With Disney’s Hercules on stage at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, dreams are quite literally coming true.
“People used to ask me, ‘What’s your dream role?,’ and I’d say, ‘Make Hercules a musical so that I could be a muse,'” shares Tiffany Mann, one of five women bringing the 1997 film’s gospel-singing muses to the stage, along with Charity Angél Dawson, Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, and Rashidra Scott. “I saw that little short, thick muse in the cartoon and I saw myself traipsing around. I knew that was gonna be me.”
The original animated film, re-telling the story of half-mortal half-god Hercules from Greek mythology, is a cultural touchstone for children of the '90s, and especially so for people of color. Disney’s back catalog comprises almost exclusively white characters (we wouldn’t get Princess Tiana until 2009, more than a decade later). At the time, though, Hercules stood out by giving five Black women a major feature as the muses, “goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes.” They are narrators, but also the primary vehicle by which some fresher and more modern humor and energy finds its way into the ancient story—to say nothing of delivering composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel’s fabulous, gospel-infused score.
The muses’ songs—which include such bops as “Zero to Hero,” “The Gospel Truth,” and “A Star is Born,” are amongst the most beloved from any Disney animated movie.
But it’s not just the songs. The original film cast all five of the muses with true legends, many of them with Broadway pedigree: Tony winners LaChanze and Lillias White, The Who’s Tommy star Cheryl Freeman, Broadway Dreamgirls and Chicago alum Roz Ryan, and R&B singer Vaneese Thomas—each stars in their own right. Their electrifying vocals make each of the group’s songs such a highlight that the soundtrack is very nearly better than the movie itself. As Mann puts it, “Cartoons can sang!”
Now as the film has made its way to the stage in a production playing New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse through March 19 (with a run in Germany up next), it turns out that filling those ladies’ shoes—or sandals, in this case—can be daunting. “Not only are they the original Muses, they’re beacons in our Broadway community,” says Rea. “If we are the first voices that get to recreate it, I want to do justice to these women who are incredible in our community.”
But according to Rea, that legacy goes beyond belting to the rafters and reproducing the soundtrack’s most memorable riffs. “The job isn’t to recreate them. It’s to continue that legacy of being the fullest Black woman that I can be.”
Mann agrees, adding, “What I love so much about [the muses] is that they are being their full, authentic selves, so my job is to be my full, authentic self. I’m having so much fun because we all get to just be us.”
For this group, “just being us” translates to a lot of fun, both on stage and off. “We have this game right now of trying to scare each other backstage,” shares McCleskey. “I’m winning today. I have three points. [Destinee] has zero."
Says Rea with a laugh: “There’s a place in the show where me and Anastacia are on opposite sides of the stage, and she came to my side of the stage to scare me. What made it scary is I was afraid she was going to miss her entrance!”
Of course, that sense of fun is part of what makes the muses so charming on stage. According to this group, their connection has felt pre-ordained from the very first read-through. According to Rea, who describes their bond as “divine,” that connection is what allows them to have the fun they do, all while harmonizing in perfect pitch.
“I have never worked with people who work as hard as these women,” Rea beams. “There’s such a trust that you’re going to do your job, you’re going to tell your story—so we’re able to loosen up and have fun.”
Adds Mann: “Even when they would call break or say rehearsal is over, because of our commitment, these women are committed to being excellent. We were like, this is on our own time. Let’s do it again. We want to make sure that it’s right, that we can do it.”
Though the actors do admit the show pushes them all to their extreme, vocally and physically. Scott begrudgingly drew on advice from her message therapist husband to rise to the occasion. “Years ago, he told me, ‘Your show shouldn’t be the hardest part of your day.’” Scott balked at the advice then, but now starring in Hercules, she gets it. “I’m either on the treadmill or on a bike or doing some sort of cardio for 20-30 minutes a day before stepping foot in here. It’s the only way for me,” she admits, before adding. “One day I didn’t do it, and half-way through ‘Zero to Hero,’ I was dying.”
Hercules has also allowed the actors to explore not just the gospel truth, butu their gospel roots. According to McCleskey, Menken's gospel score is more than just fabulous dressing. It’s a historically appropriate way to tell this story. “The Greeks went to Africa and learned a lot, and brought a lot of things over,” she shares. “These Greek gods, a lot of them come from ancient African gods. I think about us being Black women and Black people, and this being God’s music… It only seems right because the source of these Greek gods, these Greek stories is Africa. It’s a part of the African diaspora, whether people want to talk about it or not. Gospel music, while it stems from the South and from old Negro spirituals, it’s world music, Black southern African music.”
Luckily for these new muses, gospel was already in their blood. “My mom’s a singer. My dad’s a musician. I grew up singing in church in choirs,” shares Dawson. “Storytelling is such a huge part of gospel music. It just fits."
Adds Mann: “It’s what my introduction was to music in the first place. I come from a family who sings. It’s ingrained."
And the production has drawn upon their deep understanding of that tradition in developing this newest version of the show, which had its world premiere via The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park in 2019. “One of my favorite days in rehearsals was when Charity was singing her face off in ‘The Gospel Truth,’” remembers Scott. “We were all like, ‘Are we allowed to call and respond?’ Because we all wanted to. And the response was, ‘We’re in rehearsal. Now’s the time to try it. If team music doesn’t want it, they’ll say something.’ And nobody ever said anything.”
Even though they all love the original film and its performances, today’s muses are particularly grateful to be bringing Hercules into 2023. Not only does the rest of the cast look significantly more diverse than the movie’s, these muses have also been reimagined to be more than just narrators on the outside of the action.
“Oftentimes when you have narrators that are Black women, it can become a trope,” shares Rea. “But [we have] the addition of a choreographer like Tanisha Scott, who is a Black woman herself, and [director] Lear deBessonet’s vision that we would have more agency than just being the bearers of the story—we would have opinions and the power to move the story in the ways that we wanted to move them.” Often relegated to artwork on the side of a vase of a column in the animated film, these new muses are literally and figuratively in the middle of the action. “There is so much more agency in this production,” says Rea.
The importance of that was driven home during a recent Thursday matinee, given to an audience of local school kids. “There was one little Black girl stage left and she was living her life,” remembers Scott. “We were all having our little church moment in the finale and she was singing right along with us, and she had a tissue wiping tears from her eyes. Fabulous.”
To McCleskey, this new production gets to expose today's musical theatre lovers to five Black women who, while they may not be part of the Disney princess catalogue, are fabulous in their own right. “In the Disney repertoire, there isn’t much Black royalty,” she says. “These muses, they’re all so different. They’re not just glam. They’re smart. They’re sexy. They’re giving. They’re witty. These kids get to see people who look like them on so many different levels.”
And that’s the gospel truth.