The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Let the Bells of Revision Ring

When a story from one medium is adapted to another, it offers many opportunities. Prominent among these opportunities is the change to fix or address problems in the first take on the story. Of course, some adaptations may find themselves with flaws of their own in their translation of a story. For instance, there was Disney’s animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On the one hand, it was a rather daring experiment on Disney’s part to adapt a more mature-oriented work like Victor Hugo’s novel into an animated musical. The score of the film was good and Judge Frollo remains one of the most interesting Disney villains as a result. However, the film was hampered by terrible comic relief and, in general, attempts to make the story more accessible for a family audience. In short, the result is something I would consider a noble if flawed experiment. Well, Disney has taken a second crack at adapting The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This time, it was adapted as a stage musical. This second chance proves to be the stronger one, crafted for more of an adult audience while still bringing some of the strengths of the Disney animated film.

Living within the bell tower of Notre Dame de Paris is a lonely and tragic figure. He is the bell ringer Quasimodo, a deformed man who has lived under the strict eye of the pious and cruel Archdeacon Claude Frollo. With only the statues and gargoyles of Notre Dame to keep him company, Quasimodo longs to leave those stone walls and see the outside world. One day, he decides to do just that and escapes to witness the Feast of Fools for himself. Though the many sights capture his attention, none get him quite as much as the beautiful and kind gypsy woman Esmeralda. Quasimodo is not the only one to fall for her, however. She also captures the attention of Phoebus, the new captain of the guard, and Archdeacon Frollo. While Quasimodo’s desire for Esmeralda stems from a pure need for love, Frollo’s desire is twisted by lust into obsession. A fracture grows between these two men, as Quasimodo does what he can to help Esmeralda while Frollo tears Paris apart in a desperate bid to find her and force her to be with him. It all leads to the answer of a classic riddle, one posed at the beginning of this story: what makes a monster and what makes a man?

As I mentioned before, one of the strengths of Disney’s animated take on this classic story was the musical score. With lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and music by Alan Menken, the pair conceived a score that works well in telling the tragic story of Quasimodo. From “The Bells of Notre Dame”, which masterfully works through the backstory of Frollo and Quasimodo, to “God Help the Outcasts”, Esmeralda’s plea to God for Him to help the less fortunate, the songs capture each moment of emotion with wonder. A good example of this fine craftmanship can be seen with the song “Hellfire”. Sung by Archdeacon Frollo, the song follows him as he grows frustrated by his conflict of lusting for Esmeralda yet seeking to expel the gypsys from Paris. It reaches a pitch, as he settles on his solution: force her to be with him, or burn her at the stake. It captures his refusal to accept responsibility for his own lust and growing obsession amid heavy intonations that recall a stern choir call. It is no wonder that the pair returned for the stage adaptation, though they did not simply bring the same score back. They made use of songs cut out from the animated film, along with crafting new material. The result is another great score, though it is not only their music that works so well with this musical.

In translating the animated film to stage, there was something recognized: they need not simply be bound to the family audience expectations that had shackled the animated film. Recognizing this, James Lapine wrote the book for the show making several changes. For one, he removed the trio of gargoyles who were present in the animated film. They had served as comedic relief, but frankly were one of the weakest parts of the animated film. In their place, he instead made the statues of Notre Dame the companions of Quasimodo. Heard only by Quasimodo, these statues of saints served as personifications of his thoughts and feelings. The show also makes the choice of going for a darker ending, rather than the more bittersweet ending of the animated film. This is a choice that works, capturing more of the poignancy and sadness of Victor Hugo’s original novel. In fact, there are plenty of moments that draw more inspiration from the original novel. That is a wise choice to make as part of embracing a more adult audience as their target. It means that there is a bolder mixture at work for this show. The story roots itself plenty in the masterful tale first told by Victor Hugo, while its music comes from the fine craftsmanship that Disney can bring. The result is a strong mixture that shows the benefits that can come from a second chance and a new adaptation.

Though the stage adaptation’s run has ended, an original cast recording soundtrack has new been released. It is worth a listen, to hear this classic story captured well in a new musical coat.

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