They…are…The Muses. And this powerhouse quintet of divas is about to start spouting some gospel truths when Disney’s Hercules bows at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Public Works program.
Broadway’s Tamika Lawrence (Come From Away), Rema Webb (Escape to Margaritaville, and Ramona Keller (Brooklyn) star as Calliope, Terpsichore, and Thalia, respectively, and a couple of stars will be born as well, as community members Brianna Cabrera and Tieisha Thomas take the stage as Clio and Melepomene alongside these Broadway alum.
These five Muses put their own spin on the live musical stage version, which is also the culmination of Public Works 2019, the initiative that invites community members from the five boroughs to participate in theatre at the Public throughout the year. Cabrera first came to Public Works through the Children’s Aid Society Chorus and performed in 2013’s The Tempest, and Thomas auditioned for her first Public Works production six years ago through Brownsville Recreation Center.
Fans of the Disney film have been waiting with bated breath for the property to go the distance to the stage practically since it hit movie theatres in 1997—with muses voiced by Tony winners Lillias White and LaChanze, Broadway alums Cheryl Freeman and Roz Ryan, and blues singer Vanéese Y. Thomas, and a score by Tony winner Alan Menken. Directed by Public Works founder Lear deBessonet, the production runs August 31–September 8. (Find out how to get free tickets here.)
Here, The Muses reveal their favorite Hercules song, advice from the film’s Muses, and what it takes to bring The Big Olive to The Big Apple.
Were you a fan of the original Disney-animated Hercules?
Tamika Lawrence: I’ve always been a fan of Hercules! Hercules was so different than any Disney film I had seen because it was the first time, to my knowledge, that much of the music was inspired by Black American musical style, and the comedy was dark, mature, and quick. The Big Mouse was out on a limb and I was here for it.
Brianna Cabrera: I am probably the biggest Disney fan in my family, so yes. While this may sound clichéd, the biggest thought I had every single time I watched Hercules—I kid you not—was “Oh my gosh, I would love to be a Muse someday.” I never thought it would actually ever happen.
Tieisha Thomas: I watched Hercules as a child and was immediately drawn to The Muses not only because of their personality and their amazing voices but because they looked like me! I couldn’t believe the talent and fierceness these characters possessed. I wanted to be them.
Rema Webb: My personal tie is that I used to watch it about three times a day on the weekends with my daughter and my niece. They loved watching it together. It seems as all three of us couldn’t get enough of it.
Ramona Keller: I only recently became of aware of the Disney-animated Hercules and instantly fell in love with it!
What is the song from the movie you were most looking forward to singing as part of this new production?
Keller: Actually, there are two songs that I love: “A Star is Born” and “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.”
Lawrence: I was most excited (and intimidated) to sing “Zero to Hero.” The song is so joyful, hilarious, and badass; how could you not get into it? I think the song is a magical, musical masterpiece, and I’m honored to be a part of bringing it to life on stage.
Cabrera: I think [“Zero to Hero”] was always my favorite song from the movie because of how fun and energetic it is. Plus, it’s the first point in the story where everything seems to be going just as Hercules wants it to, which makes it even more enjoyable and more of a pure “feel-good” moment.
Webb: I know all of the “Gospel Truths” are fierce, but my favorite song of the movie is “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.” I can still clearly see the Muses dancing in a garden, singing this song with Meg!
Thomas: The other ladies can attest to the fact that I am in love with “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love).”
As The Muses, how would you describe the collective dynamic of your quintet?
Webb: Collectively we are dynamic! I love working with each of my amazing Muse sisters. Their voices astound me every day! Although each of us has our own personality...collectively we are a joyful, insightful, elegant, yet “no-holds-barred” Greek chorus.
Lawrence: The Muses, as a whole, are quick-witted, lighthearted, super smart, kick-butt, powerhouse divas. Each Muse narrates the story in her own way, but is a force, honey. A snatch-your-wigs force.
Cabrera: I think our quintet definitely strives to uphold the fierceness, sass, and overall energy of the Disney-animated Muses. We are, after all, helping tell this story to the audience. This big a story deserves just as big a narrator, and I think the five Muses are perfect for that responsibility.
What’s most different about The Muses in this production versus the movie?
Thomas: No one is flipping and doing cartwheels in the air while belting High A’s!
Webb: To be honest, I don’t think there is much of a difference, other than we’re living beings. We’re still as energetic as the movie characters and are enthusiastically ushering forward the story.
Cabrera: Don’t worry, there is still plenty of energy, personality, and action in our movements (thank you, Chase), but we definitely can’t do the flips, twirls, and splits, that are seen in the movie while singing. I think there is a bit more of a balanced, shared dynamic in our quintet than there is in the movie. Most people can easily recall Calliope and Thalia from the movie. The other three Muses are no less amazing, but they have fewer stand-out moments. In our production, the audience really gets quite a few opportunities to see pieces of each and every Muse’s individual personality even as we move through the story in our group.
Keller: I think The Muses are a lot more involved in the [full] story in our version versus the movie.
You have incredible designers working on this—from Dane Laffrey’s sets to Andrea Hood’s costumes, to James Ortiz’s puppets, what is your favorite piece of the live theatre production to interact with?
Webb: The set model looks amazing. James’ puppets are incredible! Also, it’s wonderful to work with Andrea. For each Muse, she has brilliantly juxtaposed our bodies and individual personalities into her costume design.
Lawrence: Like the movie, The Muses are story tellers, sort of set apart from the rest of the story, we interact most with costumes. Though every element of design is incredible. Without giving too much away, Andrea’s costume designs are a dope reimagination of the iconic dresses from the film. If Tilda Swinton were a Muse, she’d want my costume. But she can’t have it!
Keller: The puppets are awesome and really elevate the production.
Cabrera: My favorite part has been James’ puppets. The Muses don’t even interact with them directly, but the first day we saw them in rehearsal my jaw dropped and stayed like that for a good five to 10 minutes. They truly are a work of art, and I don’t think anyone in those audiences is ready for what they’re about to see.
Calliope is the Muse of poetry, Clio the Muse of history, Thalia the Muse of comedy, Terpsichore the Muse of dance, and Melepomene the Muse of tragedy. How do each of your “disciplines” play into your character?
Keller: I am having so much fun playing Thalia. Our choreographer, Chase, is also giving me moments where I can implement some funny bits to my track.
Webb: I tell you what, as the Muse of Dance, Chase Brock is making sure no step is missed.
Thomas: I’m fortunate to play Melepomene because she is the Muse of tragedy and she is dramatic. People say I’m a bit dramatic in real life so I’m hoping that it works out for me.
Cabrera: We all share these disciplines and emulate aspects of them all throughout our performances. I think we all have various moments in the show where we get to inform our choices with tragedy, comedy, and poetry. There are certain songs that are more “poetic” while some others may feel a bit more modern. We each have moments where we can laugh and hopefully get the same reaction from the audience, and we have moments in the story that are more somber and serious.
Lawrence: I think, much like the movie, each individual Muse is a representation of all of those elements of art which makes them the best kinds of narrators. We are dancing, singing, storytelling, and muuuuuusing.
Have you talked with any of the original Muses?
Webb: The women who originally played the Muses are iconic. They have inspired me to honor and absolutely sing the mess out of this brilliant score that is Hercules.
Keller: I often sing backup for Lillias White [who was Calliope] and last year she performed “Zero To Hero” at one of her shows. She told us how she was the muse for Alan Menken and sang almost all the parts on the soundtrack. She also told me how much fun the studio sessions were because in addition to the five Muses, they had some of the best studio singers in New York performing with them. I have received personal messages from two of the original Muses, which meant the world to me! Roz Ryan, who is the original Thalia, says, “Baton passed... handle ya bizzness BabyGurl.” Lillias White says, “LET THEM HAVE IT BABY!”
Lawrence: It’s no secret that we are trying to fill some really big, beautiful shoes here. What I am finding is that less is more. If I go into this trying to out-do and put extra, extra stank on this, I’m gonna be worn out and look desperate and stupid. That’s also not the intention of the piece, nor does it celebrate it. LaChanze is one of my friends and a dear mentor of mine, and she has always told me to do me and that there is always value in that. So that’s the line I’m trying to toe. I just want to tell the story the best way I can, and as truthfully as I can.
Cabrera: There’s a lot of pressure behind being in one of these roles and there is a reason for that. I just hope I can help uphold their legacy and build on these characters that so many people love so deeply.
If each of you were to play a different Muse, who would you like to be and why?
Cabrera: I would love the opportunity to play any of the other Muses. It’s hard to describe without having the context of having seen our takes on The Muses, but each of us has a very unique approach to each of our roles. It would be extremely interesting to get to insert bits of my personality into any of the other Muses.
Lawrence: Terpsichore for sure! She’s a hoot! I’m always a Louis Black, Bernie Mac kind of gal, and Terps is the life of the party!
Keller: I actually prefer the one I’m playing, which is the Muse of comedy. But if I had to choose another it would be the Muse of poetry.
Webb: To be honest, I really like my Muse. Each of us are uniquely different. But I love Terpsichore. It seems the Gods knew we were just right for each other.
Thomas: I would play the role of Terpsichore. She is feisty and full of life and although all the Muses possess that in their own way, Terpsichore is just on another level. That personally makes me howl in laughter during rehearsal and on stage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.