As a child, I loved the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I even had a stuffed animal of Djali the goat. For this reason I feel it is important to note that the musical adaptation, currently playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts near Los Angeles, is far from the Disney movie many of us remember. No, this version is much darker, and in fact based more on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name, while still featuring the songs from the animated feature.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s musical adaptation, which features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, has had an interesting road to where it is today. It was first produced by Walt Disney Theatrical in 1999 in Germany, under the name Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, becoming the company’s first musical to premiere internationally. Despite success overseas, it did not debut in the United States until late 2014, where it ran at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and later at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. A Broadway transfer was rumored, but upon the conclusion of the Paper Mill run, it was announced the musical would not be making its way to New York after all. The rights have since become available, allowing theaters like La Mirada to create their version. This specific staging originated earlier this year at the Sacramento Music Circus, with a few elements that make it different from previous iterations.
For those who may be unfamiliar, The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes place in the early 1500s and tells the story of Quasimodo, who is raised in the bell tower of Paris’s Notre Dame by Frollo (Mark Jacoby), the Minister of Justice. Quasimodo yearns to experience the world “out there,” but Frollo discourages this, telling him he will never be seen as anything more than a monster due to his deformities. This changes when Quasimodo sneaks out one day and ends up meeting a gypsy woman, Esmerelda (Cassie Simone), who later saves him from being tormented and beaten by the townspeople. They become friends and Quasimodo quickly develops romantic feelings towards her—as do both Frollo and Phoebus (Eric Kunze), the Captain of the Guard. When Frollo sentences Esmerelda to death, primarily as a means of coping with his own “impure” desires, Quasimodo and Phoebus must attempt to find a way to save her.
Notable about this production is that John McGinty, the actor who plays Quasimodo, is deaf. While McGinty acts, signs, and speaks most of his own dialogue, another actor, Dino Nicandros, accompanies him onstage and sings his songs, serving as Quasimodo’s “voice.” This set-up is very reminiscent of the phenomenal Deaf West Spring Awakening revival, which also featured deaf actors paired with singing performers. The difference here is that the production is not fully performed in sign language, although signing is used in specific instances, and McGinty is the only deaf or hard of hearing actor in the cast.
There is something heartbreakingly beautiful about the choice to cast a deaf actor as this particular character. Quasimodo struggles with discrimination and feeling like an outsider his entire life. By adding another way in which he is different from those around him, it really shines a light on his struggle and his status as an outcast, particularly in the time period depicted. It is also fantastic that La Mirada and other theaters are finally casting deaf actors in roles originated by hearing actors, and I cannot help but think the tremendous success of Deaf West has played a large role in what will hopefully become even more of a trend moving forward. In the musical, as in the movie, Quasimodo considers the gargoyles his closest friends and confidantes, and as a result, they are the only characters in the musical who speak to him in sign language. This directorial choice by Glenn Casale is such a smart one, and truly establishes the idea of the bell tower as Quasimodo’s sanctuary.
As I have come to expect from La Mirada, everything about this production was first rate. Stephen Gifford’s beautiful, sweeping set served as the perfect backdrop for the talented ensemble of actors, including an onstage choir that rounded out Menken’s rich melodies perfectly. The principal cast was exceptionally strong—Simone’s Esmerelda was confident and clear-voiced, Jacoby’s rendition of “Hellfire” brought down the house, and, of course, McGinty’s performance was incredibly moving and powerful, as were Nicandros’s vocals.
Like at every Disney musical, there were many children in the audience at the performance I attended. The website recommends the show for ages 12 and up, and I do not believe this warning should be taken lightly. While the songs and much of the plot are taken from the movie, the English adaptation of the stage musical features an ending that is much more akin to Hugo’s novel, and it is not a happy one. It can only be described as tragic, and you will not leave the theater feeling uplifted the way you might watching the end of the movie, where Quasimodo is accepted into society as a hero. For this reason, I understand why Disney Theatricals may have second-guessed bringing this one to Broadway—the tone is much darker than their typical fare, which may be off-putting to audiences seeking a family-friendly escape. It is disappointing, though, because this is truly quite a beautiful musical, and a risky one at that—but risks do not necessarily reliable ticket sales make.
As with most Disney adaptations, the music was a bit uneven, with the additional songs written for the stage registering as considerably less memorable than the iconic songs—and Hunchback doesn’t have iconic music on the same level as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King to begin with. The plot provided by the source material also comes across as clunky at times—some emotional arcs and relationships are feel skimmed over, and the fact that the entire plot hinges on literally every male character being completely beside themselves with lust for Esmerelda is a bit of a groan-inducer. Inherent flaws aside, Menken’s score is lush, the staging is excellent, and the emotions—even if they are predominantly sad ones—are deep.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through October 9th. Tickets for the remaining performances range from $20 to $70 and can be purchased here.