Classic tale of love and acceptance
Hugo’s ‘Hunchback’ imagined as a musical
In classic literature very few works have had as many liberties taken in adaptation as Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Since its first recognizable film, the 1923 silent version starring Lon Chaney, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has been continually watered-down in an effort to make the tale less somber.
In a surprising and radically un-Disney move, 2015’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame A New Musical,” is significantly darker and more gothic, restoring many weighty elements of Hugo’s novel. Next weekend MAPA Live! presents the Hawaii premiere.
In the silent film, Esmeralda the gypsy girl lives happily ever after escaping with her love, Pierre Gringoire. Quasimodo the hunchback rescues her from being sexually assaulted by Jehan Frollo, the evil brother of the saintly Archdeacon Claudio Frollo. While hurling Jehan to his death off the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo is stabbed in the back by Jehan and he, too, dies while ringing his beloved bells one final time. Nearly none of that is in the book.
In the more famous 1939 film starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, the novel is lightened even more. This time Jean Frollo, King Louis XI’s chief justice of Paris, seeks to kill Esmeralda for escaping execution, and again Quasimodo throws Frollo off the cathedral. She is pardoned by the King and united with Gringoire as a huge crowd cheers the happy ending. Quasimodo sees all this from high on the cathedral and sadly asks a gargoyle, “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?”
Hollywood has consistently refrained from insulting the Catholic Church, no more so than with the even lighter 1996 Disney animated feature, as all efforts were made to remove as many references to God as possible.
The Disney villain is Claude Frollo, a ruthless judge who has an intense hatred of gypsies and seeks to annihilate their entire race. Gringoire is replaced with Capt. Phoebus as Esmeralda’s love interest, killed by Frollo in the two previous versions. Esmeralda is condemned to hang in both films, but is rescued at the last minute when Quasimodo climbs down a rope from atop the cathedral.
In the Disney film, Esmeralda is to be burned at the stake, but is saved in similar manner. Enraged, Frollo attacks Quasimodo and both lose their balance, tumbling off Notre-Dame. Quasimodo, however, is then caught by Phoebus on a lower floor and saved. Quasimodo gives the couple his blessing to wed and they invite him to leave Notre-Dame as the people of Paris hail him a hero, finally accepting him into their society.
In Hugo’s original story, Archdeacon Claude Frollo is the depraved leader of Notre-Dame’s parish who viciously stabs Phoebus. Esmeralda is a 16-year-old girl with no feelings for Gringoire and very little for Quasimodo. Frollo’s lust for her causes him to renounce God and embrace black magic. Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda from the gallows, taking her into the cathedral crying “Sanctuary,” but Frollo returns her to the gallows. As Frollo laughs during Esmeralda’s hanging, Quasimodo pushes him to his death. Quasimodo then leaves Notre-Dame for the pauper’s cemetery. Here he lies clutching Esmeralda’s corpse, eventually dying of starvation. The story cuts to the present day as an excavation group exhumes both skeletons, now intertwined. When separated, their bones crumble to dust.
Hugo was a lover of architecture and one theme within “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” originally titled “Notre-Dame de Paris,” was to bring to light the value of gothic architecture, which was frequently neglected and often destroyed during his life. Hugo was upset that the Medieval stained-glass panels of Notre-Dame had been replaced in 1829 by white glass to let more light into the cathedral. He believed mankind could advance ideas from one era to another through art.
Although never substantiated, a hunchback stonemason was said to have been an employee of the cathedral in the diaries of Henry Sibson, a British sculptor who went to Paris to work on the restoration of Notre-Dame that same year. It is conceivable that the construction combined with this unknown hunchback may have been Hugo’s catalyst for this story.
A second theme in the novel is the cliche “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Esmeralda is doomed by her beauty and Quasimodo by his ugliness.
Danielle Mealani Delaunay, who plays Esmeralda in the MAPA Live! production, commented on that theme.
“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she said. “But Esmeralda has been through and seen so much in her gypsy life that I think she’s not put off by Quasimodo’s form. I see him beyond his appearance.”
“I wonder how much of that theme is experienced in real life,” mused David C. Johnston, director of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame The Musical.”
“Some only see the outside, some have a sense of fearing the other — only recognizing their differences without looking past stereotypes,” said Johnston.
“It’s a fear of people that aren’t like you,” added Delaunay.
“That exterior becomes like a wall,” said David Tuttle who plays Quasimodo.
I asked Johnston why this show was chosen as this year’s annual musical spectacle.
“The music,” he answered. “That’s when I knew we had found the right show, but there are many themes that are so relevant in this piece. That is one of the dynamics we look for when choosing the show. How does a piece speak to your audience?”
I asked him to share one of those themes.
“The immigration issue is one. The gypsies are outcasts — they’re unwanted and thought to be a source of trouble. Many want them purged from the city of Paris and that movement is led by some very powerful men and a powerful church — I’ll let you make the modern connection,” he joked.
Johnston referenced a song in the show, “Someday,” and asked Delaunay to quote the lyrics.
“Someday when we are wiser/ When the world is older/ When we have learned/ I pray someday we may yet/ Live to live and let live/ Someday life will be fairer/ Need will be rarer/ And greed will not pay,” shared Delaunay.
“She may not see that light of day but that’s all right. It’s a legacy of hope,” said Johnston. “It would be easy for Esmeralda to turn sour on humanity but she doesn’t, and Quasimodo doesn’t either.”
I asked Delaunay if her Esmeralda loves Quasimodo.
“Yes. There is a love there. Not a sexual love but it is a love that grows and it is real.”
“It’s a familial love,” added Tuttle. “There is tenderness there and he doesn’t know what to do with that.”
“They introduce each other to each other’s world. They’re best friends without benefits,” Johnston joked.
In contrast Frollo, played by Will Kimball, is consumed with lust. I asked Kimball if Frollo loves Esmeralda.
“I don’t know if he loves her as much as he loves the idea of her. She’s very unique in the pantheon of his experiences, there’s something different about her. I believe he truly loves Quasimodo though. He is fatherly and gentle — he wants to protect him.”
Kimball described his character as “extremely complicated.”
“He believes he’s doing right but struggles with the sin of lust, and Esmeralda is an object he wishes to possess,” he said.
I inquired about the magnitude of the set required for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“It was daunting at first,” shared Johnston. “I wanted a sense of height. So much of the story is seen from atop Notre-Dame. Taking that into account and creating something structurally safe for the actors evolved into the idea of scaffolding and I thought ‘that’s not very pretty.’ But gothic buildings like Notre-Dame are always in a state of repair. They’re never finished, so I said let’s use that.
“We’re never finished with our lives, there’s always more construction, which goes back to the idea of ‘Someday.’ There are perpetual repairs and remodeling, advancements and improvements to ourselves and our world. It’s almost parental — to leave something better for the next generation.”
* MAPA Live! presents “The Hunchback of Notre Dame A New Musical,” music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, based on the Victor Hugo novel, directed by David C. Johnston, choreographed by Andre Morissette and under the musical direction of Gary W. Leavitt.