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Roger Bart Chased Hercules in the '90s, and Now It's Chasing Him

Bart, who stars as Hades at Central Park's Delacorte Theater, takes us back to when "Go the Distance" was not the song Disney hired him to sing.

In 1997, Hercules gave Roger Bart his first film credit as the singing voice of our lovable hero, forever stamping Alan Menken's "Go the Distance" with his triumphant performance. Over 20 years later, the Disney musical is circling back around to hand Bart another career milestone — performing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

"There's just a handful of things that anybody in the performing arts wants to do in their life, and I know it's corny, but playing Central Park is one of them," says Bart about the famous Shakespeare in the Park venue. "And I don't think my Shakespeare's very good, so this is very lucky."

He's graduated to the villainous role of Hades for Hercules's new stage version, a collaboration between Disney and the Public Theater's Public Works running August 31-September 8 for only seven performances. He's excited to follow in James Woods's devilish footsteps as the guardian of the underworld, but Bart still looks back fondly on the winding path — stained with Alan Menken's joyful audition-room tears — that led him to Mount Olympus all those years ago.

Roger Bart in rehearsal for his turn as Hades in the stage adaptation of Disney's Hercules, running at the Delacorte Theater August 31-September 8.
(© Joan Marcus)

Take me back to the '90s and tell me how Hercules came into your life the first time around.
In 1994, I was in the first national tour of The Who's Tommy, and I decided when we finished our run in Los Angeles that I would take my bags off the touring bus and call it a day for a while. I had been on the road for about two and a half years straight with different shows. So I lived there for the first time and found myself feeling a little out of place. It was difficult for me to penetrate the film and television industry with only my handful of regional theater credits and national tours. But I told my agents that if they do anything for me while I'm out in Los Angeles, to please get me in front of casting for Hercules.

Why was Hercules even on your radar?
When I was in New York, somewhere around '90-'91, I was down to a small group of people for potential singing voices of Aladdin. But I didn't get it. The one thing I took away from that was that between the music of Aladdin and the music of Little Shop of Horrors, I felt a real affinity for Alan Menken's compositions. One thing that I felt was really in my wheelhouse was singing in a way that was youthful and hopefully sweet.

I'm assuming your agents came through for you. What did you have to sing for your audition?
"Proud of Your Boy," which at that time was a cut number from Aladdin, and a song called "Shooting Star," which preceded "Go the Distance." So I sang for Alan in Los Angeles, and Alan — if he likes your singing, he just will cry and cry and cry. So he cried during "Proud of Your Boy" and then he cried during "Shooting Star," and he said, "Where were you for Aladdin?" I said, "I don't know if you ever heard it, but I was somewhere in there!" And he said, "Well, it's great to meet you; love your singing, but ideally we want somebody younger." And then I thought one of two things: Either he really was moved by me, or Alan Menken literally just bursts into tears at every audition. I was in Germany after that doing Tommy and I got a call during that time saying that they had looked around and wanted to hire me for the job.

That job at the time was to sing "Shooting Star." How did "Shooting Star" end up becoming "Go the Distance"?
They felt that there was an optimism missing in the song. "Go the Distance" was overtly hopeful and celebratory about life, whereas "Shooting Star" was focused more on feeling disconnected. So when they cut "Shooting Star," I was a little nervous, but they hung on to me, and I was thrilled and flabbergasted and grateful.

How did Hercules circle back around to you for this new stage version?
I was in a hotel room in Los Angeles working, and I got a call from Alan Menken, which is always an amusing thing. Within a half an hour, I was listening to Alan sing a Hades song (of course there isn't one in the movie). So here I was 20-whatever years later and learning one of his tunes for this show from a whole different perspective.

How do you think your Hades is going to differ from James Woods's definitive performance in the film?
Ideally it's going to be whatever works best for this current rendering of the show. It's not 1996 anymore, so it's a whole new world — to quote a great Disney song — as far as ways you can play the devil. I'm still kind of searching and feeling it out, which is both the most terrifying part of a rehearsal process and the most fun.

You've played a few villains in your career. What would you say is the key to playing a satisfying villain?
Daffy Duck. The thing that I love to do is create opportunities to both be terrifying and to design it so the character's demise creates the maximum effect for the audience. It's fun to watch the villain go down. When Daffy Duck ends up being tricked by Bugs Bunny and his beak is on the top of his head, that to me is the ultimate payoff. I think Hades is saddled with a couple of idiots for sidekicks and he gets outdone.

Have you always been more drawn to villains than heroes?
I think I was 10 — we were doing an abridged version of Oliver! at my little school in Princeton, New Jersey. In those days Tams-Witmark used to provide the scripts and they would only give you the pages that you were in. I was given the Artful Dodger, and Oliver had a considerably thicker book, so I immediately felt like I had lost and was devastated. My sister picked me up in our 1962 Volkswagen Beetle and she said, "You don't want to play Oliver; you want to play the bad guy. Dodger's so much cooler." And literally it's been that way my whole life.

Bart in the rehearsal room with the new Hercules, Jelani Alladin.
(© Joan Marcus)