“We get off at 81st Street, right?” a woman who has just boarded my C train in Brooklyn on Monday night asks another woman. 81st street is, coincidentally, where I’m headed. I take one look at her and quickly decide that she and I are probably going to the same place. She’s wearing a thin wreath of pink and white plastic flowers, with ribbons trailing down her neck and a top draped off her shoulders. It’s Greco-Roman via Anthropologie. “Hercules?” I lean over and ask. “Yes.”
Hercules. The low-key best Disney movie that never got its day in the sun. Until now. For eight nights ending on September 8, the show is being mounted by the Public Theater as a full-scale musical at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It’s part of the theater’s Public Works initiative, which means that in addition to big-name leads — Frozen’s Jelani Alladin plays the title role, while Roger Bart, the original singing voice of Hercules, takes a turn as Hades — the cast includes 200 New Yorkers from all over the city. It also means tickets are free and in insanely high demand.
In previous years, distribution of those Public Works tickets was first come, first served. People lined up for multiday stretches, arriving with inflatable couches and coolers and umbrellas. This year, the Public tried something new, lotterying off tickets online the week before opening night. Winners were alerted three days before the run started. If you didn’t win — and a cursory Twitter perusal will reveal that you’re in plentiful company — your last-ditch option is the standby lottery. On show nights, you get to the park between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and put your name in the hat. You’ll want to make a Public Theater patron account in advance. From 7:10 right up until curtain time, a Public staffer draws names. (The online-lottery winners have until 7:30 to pick up their tickets, after which those are also released for the standby crowd.) If you hear your number called, you grab your tickets and head in to see Hercules in all his muscular glory.
So I, along with hundreds of other folks, lined up (hoping) just to watch him flex. When I arrived at 6 p.m., there was a crowd of 200 or so people already milling about the lawns outside the Delacorte. I put my name in and started chatting. A man named Greg wearing a “Camp Half Blood” T-shirt — the overlap between Hercules and Percy Jackson fandoms seems quite logical — tells me he’s put his name in each night so far, and will be back every time for the rest of the run. “Hercules is my second-favorite,” he says. “Behind Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (Another Disney movie that never made it to Broadway, but had a short run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Greg saw it, naturally.) A Public Works regular, Greg used to be among those who camped out for tickets. He says he preferred the old system because even though “you had to work for it,” there was still a way to guarantee yourself a seat.
April, an actress who is friends with Greg, tells me she’s “planning to lose.” This is the only night she can put her name in, and she’s trying not to get her hopes up. I talk with three more young women — Ally, Christine, and Marisa — who all work in the arts, too. Ally, who is in film PR, is jetting off to Toronto for TIFF this week. She’s optimistic the show will transfer to Broadway down the road, so she’s not too worried. (Those involved with the show have said there are currently no plans for a larger run.) There’s ample excitement in the air. A story about a family of four — each entrant can win up to two tickets — winning on Sunday night makes its way through the crowd. One of the kids, a little girl, was apparently dressed in a full Megara costume. I secretly hope the lottery was rigged just for them.
“I brought my Klonopin,” a man named Michael, who has also entered the lottery every night thus far, tells me. I’ve joined him and some friends after overhearing someone loudly say, “Well that’s the thing about Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.” (Two of them met in a middle-school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.) Michael explains his theory while we wait: “There are three categories of ALW musicals,” he says. The ones you see for the star in the lead: Evita. The ones you can understand even if you don’t really speak the language: Starlight Express. “And then … and then there is Cats.” A Public employee on a megaphone announces things are about to get underway. “Who put the glad in gladiator,” he shouts. “HERCULES,” the crowd replies.
There are roughly 800 people gathered in the park, waiting with bated breath to hear their number called. People will do crazy things when they’re in love … with an iconic, gospel-backed movie musical. Over the course of the night — I lost count of exactly how many as the lottery went on for nearly an hour — the megaphone man gives away several hundred tickets. Which means my odds of winning while standing outside are likely better than they were online. (The Public did not respond to prior request for comment on the digital lottery entries.) Monday’s daytime weather of ominous skies and thunder are also an advantage here, since it appears that more people who won the digital lottery decided to bail on their tickets. Or, at least, this is what the standby veterans tell me. They’ve started to recognize each other.
It’s a tense but joyful hour. I watch as Tess (not her real name), a woman who earlier told me she’d “definitely flash my tits [for a ticket] … actually I’d probably have sex with somebody,” wins. Her clothes remain fully intact. Marisa wins, too. So does Michael. People gasp, whoop, scream, and occasionally cry when they hear their numbers called. There are miniature heartbreaks when numbers are misheard. The Public Theater does a great job organizing the chaos. Staffers dash the hundred yards or so between the meadow and the theater to bring more tickets as they become available, in a move reminiscent of the running of the interns when the Supreme Court makes its rulings. (Hercules tickets being, clearly, of equal importance.) When the staffers arrive with more tickets, we all cheer. Our hope extends a little longer with each new pair that might become ours.
By the time the final numbers are called, it’s dark out. People are sitting on the damp grass, looking much more weary than when we started. My own personal torture involved hearing several numbers just before and after mine called, but never my own. I stop outside the theater with a few dozen other stragglers, listening to the audience cheer as the lottery crowd disperses. “We are the muses,” I hear clear as day over the walls, as the Greek chorus begins to sing the opening number, “Gospel Truth.” Even without the visual, my face is lightly melted by the riffing, “and thaaat’s the gooooospel TrUUUUUUUUUUuuuuuuUUUUth.” I’m a little misty.
I’ve got plans to try the lottery again later this week, but if it doesn’t work I’ll be bringing a picnic blanket and enjoying my own unofficial concert version of the show sitting in the park outside the Delacorte — a bootleg, low-budget version of an already free show. (Alan Menken and David Zippel wrote five new songs, and I simply must hear them!) As I walk away from the theater, I hear Pain and Panic, Hades’s minions, groveling and delivering a classic line to appease their fiery boss. “We are worms, worthless worms.” Same, guys. Same.
An earlier version of this story described the woman in the flower crown’s outfit as “Greco-Roman via Forever 21.” The woman in question reached out to inform Vulture, “THE TOP IS FROM ANTHROPOLOGIE I SWEAR.” Vulture regrets the error.