Heeeeeeeeey I drove eight hours down to La Jolla last Sunday to see the American stage premiere of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a bunch of people have asked me about it so I wrote this here blog post at 4:00 AM hooray.
This isn’t exactly a review, per se; more some semi-organized, tenuously-coherent thoughts about the show and the changes that have been made in this version. I’m coming at this as a huge fan of Disney’s various incarnations of Hunchback (the amount of collectibles I bought when the movie came out, you guys; you don’t even know). I have been especially obsessed with the 1999 German production ever since it first premiered and I had the CD shipped overseas to me, which was still a moderately fancy and difficult thing to do back then in the early, Wild West days of the interwebs. Man, I remember tracking down a plain-text version of the James Lapine script on a Geocities site and feeling like some kind of ninja superhero. Anyway. Literally been waiting half my life for this show to come to the US (as I tearfully told head of Disney Theatrical Tom Schumacher after the show, like a crazy person). So let’s get to the dissection!
(Oh, like, big ol’ spoilers and stuff. Obviously.)
Doing away with the idea of the gargoyles as specific characters. This is a dark adaptation — darker even, in some ways, than the German production — and very much grounded in reality. Three people bopping around in gargoyle costumes would have been seriously out of place. I about peed with glee when I opened my program to find that “A Guy Like You” had been cut. The ensemble standing in as the multitudinous voices of Quasi’s various stone and metal companions worked just as well as having Victor, Hugo, and Laverne (or Charles, Loni, and Antoine, depending on your version of choice) around.
“Hellfire” Minimal staging. No crazy effects. Nothing but Patrick Page’s tour-de-force Frollo, the orchestra, the massive freaking wall of sound provided by SACRA/PROFANA, and a big ol’ cross in the background. When the lights bumped to red while the last few bars blasted through the theatre, I legitimately almost passed out. Hands-down the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had watching a musical. And Lord knows I have watched A LOT of musicals.
The set. If I had to make one quibble — one solitary gripe — it’s that I wish it provided a wee bit more opportunity for Quasimodo to explore vertical space. Right now he can go up and down on the sides, but…I don’t know, I’m not a set designer, but something’s missing. It’s especially clear in “Out There” that Quasi needs more places to play; it would give the number the energy boost I think it’s currently lacking. But that’s a note for the next production, probably.
The thirty-two person on-stage choir. I honestly can’t even talk about it. So amazing. So rich. Everything this incredible score deserves.
The overall tone and emotional core of the show. This is such an affecting piece, and that all comes down to Disney giving it free-rein to be mature and adult and explore its characters and content in ways heretofore thought too risky. It’s a gamble that absolutely pays off, as I think that by the time this makes it to Broadway, it has the potential to be the first show with actual artistic integrity that Disney has produced in years. (No tea no shade, Disney, you know I love you.)
The ending. Thank you, production team. Thank you, thank you, thank you for keeping the German ending. And while I have some qualms with all the unnecessary extra stuff that’s been pulled in from the novel in other places in the script, the addition of “There lies all that I have ever loved” destroyed me. I’m getting weepy typing it. Ugh. All the feelings. I think response has been and will continue to be mixed in regards to the Quasi-ing of the cast at the end, but personally, I liked it. We are all both monsters and men.
WHAT KIND OF WORKS
Michael Arden’s vocal affectations as Quasi. So, background: In the novel, Quasimodo is deaf, and therefore has some trouble speaking. In the Disney movie, they did away with all that. In the German stage adaptation, however, they made a bit of a compromise: Quasi was on the monosyllabic side when conversing with real people, but expressed himself clearly and in the actor’s normal voice whenever talking to the gargoyles or singing. The La Jolla production has brought back the deafness (partially), and the speech impediments that come with it…however — and I don’t know if Arden was directed to do this, or chose to do it, or a combo of both — that affected character voice kind of sticks around when he’s singing. And it just…doesn’t really work. His spoken lines are stilted and simple, and therefore lend themselves to the lower, somewhat strained and eccentric sound Arden has created, but when he sings, the language is florid and the music calls for a brighter tone. I guess I’d like there to be a starker contrast between how he communicates in reality versus how he communicates to himself; right now it’s sort of muddy. But that’s honestly my only performance-related note. This cast is ON POINT. And Arden’s Quasimodo is heartbreaking. I can’t even discuss his public humiliation scene, unless I have a solid hour free after in which to look at kitten pictures to help me recover.
Esmeralda’s introduction. If I had my druthers, we’d still get a number introducing the gypsies and their plight before plunging into “Topsy Turvy”. Doesn’t necessarily have to be “Balancing Act” from the German production, but it would be nice to get a sense of Esmeralda as a person with her own wants and needs and problems for a second before relegating her to “the thing three of our four male leads simultaneously decide they either have to bang or die trying.” I do really like “Rhythm of the Tambourine”, though.
The practical, low-tech effects. I’m a sucker for tangibility. Projection screens and CGI leave me cold as can be. Give me things I know I can touch. That’s where the real magic lives. I put this in the “kind of works” category only because there are a couple of moments in the finale that don’t quite live up to the energy level the music has built. The molten lead, for example, needs to be punched up somehow; the first anemic bolt of cloth that emerged from the cauldron was kind of lame, and it was only when the huge sheet came down from the ceiling and covered the stage that I felt we were getting the payoff the moment deserved. Frollo’s death, too, needs to be more impressive somehow. Poor Patrick Page running backwards while screaming “damnation!!!” didn’t quite pack the wallop required.
The narration. I…am so on the fence about all this narration. Because there is A TON of it, most of which is nothing but superfluous descriptive details. Towards the end of the show, it starts to actively undermine dramatic moments by pulling the audience out of what’s happening. Just…show me, y’know? I’m sure you’re all lovely people, ensemble, but shut up for a minute and let the story happen. The leads have it foisted upon them a few times as well, and it often comes off as ridiculous. I mean, this is an actual thing that happens after Frollo loses his shit at Esmeralda in the cathedral and calls for Phoebus to remove her:
ESMERALDA: Esmeralda hastened down the tower steps as quickly as she could…
PHOEBUS: …and found the Captain climbing up for her.
ESMERALDA: The handsome captain led the gypsy girl back down…
PHOEBUS: …never once betraying the slight quickening of his heart, whose beat seemed to rise even with each descending step…
ESMERALDA: …matched by the gypsy’s own.
They say all this as they’re performing the actions, of course. And mind you, this is after Phoebus and Esmeralda have fought and then bonded a bit right after “God Help the Outcasts”. So do we really need twenty seconds of self-descriptive narration to make their growing mutual boners clear? I will argue that we do not.
The new “Bells of Notre Dame” First of all, I am all for giving Frollo some layers and shades of gray. I also could not be more stoked that they had the balls to make him a priest again (as he was in the novel; Disney made him a judge in the film because can you imagine the shit-storm from conservatives if they had made the morally-twisted villain in a “children’s” movie a religious leader? He then stayed a judge for Germany). But sweet baby Jesus, is this thing ever long, and it very much sets up Frollo as the main character. In fact, the whole script puts so much emphasis on Frollo that giving Quasimodo the final bow at the end of the night actually felt weird and incorrect. This isn’t an easy fix, though. Now that Frollo is archdeacon of Notre Dame, the whole “chasing down a gypsy woman” focus of the original prologue wouldn’t make any sense (pretty sure priests back then didn’t spend their evenings galloping around on horseback arresting people), but the original novel’s approach — Quasimodo is abandoned at the church anonymously, and Frollo takes him in ’cause, y’know, what else was there to do before TV? — isn’t exciting enough for an opening number. So. Not sure what to do here. All I know is that while sitting through the eight solid minutes before we find out what any of this backstory has to do with our titular character, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this show might be better off under the novel’s original title, Notre Dame de Paris. Or, like, maybe just Hello, Frollo!
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Clopin. Not the actor, mind you, just the character as written. Now that the entire ensemble collectively shoulders the burden of narrating the piece, Clopin has been…kind of neutered. He’s not nearly as mercurial and mysterious as he was in the film, and that’s to the detriment of the piece overall. Since we no longer have the three specific gargoyles providing levity and a hint of (for lack of a better word) magic, I feel like the responsibility of those things should fall to Clopin. Give him the bulk of the narration, give him back his Paul Kandel-esque craziness, give him back his flamboyance, give him back his bonkers high note at the end of “The Bells of Notre Dame”, because as things stand right now, he is 100% negligible to the piece as a whole.
“Flight Into Egypt” Look, the visual gimmick of the song is fun, but this is such a weird way to start Act II. We’ve just come off of the Wagnerian bombast of “Esmeralda” at the end of Act I, followed by a big, gorgeous choral Entr’acte, and then we get a jokey fluff bit with a beheaded saint? Plus, it adds nothing new to the story. Quasi decides at the end that he’s going to go and help Esmeralda, but right when the song finishes, she comes to him instead. The music is very pretty, but I say snippety snip snip. We need something more bracing here, along the lines of “City Under Siege“, the Act II opener in Berlin.
“Rest and Recreation (Reprise)” A lot of my qualms with the songs in Act II come from stuff being fixed when it wasn’t broken in the first place. “Out of Love” was a gorgeous piece with a lush melody and a few harmonic moments that still take my breath away, all while providing some growth for Quasimodo as he battles between his desire to help Esmeralda, his dislike of Phoebus, and his fear of disobeying Frollo again. This reprise, which has taken its place, is hokey, a bit clunky, and full of that aforementioned superfluously-descriptive narration. I can understand that with the addition of “In a Place of Miracles“, they were probably trying to avoid loading this act with ballads (while also hunting for some humor), but I would take “Out of Love” over the newly added “In a Place of Miracles” any day.
“The Court of Miracles” The tweaked melody was baffling. If it needs to be in, keep the brisk march version from the film, and find a way to up the energy. Also, remember in the song “Esmeralda” when Clopin pops in and rescues Esmeralda and Phoebus via smoke-bomb? Soooo…is he face-blind? Because that’s the only reason I can imagine for him trying to hang Phoebus now and being all “whaaaa?” when Esmeralda steps in to stop him. I’m just sayin’.
“In a Place of Miracles” So many Hunchback-lovers losing their collective minds over this song being put back in (it was proposed for the film, but didn’t make the cut). I wasn’t a fan. It’s pretty enough, but it’s too overtly pop in a score that had, up until this point, avoided that particular kind of sound. And the more I think about it, the more I’m realizing it’s kind of just “A Million Miles Away” from Aladdin‘s Broadway outing. In the continuing theme of this section, they should have stuck with what they had in Germany and kept the beautiful reprise of “Out of Love” interwoven with the reprise of “Heaven’s Light”.
STUFF I JUST MISS FROM THE GERMAN PRODUCTION BECAUSE I AM A PEDANT
Quasimodo joining in for a tiny bit of “God Help the Outcasts”. It was so pretty!
Drew Sarich. Even though I loved Michael Arden. I can’t choose! Like, can they just both play the role simultaneously? Thaaaaaanks.
Overall, this was an incredible, satisfying night of theatre, I wish I could drive down and see it every damn week, and I cannot wait to hear about how it evolves between now, opening at Paper Mill, and its eventual, inevitable Broadway production. It’s already in fantastic shape, but make a few more tweaks and it could be the best thing Disney’s ever done.
If I missed something you’re curious about, or you’d like me to elaborate on something, just drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer with all due speed.