The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Musical
It might feel a little weird to talk about something I've only seen once many years ago, don’t you think? Can critics do this if their memory of it is still good enough? Usually, I see critics, especially myself, just critiquing anything they see or read immediately afterwards. But, I don’t know. Critiquing in general is about as subjective as art or writing. There’s no one way to go about it, I believe. But, maybe, if you critique something, you might express it differently and at a different pace than I would.
But that’s beside the point. To conclude The Screened Word’s Easter-themed month, I want to talk to you about a memorable experience I had back at the Tuacahn Amphitheater that still lingered on me, in a good way, ever since I saw it six years ago. This experience I speak of was the musical rendition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This review may seem like a joint review of both the musical as I saw it in Tuacahn and its soundtrack, but this feels like the most assured way I can share my thoughts on the musical.
Unless you’re familiar with it, the story should be instantly recognizable to you. The story, set in 1482 Paris, chronicled the life of Quasimodo, a deformed bell-ringer who was taken in by the Archdeacon, Claude Frollo, after his brother Jehan asked Frollo to watch over him as his dying wish. Frollo raised Quasimodo as if he was his son while still prohibiting him from going out into the real world because of his deformity. Then, one day, the long-awaited Feast of Fools had begun to commence, and Quasimodo, seeing this as an opportunity to explore the outside world, snuck out into town to have fun. That is to say, until he was exposed, crowned the King of Fools, and made into a social punching bag for the villagers. But then, his views of the world changed when he met the lovely gypsy girl, Esmeralda, who felt pity for him.
Meanwhile, Frollo, since he, too, attended the festival, also laid eyes on Esmeralda. Since then, Frollo’s inner yearnings for her, his devotion as a devout Catholic priest, and his confusion over the ideas of righteousness and sin all started taking a toll on his conscience. Ultimately, he felt that he had to resolve it two ways: either he had Esmeralda all to himself, or she would’ve burned to death on the stake for witchcraft, among other crimes.
Elsewhere, the captain of the guards, Phoebus, returned home from four years of war, anticipating some rest and relaxation from the horrors of war that he endured. But soon, he got into yet another trying predicament when he first laid eyes on Esmeralda and the progressively insane actions that Frollo had done in search of Esmeralda. Phoebus soon became tested as to where his boundaries lay, both as a soldier and as a human being, not only when he started developing feelings for Esmeralda but also when he ultimately turned his back on Frollo. For example, he refused to follow up on his orders when ordered to set fire to a brothel when its inhabitants refused to give Frollo information about Esmeralda.
Before I go into specifics about my experience watching this musical, here’s a brief history of it. Although it premiered just several years ago, it only did so here in America. As for when the musical itself came out, it actually premiered in Berlin back in 1999. Plenty of Berlin theaters considered having The Lion King premiere in Germany after its major success in America. However, after enduring complications with this arrangement, Disney on Broadway and the Berlin team decided to translate The Hunchback of Notre Dame onto the stage instead. Thus, Victor Hugo’s story’s life on stage was born.
This version of the musical was more like the Disney film than the book. Unlike the production I’ve seen, this production introduced Frollo as a Judge of Paris while the Archdeacon remained a separate character from Frollo. In addition, Quasimodo still had a trio of Gargoyles for friends, whose names were Antoine, Charles, and Loni (named after the actors who portrayed Quasimodo in film, I might add). Nonetheless, it ended similarly to the book, which I’ll get into here in the review soon. Despite not being familiar with the musical back then, it turned out to have been successful like The Lion King musical; it performed on stage for about three years, practically one of the longest that a German musical ever ran in its original run.
Thanks to La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, that musical finally found its American audiences starting in 2014. The Tuacahn Amphitheater was one of those theaters to take the reins with the musical.
The storyline in this production also felt more akin to Disney’s take on Hunchback than it did with the original Victor Hugo book. But let me tell you: not only did this feel even darker than the Disney film, but it felt more faithful to the Victor Hugo story than even the German production before it. This musical did a spectacular job of incorporating elements from both the Disney film and Hugo's story and meshing them together into this three-hour-long musical. It’s not like Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book, which, while doing a good job blending both the Disney film and the Rudyard Kipling book, didn’t adhere well to either of its core principles. Instead, this combination acknowledged both the movie and the book’s strengths and retold the story in a way where the best elements of both versions felt stronger out of cooperation. As a result, it felt juicier than the original novel but also more powerful than the Disney film. Having grown up with the Disney film for most of my life and read the book starting back in high school, this felt like a wild ride and a mind-blowing experience.
For starters, the beginning of the musical demonstrated how Claude Frollo learned how to be the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, as did his brother from the novel, Jehan. But, whereas Claude was more committed to priesthood duties, Jehan was more or less a party animal by comparison, constantly breaking the rules and going out with women, including a young gypsy with whom he fell in love. But because Jehan and the gypsy were so close, that’s when he had his son, Quasimodo, whom he entrusted to Claude as he died. Now, this felt like a genuinely artful liberty to take with both the novel and the Disney film, using elements from both sources to create something entirely new while still adhering to the DNA of its story and message.
I must also tell you about how it employed its moral, which was more like that of the Disney film. And it goes like this:
What makes a monster, and what makes a man?
Though the intent of its message and its applications to the characters were more evident in the movie, its applications in the musical felt more subdued. There were gray areas thrown about between the characters, as expressed by Frollo and especially the good guys. In this version, because of his devotion to Jehan and his wishes, Claude Frollo wanted to do what he could to watch over Quasimodo on his behalf, on top of also wrapping his head around his sexual desires for Esmeralda. Not to mention, he dealt with the same issues he did as a judge in the film while still being the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. So, this made the moral ambiguity more apparent.
In general, the characterizations of such characters as Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Phoebus felt the same as they were in the movie. Quasimodo was still the insecure 20-year-old man who had a twisted skeletal structure and was sometimes prone to ridicule because of his appearance. Esmeralda was still the ravishing young gypsy girl that captured Quasimodo’s heart and Frollo’s sexual cravings but still harbored a hidden outrage against Frollo and his methods and genocide against the gypsies. Phoebus was still a soldier who came home from the wars before deciding to do what was right after refusing to burn down an innocent bystander’s brothel. However, there were elements of Phoebus that were carried over from the book as well. For example, he stated in the beginning that he looked forward to wooing women the first chance he got, which was more in line with the Phoebus from the book, but not with as much egomania.
Besides Frollo, one other character that leaned far closer to his Hugonian roots was Clopin. In the film, he first appeared as a clown before revealing himself as the leader of the Court of Miracles, but with a sly demeanor. His position as their leader was more apparent here; while he didn’t refrain from being his clownish best at the Feast of Fools, the musical showcased how seriously he took his role within the Gypsy society, especially through his conversations with Esmeralda. To see how silly or committed he can be to his duties was just engaging to watch.
And, of all the characters to reappear in the musical from the movie, the Gargoyles also showed up here, just like in Berlin.
Do you remember what I said in my review of the movie and how I thought they were hit-and-miss as comic relief characters? And how I agreed that if they were imaginary friends, they would have lent Quasimodo another level of personal trauma, self-conflict, and psychosis while also throwing in some light-hearted elements to the story in the right way?
Well, guess what? That is precisely what they did here in the show. This time, the gargoyles weren’t limited to being just a trio of gargoyles. Instead, the gargoyles consisted of all the gargoyles and statues of the saints from atop the cathedral, including St. Aphrodisius. They’re diverse in their interactions with one another and Quasimodo, and above all else, they were Quasimodo’s imaginary friends instead of sentient beings. This added an excellent psychological roundness to Quasimodo as he struggled with his inner desires and conflicts, and the execution paid off big time.
Interestingly enough, one character I remember making an appearance here, and with a small but no less impactful role, was the then-king of France, Louis XI. He was riding a horse-drawn carriage in the musical when Frollo approached him about his persecutions for Esmeralda. And as soon as he told him about her ‘crimes,’ Louis gave him the approval to hunt down and incarcerate Esmeralda. It added another level of realism and tragedy to the piece. The search for Esmeralda no longer went forth just because Frollo wanted to see her put to justice; it went forth because King Louis XI himself approved of this manhunt. That made the forthcoming situations feel more frightening in their realism and proved how the motivations behind them could indeed vary. The only other medium in which he was present was in the book; he approved hunting down Esmeralda, too, but only during the middle of the Parisians’ uprising against Frollo. That’s another clever usage of elements from the book and embellishing them alongside those of the Disney film.
The actors? They all felt terrific. Of course, the actors could easily have differed depending on the musical’s production. But in Tuacahn’s production of the musical, the actors did a great job translating their characters on the stage with conviction. Julian Decker did an excellent job playing his part of Quasimodo, walking stiltedly and speaking choppily. For some reason, whenever he played Quasimodo, his portrayal carried slight resemblances to a special-needs kid. And yet, whenever Decker sang, he sang the lyrics with barely any interruptions, which somehow felt a little weird to me. I think part of it came from the idea that maybe he was singing what was going through his mind in a clear, linear fashion without letting his conditions block him, but...I don’t know. Though his acting and singing were great, these two different tones in speech and communication, despite the implications surrounding them, felt pretty jarring to me.
Summer Naomi felt terrific as Esmeralda. I remember her conveying her character with mystery and intrigue to her and even a mounting element of despair when it looked like Frollo had a tighter hold on her. Naomi also sounded nice whenever she sang, as she elaborated on her more tender elements and her more vulnerable aspects as she got closer to being in danger or even executed.
Aloysius Gigl as Dom Claude Frollo was not that bad an actor. He sounded gruffer, and nothing like the charismatic and slimy Frollo conveyed by Tony Jay in the Disney film. But Gigl still did a solid job portraying Frollo as a well-meaning individual with devotions to the Catholic faith, only to sound more brash and aggravated when he was more concerned about his pursuits for Esmeralda. Sometimes, he even conveyed the more sympathetic sides to him very modestly. So, that made him look like he knew how to take a character like Claude Frollo and make him more complex and interesting, a concept which I adore, anyway. It’s like watching Jeremy Irons’ Scar acting more like Gendo Ikari.
David Sattler as Phoebus de Martin felt...slightly generic. That’s not to say he didn’t do his character justice. On the contrary, he did a nice job portraying Phoebus as he went from being a cockeyed womanizer to a considerate man with righteous ideals. But his performance somehow did not feel like it was anything to write home about. Although, in the end, when he expressed his grief over Esmeralda’s death, I found it heartfelt and distressing. So, yeah, you can say that he did a good job, too.
Ernie Pruneda, as Clopin Trouillefou, truly felt like he applied a more multifaceted approach with Clopin. He started nicely by posing as one of the musical’s narrators. And, he generally excelled at flip-flopping between being upbeat and partygoing, like at the Feast of Fools, to expressing Clopin’s authority and inner considerations for the needs of his people as the leader of the gypsies. Even compared to Paul Kanden in the Disney film, this approach was enough to elevate Clopin’s character to a state where such varying levels of his personality made him more rounded than arguably any interpretation of the character before him.
One of the biggest things I remember about the Tuacahn Amphitheater was the special effects applied to its musicals. For example, Tarzan had the stage filling up with water to emulate the characters being out at sea, on top of acrobatic actors flying in from everywhere to demonstrate Tarzan and his gorilla herd’s climbing capabilities. Likewise, The Prince of Egypt had camels strutting along in the background to heighten our sense of feeling transported into Egypt, and it choreographed the illusions of spraying water to visually resemble the Red Sea splitting apart.
Despite not being as flashy as these two, The Hunchback of Notre Dame authenticated the experience also by throwing animal actors into the mix. For example, there were real horses pulling the horse-drawn carriage the actor playing Louis XI rode. And most importantly, a goat played the part of Esmeralda’s pet goat, Djali. I didn’t get a close look at him to see how he played Djali. I couldn’t even have told if he was coated a specific color to resemble him or his golden horns from the book. Probably not. But little touches such as these were one of the reasons why Tuacahn was such a captivating off-Broadway theater. Also, Djali was not present in any other production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So, it makes this rendition of the musical a far greater standout.
The set pieces were all lavishly laid out. As you can tell from this handsome self-portrait, the backdrop of the Notre Dame cathedral evoked a towering presence over 15th-century Paris, no matter where the characters wandered. Whether they were in the bell tower, downtown Paris, the Court of Miracles, a Parisian tavern, or even the dungeons, the backdrop of the cathedral, topped off with the arching red hills of the Padre Canyon, helped create an eclectic layout of Paris and how it functioned back in the day.
The songs? Man, they were still as magnificent, haunting, and glorious as they were in the Disney film! In fact, these are the same songwriters, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, coming back to take on Hunchback, and they felt like they had a blast whipping up plenty more new songs to spice up the now-three-hour-long story of Quasimodo. They included all but one of the songs from the movie, and thankfully, they all were the good ones.
Starting with Bells of Notre Dame, its opening crescendos rose from a low Latin chanting until it rose into a heavenly choir blazing out in all its glory. I even recall my mother saying she got goosebumps from this melodic introduction, it was so glorious. But it got better. Menken and Schwartz did a great job tweaking some of the songs from the movie and having them fit into the texture and structure of the musical. For example, with The Bells of Notre Dame, they expanded it to include the backstory of Frollo and Jehan as they grew up in Notre Dame until Jehan’s passing. In addition, the song had several reprises scattered throughout the musical, becoming something of a recurring theme.
One song that was reworked in this story, but became something far more tragic because of that, was the film’s deleted song, Someday. This time around, it was sung by Esmeralda with Phoebus as she awaited her execution. The way they both sang this song, they despairingly sulked in their discouragement over the prejudices and shortsighted convictions of the world around them. They hoped that some semblance of righteousness and understanding would put things at ease no matter when or how it would come. The song felt like the less cheerful equivalent of God Help the Outcasts before, but now it felt hopeful yet not very optimistic about its chances.
Although this song was unchanged, something about Out There left me feeling touched, enraptured, and almost moved to tears. Besides being awestruck by Decker’s performance of Out There, there’s something in his deliveries of the goings-on with the townspeople of Paris that felt like it contained a hidden wink to the audience. It felt as if Quasimodo was also stealthily referring to the world in which we wander outside of the theater, like in Ivins. I don’t know if that was the intention, but this detail made what was already one of my favorite Disney songs feel more magical for me.
I was also impressed by how the musical handled Quasimodo’s forlorn reprise of Heaven’s Light. In the film, he sang it in his mind as he watched Esmeralda and Phoebus kissing in the belltower. In the musical, Quasimodo sang it while he, Esmeralda, and Phoebus were in the Court of Miracles and sang As Long as There’s a Miracle, demonstrating a very effective back-and-forth between Esmeralda and Phoebus’ blossoming hopes and Quasimodo’s lovesick anguish.
Every other song from the film played out as they were from the movie, and all of them reverberating with the same much musical strengths. They included the original Heaven’s Light, Topsy Turvy, God Help the Outcasts, Court of Miracles, and especially Hellfire.
As for the new songs? Well, they all varied in carrying as much thematic and melodic prowess as the songs from the movie. However, they still did a terrific job of moving the story forward while displaying the artistry of Menken and Schwartz’s collaborative efforts. One song made for the musical that I thought was potent was ‘Made of Stone.’ Sung by Quasimodo while entrapped in the bell tower, Quasimodo frustratedly sang about how much more trouble he caused because of his involvement with Esmeralda and wished he was as made of stone as the gargoyles and his imaginary buddies. Of course, as his inner voice, the gargoyles tried to tell him that he should keep going until Quasimodo told them to just leave him alone. The concluding lines of the song resembled these lines said by the gargoyles from the movie:
Victor: After all, we’re only made out of stone.
Laverne: We just thought you were made of something stronger.
However, the gargoyles conveyed that through song and far more chillingly and lingeringly in the musical. The emphasis on the word ‘stronger’ would’ve left you with an abiding sense of rethinking realizations of Quasimodo’s capabilities in righting the wrongs. So, it was a good song with a haunting finish.
The next song I liked, Rhythm of the Tambourine, was sandwiched in-between the two halves of Topsy-Turvy and sung by Esmeralda as she danced in the Feast of Fools. I found it catchy, and it captured the seductive and expressive aspects of Esmeralda as she entranced all her googly-eyed male audience members. But it’s not just Esmeralda. Quasimodo, Frollo, and Pheobus all sang their intakes on Esmeralda, and each of them pertained to how each character felt about her at first sight, displaying conflicting emotions to compelling effect.
Another song that grew on me was the platonic duet between Quasimodo and Esmeralda, Top of the World. Sung mainly by Esmeralda as she and Quasimodo sat on top of the cathedral together to gaze at the world below them, the song conveyed the soothing effects of feeling some self-worth out of how small Paris looked beneath her feet. Meanwhile, the gargoyles urged Quasimodo through song to talk to Esmeralda as he sat with her, adding a layer of sweet fellowship to this already pretty and content song. I can’t help but suspect that this was the musical’s replacement for A Guy Like You. If so, then it worked very well.
And the other elements of the musical that are worth talking about here? I’m about to get into spoilers over those, so read at your own risk unless you’ve seen the musical.
The beginning of the climax played out similarly to how it did in the Disney film. Esmeralda was captured by Frollo and the guards and sentenced to die for witchcraft by being burned to the stake before Quasimodo swooped in to save her before engaging in an all-out brawl against Frollo and his henchmen, complete with waterfalls of molten lead. From there, however, the tone and narrative direction the musical took were lifted right out of the original book. Even though Quasimodo succeeded in rescuing Esmeralda before she burned on the stake, he was too late. When he approached her, Esmeralda thanked him for being such a good friend to her, and then she died due to smoke inhalation. Then, Frollo approached Quasimodo, trying to reassure him how they were now free of Esmeralda. But then Quasimodo snapped, straightened himself out - literally - and deliberately threw Frollo over the roof, watching him fall to his death. For the rest of the musical, it was just Quasimodo and Phoebus mournfully carrying Esmeralda’s body among the Parisian crowds. And then, Quasimodo, or rather, his actor, stepped forth to tell the audience that Quasimodo died with Esmeralda’s corpse several months after that, and his skeleton crumbled to dust when others attempted to disentangle him from Esmeralda. Exactly like in the book’s ending!
It’s one thing to compare and contrast between the musical, the Disney film, and especially the original novel on what elements the musical used or didn’t use. But they felt so cleverly utilized, and the general execution so profound and deeply heartfelt, that the musical excelled at telling its take on the classic story while honoring two of the most famous versions there ever were of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Comparing an ending like that of The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical with that of the movie is like comparing the two endings of Little Shop of Horrors or Neon Genesis Evangelion. The happy ending is pleasant and by no means terrible. But the other ending, though grimmer, felt so much better and felt so in tune with the darker and more tragic undertones of the rest of the story that you can’t help but look back on it with greater admiration and respect than you did before.
And about the message? The first one I mentioned was only one of the take-home messages when applied to the characters, which, as I said, made it even more thought-provoking and engaging. The other message can easily apply to the story, which it did more effectively than in the film. In it, because of the moral ambiguity of the musical, it got to a point where, contrary to what Quasimodo believed it to be before venturing out on his own to Paris, the world was not as civil and cordial as it can be and is generally ugly on the inside. Nonetheless, it is not without its elements of beauty, like what Quasimodo witnessed through Esmeralda. This twofold demonstration of the sins and virtues of life as we know it felt beautifully illustrated and demonstrated to us, for it felt precisely like the real world we live in. It may not have come from the book, but not only did this feel more like the adult equivalent of what the Disney film introduced with the story, but the results were such that you could imagine it pertaining to Victor Hugo’s life philosophies.
For that reason, though I have a soft spot for the original book, and though the animated film would remain one of my all-time favorite movies, this is probably one of my all-time favorite renditions of Victor Hugo’s story altogether.
So, yeah, that is all I remember...and slightly rediscovered...of Tuacahn’s presentation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on stage. Like many of the shows I’ve seen there, The Hunchback of Notre Dame embellished elements of the story that would not have worked in a regular stage play and imbued it into the fabric of the show, leaving behind a far more unique impression.
Better still, it is a magical adaptation of the classic story on its own. It did a great job of meshing together both the classic Victor Hugo novel and the Disney film, the set pieces were beautiful to gaze at, the actors were terrific, and the reunion of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz for this project had sown more musical gold from them. And the result was a genuinely compelling, tragic, yet beauteous retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, acted out with panache, conviction, elegance, and inner beauty.
Alan Menken was right about The Hunchback of Notre Dame's integrity as a musical; he and Stephen Schwartz may have knocked it out of the park in the animated film, but the musical was where its music and story truly blossomed.
The bells of Notre Dame rang true in this musical, and the equally glorious hills surrounding the Tuacahn Amphitheater had an admirable role to play in this, too.
A low A
Berliner Zeitung. (1998, March 20). Weltpremiere im Frühjahr 1999 am Potsdamer platz: "Der Glöckner von Notre Dame" Als musical. Berliner Zeitung. Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/weltpremiere-im-fruehjahr-1999-am-potsdamer-platz-der-gloeckner-von-notre-dame-als-musical-li.35730