It was in the spring of 1997 that I came to Disneyland with a bunch of friends who were from out of town. In fact, my best friend and his wife were among the group. We were going to be having an adventure inside of the park. I didn’t see my friend all that often, since he had moved to Arizona so his trips were special. All of us came equipped with our Annual Passes. I didn’t pay for the expensive one as I was the typical starving college student. But I loved Disneyland and all things Disney so I loved having my pass. Having an annual pass meant that I didn’t have to have a panic attack if I didn’t make it to a particular ride on a particular day. I have seen some amazing things at Disneyland, all because I had an annual pass. And as we all had passes it made going a not to miss event, without any of the pressure a typical trip to Disneyland would engender. This particular trip with friends was memorable for one reason. My friend and the group that came with them wanted to go see The Hunchback of Notre Dame : Festival of Fools.
Now, I love all things Disney, as I have said. But after being disappointed when I watched the previous Disney film, Pocahontas, I was not excited to watch Disney do a watered down version of a classic novel. Watching the show at Disneyland didn’t excite me either. I love watching shows done at Disneyland, but this was not on my “to do” list for the day. My friends insisted and would prevail upon me to go. So when I got into the Thunder Ranch area and was seated at the theater in the round for the performance, I am sure the look on my face was less than pleasant. (Can we say sour? Yes. I think we can.) I hadn’t wanted to go. My initial thoughts couldn’t have been more wrong.
All it took was a few bars sung by the person who was playing Clopin and they hooked me. (To this day I would love to know who performed the character. He had a set of pipes to die for.) The music was stirring. The performances, despite being a bit silly were a lot of fun. And the theater in the round only added to the festive nature of the performances. Who doesn’t like seeing the characters come down off the stage and into the audience to interact? (I see you mister stodgy theater guy in the shirt up there on the left. I see you.) Disney swept us away in a beautiful mixture of colors, sounds and drama. I knew I had to see the movie now.
Unfortunately, the movie failed to live up to the high expectations I had after watching the show. The music was still stirring. There was just something that was missing. Thankfully, I could keep going back to that show. I could have kept going back to it forever . . . or at least as long as Aladdin ran in California Adventure. Disney closed it down the next year. As I was transferring colleges and busy all the time, I didn’t think too much about what I would be missing. But when I came back into town, I felt a pain in my soul every time I walked past that unused area.
When my daughter was born and started coming to Disneyland with my ex and I, we were happy that she was excited by all things Disney as we were. Stage shows were things she loved the most. My ex and I would try to explain to her about the amazing stage shows of the past, and we would always wind up talking about The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the best we could do is show her less than stellar YouTube video that was filmed by someone’s video camera. It was like showing her the Zapruder film, without death. (OK. Maybe Frollo does die. But no one is sad by the fact.) We just could not convey what it was like.
But in the spring of 2016, when I took a look at the Theater Calendar for the La Mirada Theater, in California, and saw that they were going to be playing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in the fall of that year, my eyes lit up. Could this be the musical of my youth? It wasn’t going to be in the round, but was it going to be the same Disney music. And then I saw Alan Menken’s name on the playbill and my jaw dropped. I had to take my daughter to see the play. I didn’t care what I was going to have to do to make it happen. Beg, borrow, cheat or steal, we were going.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – The Musical : A Review
The following is my review of the play.
As we took our seats, The Hunchback of Notre Dame lit up across in bold yellow letters plastered over a brown screen. My daughter and I set in eager anticipation of the show about to begin. It would be an understatement for me to tell you that I nervously anticipated being able to watch the performance. I was finally going to be able to show to my daughter what I had been excited about all of those years ago, albeit, not in a theater in the round.
The production opens with a choral performance as wherever you may be watching the performance usually hires a professional choir to sing. The choir becomes an integral part of the presentation as the play moves along, adding an extra layer of beauty to the amazing music. They function as moral center and witnesses to the events we are about to behold.
With the music in the background, the congregants of the church at Notre Dame one by one discuss the story they are about to tell, one of beauty and intrigue. They function as the introduction that Clopin gives at the beginning of the movie. The congregants introduce us to the Frollos, Claude and Jehan. They are two brothers who have grown up under the auspices of the church at Notre Dame. One of them is pious and clamors for the favor of the church that he feels has taken him under its wing. The other is a ne’er do well who is appreciative of the churches beneficence but needs to be able to experience things outside the church to appreciate life.
This obvious split in personality leads to an eventually split in reality and Claude feels obliged to tell on his younger brother that he was keeping a woman in his quarters. The church would not extend grace to the brother for the things that they did under their roof, despite protestations from Claude. Jehan feels abandoned and takes off. Years go by as Claude Frollo improves his position in the church. At which point he ends up hearing from his brother. His brother Jehan is dying, but his dying wish is to have his brother Claude care for his child. This misshapen child Claude would eventually call Quasimodo.
At this point, with the intro to the story wrapped up, and the main body of the play is about to begin, the choir rejoins the congregants as they ask the question that resounds throughout the piece. What makes a monster and what makes a man? This is the key question for the play. Quasimodo will force us to confront this. And as we consider this question, one congregant steps out from the audience, puts on his hump, changes his attire, and marks up his face to let us know, he is Quasimodo. Whether he is the monster or he is the man, we are to discover.
From here the musical sticks pretty close to the original Disney script, with some minor twists and turns. There are no living gargoyles. Those are in Quasimodo’s head. Although he does talk to them. There is a brief sequence with a Saint from long ago, which was in no production of Hunchback that I had ever seen. A few extra songs run throughout the picture, all added by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. And finally, Esmeralda dies and goes to heaven. All of those are major changes. I would have left that last one out, but for the fact, this production sticks more closely to the ending of the book. And when you are taking your children, you have to know what you are getting into.
This version, for better or for worse, shows a darker vision of the characters. They retain the twisted nature of Frollo’s soul with the song “Hellfire.” Quasimodo has a major anthem in the musical called “Made of Stone” in which he wants to retreat from the twisted world of men that he had wanted to join but now regrets. There is a more heavy emphasis on the sexuality of the character of Esmeralda. Disney was straddling the line with the movie. But here they fully leap into this aspect of her character as they deal with her having to get paid, finding her in seedy establishments as she and other gypsies like her pursue money from the men of Paris. And finally, they have Esmeralda die, forcing Quasimodo to face a hard truth about life and about his master.
I think the play is brilliant. They took the amazing music and transformed the movie into so much more than what it was. Rather than have the gargoyles be real characters, making them part of what is going on in his head is perfect. When he did speak to the gargoyles there were not three that were main ones. They were a chorus that spoke with mixed voices to the Hunchback.
I also loved that the character of Quasimodo would speak in a way showing his deafness (He is deaf in the book), and then lose that way of speaking the minute he enters into song, so we know that we are seeing Quasimodo as he sees himself, beautiful. It was especially amazing the way they handled it at the performance we saw where John McGinty, a deaf actor, portrayed the role. In order to accomplish the change in song they then had one of the gargoyles (Dino Nicandros) do the singing. The pain, longing and heartbreak of the character palpably showed.
And I love that the way they began the play. It makes Frollo’s character that much more nuanced. We see that he has a genuine love for his brother. Changing Frollo into Quasimodo’s uncle changes the dynamic of the two characters. He is more of a father figure to him and less of an evil ogre dealing with Quasimodo only from and aura of piousness. So when he pursues Esmeralda, you see him for the human being he is. Yes he is a monster, but he is not all monster. He is a man who doesn’t know how to love.
Finally, making Esmeralda die, despite it being a bold choice to go away from the Disney movie, was the correct one. Making everything wrap up into a neat bow doesn’t leave us with questions about who is monster and who is man at the end. Having her live would have made Quasimodo’s actions tragic and comic. It lessens their impact, and makes Quasi silly. By having her die, the audience suffers with Quasimodo as he wrestles with the loss of everything, only to finally confront Frollo for the monster he is.
The great standards of the movie are there with pieces like “Hellfire,” “Out There,” and “God Help The Outcasts.” But with those great pieces there are some beautiful new ones that you will be singing along to like: “Esmeralda”; “The Rhythm of the Tambourine”; and “Made of Stone.” I watched two different productions, one in San Diego and one in La Mirada. Both of them displayed amazing set pieces beautifully constructed. Hunchback doesn’t have the special effects bonanza of the typical Disney Broadway fare. But each set I saw had its own ornate beauty to it.
Unfortunately, after three years in Germany and some amazing performances in San Diego and New Jersey, they decided not to move the production to Broadway. But they are now licensing it out to other theater troupes and I saw one such group in La Mirada. My daughter and I loved it so much that we saw it twice while it was playing there. They just finished a tour in Utah and Pittsburg. But there are performances coming up in Philadelphia and in Illinois. If you can make it to one of those at all I would. And if nothing else, pick up the soundtrack of the Musical on Amazon here. At least take a listen to it here and I promise you will want to purchase it. Nerdist has a little video snippet of the production of it here. It’s simply amazing.
But certainly go watch it if at all possible. Encourage your theaters to pick it up in your area. You will not regret it.
What Disney musicals have you been able to see? Which ones would you like to see? Which one’s did you want to see but were unable to when it was out? Be part of the conversation. And if you liked this review, follow my blog. Or please take a look at other posts such as my recommendations for top 10 Downtown Disney places. I look forward to hearing from you.
Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life