Why has THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME never played Broadway?
As shown in Aubrey Berg’s recent stunning production at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, this musical is a most worthy one.
Peter Parnell’s book smartly defines its characters. Alan Menken’s music soars as high as a cathedral’s spires. Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics have the meticulous detail and craft that have been his hallmark for almost a half-century.
Have Broadway producers feared that HUNCHBACK would be unfavorably compared to the musical adaptation of another Victor Hugo work that has reveled in international success?
Do they worry that theatergoers will assume that this is the Disney film all over again with its all-too-cute gargoyles — and that Broadway can only support so many family shows?
In truth, this HUNCHBACK isn’t specifically aimed at teens or tweens. It’s a serious and sincere musical that’s out to reveal religious hypocrisy and explore appearance vs. reality.
The 1996 animated Disney film made Claude Frollo a judge who’d killed a Gypsy and was about to murder her hunchbacked child. One of his superiors then witnessed what was happening and “sentenced” Frollo to raise this Quasimodo.
That was quite a departure from what Hugo wrote in 1831. There Frollo happened upon a deformed child on the holy day known as Quasimodo Sunday. Parnell didn’t retain that, either, but he did include from Hugo’s text that Claude’s brother Jehan is as much of a rakehell as Claude is religious.
In Bryce Baxter’s beautifully nuanced performance, Claude Frollo started off intense but not autocratic; that unfortunate character flaw grew exponentially as he rose from mere seminarian to archdeacon.
Yet Parnell was careful to humanize Frollo by having Jehan offer Gypsy woman Florika to him. He’s clad in a cassock, but underneath it, Frollo is still a red-blooded man — and Florika knows it when she rubs her body against his: “I can feel it.”
(That should put to rest the idea that this musical is just the Disney film onstage.)
Parnell then makes the story his own. After Jehan and Florika have an illegitimate misshaped child, she dies of smallpox; before he does too he implores Frollo to care for the boy. Instead, Frollo comes close to killing the unfortunate infant – until he comes to his religious senses.
But Frollo will never love him. In fact, in an act of callousness, he names the lad Quasimodo – “half-formed,” according to Parnell (although other sources say “almost” is a better translation).
Frollo gave Quasimodo the job of Notre Dame’s bell ringer, which has made the hunchback hard of hearing. One disability isn’t enough? Must Frollo heap on another?
What’s worse, Frollo demands that his nephew refer to him as “Master,” which is hardly avuncular. Even now, when Quasimodo is a full-grown man, he minimizes him by calling him “a boy.” How awful, too, that he makes Quasimodo say “I am deformed; I, a monster; I am ugly” to ensure that he’ll never leave the cathedral. Frollo’s insistence that “a monster must be kept hidden” is actually for his benefit, not Quasimodo’s.
As the hunchback, the immensely talented Alex Stone climbed to the top of the stage’s scaffolding and matched his ascent with his powerful voice when singing “Out There.” That’s where Quasimodo longs to be – even for “just one day” where people may not be aware enough to appreciate “the gift it is to be them.”
Once Quasimodo leaves the cathedral, however, Frollo is proved right. At The Feast of Fools — the Parisians’ Once-a-Year Day – Quasimodo doesn’t realize that he’s being mocked when given a crown and made that day’s “king.” Only after he’s jeered at and has had fruit thrown at him does he realize what the townspeople truly think of him.
Alex Stone had such pain in his face when he decided “I’ll never go out again.” What a wistful look he gave the crown, remembering that short time when he’d enjoyed the attention, before he learned that he was being ridiculed.
Even before this happened, Quasimodo succumbed to a childish failing when he makes the cathedral’s gargoyles his imaginary friends. But how could this isolated soul not succumb to this immaturity? He constantly has them say aloud what he dares not say.
Berg staged the panorama with epic sweep while including important details. Case in point: Quasimodo, when starting to talk to Frollo, pulls over a stool on which we assume he’ll sit. No; he brings it for his master, who rests comfortably on it. Quasimodo then takes to the floor.
Some happiness will come into Quasimodo’s life thanks to the young Gypsy woman Esmerelda (beautifully played and sung by Jenny Mollet). The vulnerability she shows in “God Help the Outcasts” explains her empathy for Quasimodo, whom she even kisses on the cheek.
Quasimodo can’t believe his good fortune. He exclaims “I’ll ring the bells for her!” We’re so sorry for him that that’s all he has to give.
Frollo has a different take on Esmerelda. “She dances like the devil,” he snarls, hating her because Jehan loved a Gypsy; he all-too-easily blames that entire race for his brother’s ruination rather than make Jehan at all responsible.
So here’s another reason to dislike Frollo. “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” asks a Schwartz lyric. It’s a good question that HUNCHBACK answers.
Captain Phoebus (a platinum-voiced Frankie Thams) has a different take on Esmerelda: “She dances like an angel.”
When Frollo castigates Esmerelda because she dares to “dance in public without shame or modesty,” she hits right back with “I dance because I enjoy it.” Frollo offers to give Esmerelda “religious instruction” that will reform her. This street-smart lass sees that this “holy man” has more in mind. Her calling him on it makes him roar “Your soul is so unclean you can’t imagine goodness in others!”
What’s remarkable and certainly unexpected is that Frollo will eventually flat-out admit his lust for Esmerelda. In an inferior musical, he would have never come clean about his dirty mind.
She again rebuffs him, so he decides “It is my sacred duty to send this unholy demon back to hell.” When Esmerelda, helped by Phoebus, escapes his clutches, he commands soldiers to find them “if you have to burn down all of Paris.” Never mind devastating the city’s entire population; as long as he gets what he wants, he doesn’t care about the ramifications.
Such a megalomaniac may remind you of someone on the national stage right now. The 188-year-old story addresses other matters that also permeate in today’s news. In his very first speech to the people of Paris — one that Parnell wrote years ago, mind you – Frollo tells the crowd “Our streets will soon be filled with those unsavory elements: criminals, foreigners.” Similarly, many moons have passed since Schwartz gave him the lyric “Through borders porous as a sieve we let them come and let them live.”
Three graduates from the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music have in recent years played title roles on Broadway: Ashley Brown played Mary Poppins, Betsy Wolfe was Waitress and Christy Altomare still has a couple of weeks as Anastasia. Don’t be surprised if Stone, Baxter, Mollet and Thams do just as well in the years to come. Here’s to them all opening THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME on Broadway under Berg’s direction.