It’s amazing how committed they are, how passionate they are, how willing to play they are — more so than some people I went to college with at NYU. I wish I was in a classroom with some of these people when I was going to school, because the level of willingness to try something is through the roof! This is the seventh year of Public Works, and it’s like they’re more pro than I am. I’m proud to stand with them to tell this story.

What can audiences expect from this production?
Any time you try to bring an animated movie to life, what they drew you can’t actually come to life, but you can find other creative ways to do it. And so the beautiful thing about Public Works is the production involves groups such as [dance group] 10 Hairy Legs, a marching band, a puppet core. How can we use these special devices to create something that an animated movie did through a drawing? You can expect a lot of heart from this production. Any time you do a piece that involves mythology or gods, there has to be a spiritual element in the room. And I think, especially under the stars at the Delacorte, it will feel like a spiritual experience.

Enter the TodayTix Lottery to win tickets to see “Hercules” in Central Park.