Monday, July 27, 2015

CAST RECORDING IN THE WORKS

Okay, so the bad news (terrible news) is that after successful seasons in San Diego and New Jersey, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will NOT be heading to Broadway. Why? I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine. From what I gathered, houses were full in both seasons, and the show was acclaimed by both critics and audiences alike.

But it's officially off the table for Broadway.

So what's next?

Well, for one, Alan Menken mentioned in an interview (where he expressed his disappointment at the show not playing to New York audiences) that it would soon be open to amateur companies willing to acquire the rights. This is veeeeeery good news for me. I have been wanting to play Quasimodo for over a decade, and my opportunity may have just got a whole lot closer! (I'd better get to practising that high C in "Made of Stone!")

But the other silver lining around this dark cloud is that the show is getting a cast recording CD that will be released this November. BroadwayWorld has all of the info here.

I can't wait to have a proper recording to crank up really loud! I'll be sure to put a post up on the blog once the CD is released.

Monday, March 16, 2015

PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE IS OPEN!

The next stage of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has officially begun. Now playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will hopefully be developing a legion of fans as devoted as those it collected in La Jolla.
 
CLICK HERE to see some interviews with the creative team and cast on opening night.

 
I was especially interested to hear Stephen Schwartz's comments about Disney's involvement and outlook on the project. I'm so glad everyone is happy with the direction the show has taken.

Good luck to everybody involved! I hope you get to Broadway soon, and then make a really quick hop over to Melbourne!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

REHEARSAL FOOTAGE

The Hunchback of Notre Dame heads towards Phase 2 as it prepares for its premiere in New Jersey!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

DER GLÖCKNER VON NOTRE DAME

This is quite naughty, but awesome at the same time! Here is a bootleg recording of Der Glöckner von Notre Dame with subtitles! Apparently an earlier version was taken down from YouTube, so who knows how long this is going to last. But for now, you can watch the whole show. ^_^

SPOILERS AHEAD!!

As the title implies, you are now in spoiler territory. If you plan to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame and you don't want the plot spoiled for you,
PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.

...
All good? Okay.

I'll just be randomly discussing elements of the plot and what I think of them. As I've mentioned in my earlier post, the show is not finished being tinkered with. There will still be changes before it hits New Jersey, and I daresay there will be even more changes after that.

Right from the beginning of the show, there is a major difference from previous versions. The "Bells of Notre Dame" song now details the life of Claude Frollo, and how he came to be Quasimodo's custodian. It begins with Claude and his brother Jehan. Now, Jehan was a character in the original novel, but his role was quite different. In this version, the two close brothers grow up together in Notre Dame with the intention of joining the clergy one day. Claude is studious and well-behaved, but Jehan has a bit of a wild side.

One night he brings a Gypsy girl back to their room. Claude is horrified! Not only a girl, but a Gypsy! His pristine conscience cannot abide this. When a priest hears noises and comes to investigate, Claude reveals the girl. This results in Jehan being expelled, and Claude does not see him for years.

The devout and pious Claude rises up the Catholic ranks until he becomes the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. One night he receives a letter from his brother. When he finds him, Jehan is on his deathbed. His Gypsy wife has died of the pox, and he will not be far behind. He only has one request: that Claude take his son and care for him. The baby is, of course, little misshapen Quasimodo. Claude tells Jehan that this baby is punishment for his sins.

Jehan dies and Claude whisks the baby away. Just as he is about to throw it into the river, he has a change of heart and decides to keep it locked away in the bell tower.

As you can see, immediately the character motivations in the story are entirely different. Quasimodo is actually Frollo's nephew. Frollo himself is not inherently evil like he was in the film. He is pious to a fault, but as he tells Quasimodo much later in the show, he genuinely loved his brother, and saw Quasimodo as his burden to bear for having Jehan expelled from Notre Dame.

When Phoebus comes to Paris, he is put in charge of cathedral security. This is an easy way to give him a similar relationship to Frollo, since he is no longer a judge. When Frollo approaches the French king for permission to arrest Esmeralda, he assigns his security staff (including Phoebus) to lead the hunt. Phoebus is reluctant about this, but Frollo tells him that it's the king's orders.

When Frollo sees Esmeralda dancing at the Festival of Fools, he is disgusted by her shamelessness but still finds himself somewhat intrigued. The two characters don't have the instant animosity they had in the previous versions. There is no shouting match across the town square. When Esmeralda enters Notre Dame, she doesn't do it to hide, she is merely trying to find Quasimodo to apologise to him. When Frollo sees her inside the church he is actually fairly polite. He calls her "my child" and tries to help her. Although he has no love for Gypsies, he sees something worth saving in her.

"Why can't you treat other people the way you would want to be treated yourself?" Esmeralda asks him. He is suddenly struck with a moment of clarity as he remembers Jesus saying almost the exact same thing. He offers to instruct her in the Gospels.

Later on, when she is up in the bell tower after Top of the World, Frollo finds her again and makes her an offer. She can stay in Notre Dame with him. You can almost see the excitement in Frollo's eyes. It is the first time he has had this kind of feeling for a woman before. And he is so self-righteous he sees her doing anything he says. So when she says, "I don't think that would be a good idea. I've seen the way you look at me," Frollo explodes with rage. "HOW DARE YOU!" he screams, and has Phoebus escort her out of the cathedral immediately.

Some nights later Phoebus and his friend Frederic visit a tavern and find Esmeralda dancing and singing with the other townsfolk. The soldier and the Gypsy share a passionate kiss, but she tells him she can't stay. Meanwhile Frollo, who has disguised himself and is wandering the streets to find Esmeralda, sees the whole thing.

Instead of a mill, it is a brothel that Frollo threatens to burn down.

The scene in the jail cell where Frollo comes to see Esmeralda after she has been captured is similar to the way it was in Berlin, but Frollo is much more vicious, grabbing at Esmeralda while she screams for help, calling him a demon. It's quite a disturbing scene, but in the end he uses Phoebus's life as leverage, just as he did in the Berlin version.

The way that the lead actor becomes Quasimodo is quite fantastic. As the opening song is reaching its conclusion, he enters from the back of the stage and sings, "What makes a monster and what makes a man?" The bundle that had been the baby is handed to him and he straps it on to his back. A shirt is laid over the top of his head, and he smears black lines across his face. Suddenly the actor has become the hunchback.

At the end of the show, after Esmeralda has died and Quasimodo steps out into the open, the ensemble approach him, draw black lines on their faces and contort their bodies into twisted forms as he faces the back and watches. All of a sudden he turns to face the audience and the marks on his face are magically gone! I got a big shock the first time I saw the show. On the second viewing I was watching for the trick. There's nothing complicated about it, but it's still a wonderful surprising effect.

I hope this hasn't spoiled the show for anyone, but I know there are some people out there who would love to know how the story now works.

Friday, November 28, 2014

THE NEW SOUNDTRACK

Since this is essentially "Version 3" of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, there have once again been some pretty major changes to the soundtrack. I'll post the changes here, but be warned, there may be spoilers ahead!

"THE BELLS OF NOTRE DAME"
Musically, much the same as it always has been, but the story within the song is now completely different. Instead of a Gypsy family being hunted down and a mother killed on the steps of the church, the show's opening now tells the story of Claude Frollo and his carefree brother Jehan. Frollo rises up the ranks of Notre Dame until he is Archdeacon, and he is eventually left to look after the misshapen baby whom he names Quasimodo.

"SANCTUARY"
The extended introduction to "Out There" that was written for Berlin is no longer in the show, although the "Sanctuary" melody and theme appears throughout the story.

"OUT THERE"
One of the only songs that has gone mostly unchanged throughout all versions.

REMOVED: "BALANCING ACT"
Esmeralda is no longer a newcomer to Paris, and so this introduction to the Gypsy lifestyle is no longer in the show.

"TOPSY TURVY"
The ongoing "Hurry Hurry" melody from the Berlin version is gone, and we now jump straight into the song like in the movie. Interestingly though, there are two other songs WITHIN "Topsy Turvy..."

"REST AND RECREATION"
Instead of taking up a separate scene, Phoebus and his friend Frederic come to Paris during the Festival of Fools and he sings his song after "Topsy Turvy" has already started.

"RHYTHM OF THE TAMBOURINE"
A brand new song which introduces the character of Esmeralda. (This is the first time she's seen in the show) She sings the song as she does her exotic dance at the festival. It's not a particularly memorable tune, but I like the way the song works.

"GOD HELP THE OUTCASTS"
It's much the same as the movie version. While Quasimodo is definitely on the stage watching Esmeralda sing, he no longer harmonizes with her, which is a bit of a shame.

"TOP OF THE WORLD"
The main melody is mostly the same, although there have been some lyric changes. The counter-melody though, which was written to be sung by the three gargoyles, is now quite different, since those characters no longer exist.

"THE TAVERN SONG" ("THAI MOL PIYAS")
This is actually a brand new scene, obviously set in a tavern. The Gypsies party hard through the night, and when Phoebus and Frederic come inside, the captain is quite happy to see Esmeralda there. Meanwhile, Frollo is secretly watching from a distance. This is a great rollicking pub song with a catchy and exotic sounding melody. This is my favourite of the new songs.

"HEAVEN'S LIGHT" / "HELLFIRE"
Mostly the same as before. Sadly, the incredibly lifting key-change in Berlin's version of "Hellfire" has been removed. Whether that is because of Patrick Page's vocal range, I'm not sure. I was disappointed though. It must be said, Page absolutely OWNS the song.

"ESMERALDA"
Mostly hits the same points as it did in Berlin, although some of the sections have been re-ordered or left out. In the second half of the song, it changes from "Hunt down the Gypsy Esmeralda" to "Hunt down the Gypsy and the soldier." I dunno, for some reason it doesn't seem as powerful as it used to. It also doesn't end on a major chord like before, strangely. Instead, its ending is pretty much identical to "Bells of Notre Dame."

"ENTR'ACTE"
A chance for the choir to take centre-stage. Beautiful harmonies!

REMOVED: "CITY UNDER SIEGE"
Since this was an ensemble number that didn't feature any of the main cast, it was removed. I did like the way it set up Act II, and I would like to see it come back in future productions.

REMOVED: "A GUY LIKE YOU"
No surprises here. It always was pretty ill-fitting, but since the three gargoyle characters are no longer part of the story, their song has been deleted with them.
 
"FLIGHT INTO EGYPT"
This is a weird one. It essentially takes the place of "A Guy Like You," but instead of Quasimodo being encouraged by his gargoyle friends, he is encouraged by the ghost of Saint Aphrodisius, who has unfortunately lost his head. There are some clever laugh-out-loud gags in this song, but I really wonder how relevant it is to the story. I think "City Under Siege," while much more serious, would be a better Act II opener. The song itself isn't too bad. The chord structure and harmonies remind me quite a bit of Menken's work in another show, King David.

REMOVED: "OUT OF LOVE"
Shame! "Out of Love" was one of my favourites of the songs introduced in Der Glöckner. With the change in character motivation (Phoebus and Quasimodo are essentially arguing over which one of them will save Esmeralda first) there's no longer any reason for Phoebus to convince Quasimodo to leave the bell tower. Instead, he sings a reprise of "Rest and Recreation." I like the way the new scene works, but I do miss the song. A part of it still lives on a little bit. The "In my life I've seen some things - cruelty and heartlessness" verse that Esmeralda sings earlier in the show is still there.

"THE COURT OF MIRACLES"
Now this is interesting! The song that they removed for Berlin, has made it back in! While most of the lyrics are the same (or similar) to the movie version, the melody is actually quite different, almost re-written from scratch, so although it's an old song, it does feel new. No more big Gypsy dance here.

"IN A PLACE OF MIRACLES"
My least-favourite of the new songs. It literally takes the place of the "Out of Love" reprise, and follows the exact same beats: Esmeralda and Phoebus declare their love while Quasimodo watches on and sadly sings a reprise of "Heaven's Light." Something about this song just strikes me as ill-fitting. Perhaps its the almost-pop-like rhythm of the chorus, perhaps it's the fact that to fit the song, "Heaven's Light" has to be sung quite fast. I don't know. I hope it gets replaced (or "Out of Love" gets reinstated) in future versions.

"SOMEDAY"
Mostly the same as it was in Berlin. Esmeralda and Phoebus sing it while they wait in the jail cell.

"MADE OF STONE"
Apart from some lyric changes (since the three specific gargoyles no longer exist) it's mostly arrived intact. The impressive soft-to-loud High-C ending note is now a full belt.

"FINALE ULTIMO"
Again, mostly the same as Berlin, with bits and pieces changed here and there. The song elements are more or less the same.

SPOILER-FREE WRITE-UP

Hello fellow Hunchbackers! Irvyne here. I'm thrilled to say that I managed to fly halfway across the planet to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the La Jolla Playhouse last week! Was it worth it? Absolutely! I'm going to do a spoiler-free write-up of my thoughts. If you have plans to see the production yourself, this is for you. For those of you who live too far away, I'll add some more spoiler-ific info later.

But first a quick summary of the trip. I only had one week in the U.S.A., so I made sure I filled it up as best I could! First was was Los Angeles. I did the usual Hollywood stuff, a bit of sightseeing here and there, and I also managed to see the new Disney film Big Hero 6, which was exciting because it doesn't come out in Australia until the end of the year! (Disney put on a really awesome show at the El Capitan theatre, laser-lights and everything!)
 
 
After that I caught the train down to Anaheim and spent a couple of days at Disneyland. It was great to finally get a chance to visit California Adventure. Although this was my third visit to Disneyland, I hadn't seen the second park before. (I also got to give Mickey Mouse a hug for his birthday!)


One really awesome thing they've got at California Adventure is the chance to have a specially-made picture drawn by a real Disney artist! I was stoked at the thought of taking home a memento of the trip. So of course, I got the artist to draw me Quasimodo! I'm going to have this framed in the next couple of weeks. So awesome.


With Disneyland all done, I took the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train south to San Diego. It was there, in the suburb of La Jolla, that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was being performed. I showed my foreign ignorance by pronouncing La Jolla exactly as it's spelled. Turns out it's actually pronounced "La Hoya." Weird Spanish thing. I suppose I was practically on the border of Mexico...

I saw the show twice (when you're travelling halfway around the world to see a show, you might as well see it twice, right?) and I'm really glad I did. Twice a week, the theatre's managing director organises an informal chat in the courtyard out the front. On the first night I visited, he was talking to two of the show's swings, Mary Joe Duggan and Christian Villanueva. (The show has a THIRD swing, Julian Decker, but he was otherwise occupied at the time... more on him later)

M.J. and Christian happily chatted about what the life of a swing is like and what their experience of being in the show was. It seems strange to me that there is only one female swing... I have no idea what they would do if more than one female cast member got horribly sick! M.J. covers EIGHT different tracks in the show, meaning she has to know eight different peoples' dialogue, harmonies, choreography and blocking. Christian covers four of the male parts. (For those not in-the-know, a "swing" is what you call an understudy's understudy. When a cast member fills in for an absent lead role, the swing fills in the understudy's part. So they have to know them all!)

So then, after buying up some merchandise, it was into the auditorium! The set is simple but wonderfully effective. As you can see in the photos and video from previous posts, the designers took elements of Notre Dame cathedral without ever trying to directly copy it. Hence, we have tall wooden platforms and staircases, the big rose window at the back, and the checkered marble floor. (An interesting side-note - I learned that the patterns within the marble floor are actually an exact replica of the tiles in Notre Dame!)

The production is staged in a very low-tech way, which may seem strange for a production by Disney, a company that has always led the way in technology and the "wow" factor. There is no automation in this show, meaning that none of the sets move on-and-off with hydraulics or computer-run technology. The set pieces that come in from the fly-tower are operated by hand, and the various set pieces are brought on and off stage by the cast themselves.

 (Please note this is not my picture. I nicked it from another blog. It's pretty close to where I was sitting though!)
It's kind of hard to explain without actually SEEING it, but the way the show is presented is an old traditional style of theatre, and it demands the audience's imagination and a sharp suspension of disbelief. This can sometimes work wonderfully in theatrical productions, and the audience can feel like a real participant in the story. If done wrong though, it can come across as cheap and pretentious. Thankfully, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is firmly in the former camp. I absolutely LOVE the way it's been staged, and I would go so far as to say it fits the musical better than the incredible automated cube stage from Berlin, which I saw 13 years ago. The new production has cast members narrating directly to the audience. They use simple props to represent much more elaborate set pieces. There are simple sound and colour cues to represent different characters. Nothing is really "whiz-bang" or "wow," the entire show takes place on the single set, but I was still absolutely captivated by the story and I never, NEVER felt short-changed or ripped-off. It may not have the gasp-factor of other Disney productions (including its Berlin forebear) but it's a style of show that comes across as original, clever and entirely fitting to the source material.

Director Scott Schwartz made a very conscious effort to put the focus firmly on the four lead characters. Anything else gets relegated to the background. This becomes especially true in the show's conclusion. Whereas in the film we saw a massive battle with crowds fighting the authorities to protect the cathedral, in this version we see very little of that, and the focus is kept on the leads and whatever THEY are doing at the time.

I'll mention the gargoyles, because I don't really see that as much of a spoiler. Victor, Hugo and Laverne (or - if you like - Charles, Antoine and Loni) are no more. Those characters are gone, and I'm sure there are many people who won't miss them. I actually quite liked their presence in the Berlin production, but I much prefer what's been done in this new version. Quasimodo still talks to the gargoyles. They are still his friends, and he still imagines that they talk back to him. But the gargoyles' voices are played by all of the ensemble members. Whenever they wear a simple grey tabard, they represent the voice of a gargoyle. A lovely little touch is that whenever a gargoyle is speaking to Quasimodo, they ring a little bell. It's an old theatre technique, and it's wonderful. Quasimodo still has his relationship with his gargoyle friends, but they don't have specific personalities, it's just like he's hearing voices coming from all over the bell tower. The only part of this I might want to change is the tabards themselves, which are very plain. I'm not sure what else they could do instead, perhaps wear a mask whenever they're being gargoyles? The tabards look a bit dull and cheap. The concept is fantastic though.

The tone of the show has continued the pattern towards a dark, adult story. In moving more and more towards the original Victor Hugo text, Frollo has been reinstated to his position as the archdeacon of Notre Dame. You might remember in the film and the Berlin production he had been made a judge, which was fine, but I can't tell you how much more powerful the story is with Frollo being the leader of the church. In fact, I'd say the revelation of this new version is the character of Frollo. Brilliantly played by Broadway veteran Patrick Page, Frollo is not just an evil and sinister brute, but we see his flaws, his uncertainties. At times he comes across as completely vulnerable. It is an outstanding performance by Page, and if this production heads to Broadway, I see awards in his future. His beautiful baritone stands alongside Tony Jay with its velveteen tones.

All of the other cast members were likewise fantastic. On the nights I saw the show, leading man Michael Arden was ill, and therefore I saw his understudy Julian Decker, who usually stands in as a male swing. Now, I can't compare the two, because I only saw Julian. But he was absolutely brilliant, and while I'm sure Mr. Arden plays the role wonderfully, Julian Decker WAS Quasimodo, and the audience adored him. One of the fun things about being at the theatre on your own is that you get to eavesdrop on peoples' conversations. I was constantly trying to gauge how people were enjoying it. And I heard many people talking about how amazing Quasimodo was, and that they couldn't believe this was just the understudy! Like in Berlin, Quasimodo talks with a twisted mouth and affected voice when he's speaking with Frollo, Esmeralda or any of the other characters. When he's singing or talking to his gargoyles though, his voice is completely unaffected. It was a nuanced, sympathetic and ultimately powerful performance by Mr. Decker. I was stoked to get my photo with him in the foyer after the second show I saw. I hope he gets to play the lead role many more times in the future.


Esmeralda was played by the young and beautiful Ciara Renée, who brought spunk and spice to the role, while also pulling at the audience's heartstrings when things go horribly wrong for Esmeralda. With Page, Decker and Renée leading the cast, I saw a Triple-A grade performance. The fourth member of the lead cast was Andrew Samonsky as Captain Phoebus. Samonsky also delivered a solid performance as the cocky and arrogant captain who faces an identity crisis when he falls in love with Esmeralda. It has to be said though, that Phoebus simply isn't as interesting a character as the other three, so he doesn't get the opportunity to stand out as much. He does get some good laughs, although Phoebus no longer has a beard, which makes the lines "I just shaved this morning" and "You missed a spot" not make much sense anymore...

 The character of Clopin is an interesting one. In the film and even moreso in the Berlin production he acted as narrator, becoming the audience's eyes into the story. This is no longer the case. Clopin is still in the story as much as he was before, but he no longer narrates... well, no more than anyone else, anyway. As I mentioned before, the narration job has now been spread across the entire cast. In some scenes various ensemble members tell the story as if they are reading it straight from the pages of a book. Since this device became a staple of the show, I suppose it was decided that Clopin simply didn't need to be a storyteller anymore. Hence, his part has been downsized somewhat, but it's still played with gusto by Erik Liberman.

The ensemble (who are called "the congregation") were uniformly excellent in their multiple characters. It's not a large cast (17 including the leads) but they are backed by an amazing 32-piece choir, who remain in their robes at the stage's rear throughout the entire duration of the show. The choir, an existing group called SACRA/PROFANA, brings a whole new level of sophistication and power to Alan Menken's stunning score. Now the main cast can concentrate on their characters, and all of the complex Latin chanting can be taken care of by the choir.

It must be said that the show has had a MAJOR rewrite by Peter Parnell. While there are still elements of the 1996 movie as well as James Lapine's 1999 script, the vast majority of the dialogue is entirely new. This is not like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King where you're basically watching the film on stage with some added songs. This is a whole new creation, based on the versions that came before it but forging its own daring path.

And daring it is. This is not (repeat: NOT) a show for children. Which probably explains why you won't find Disney's name on any of the marketing. I would not have it any other way though; this is a stage version of the classic novel. Nothing has been toned down or "Disneyfied." And I think audiences really appreciate that. There is a feeling of authenticity in its tone. A simple example is that the mill that Frollo asks Phoebus to burn down is now a brothel... A brothel where the madam recognises Phoebus straight away. There are many other little "adult" touches like that throughout the musical.

After my first viewing of the show, I had a half-hour tour which took me on-stage and behind-the-scenes. (You can book these in advance for $25, but they are limited to 16 people per performance) It was great to see how things worked, and exciting to get the opportunity to walk around on the stage.

After the second show, I hung around in the foyer and had some conversations with the cast. The La Jolla Playhouse doesn't have a "stage door;" the actors simply come down the staircase into the foyer, so they're easy to find. I mostly chatted to Patrick Page, Erik Liberman and Julian Decker, and they were very friendly and seemed genuinely interested in what I thought of the show, being someone that is clearly passionate enough to travel around the world just to see it!

So all up, I think Scott Schwartz and Peter Parnell have done an amazing job in bringing this production to life. It's like nothing Disney has produced before. It feels fresh, it feels bold, and best of all, the characters and the story are completely gripping. The audience didn't even hesitate on both nights I was there; as soon as the curtain call began, they leaped to their feet. They had been genuinely moved; emotionally invested in the story.

Although I know from my conversations with the cast that there are still changes ahead (there will be rewrites before the New Jersey season) I feel that they are definitely on to a good thing here. I wish everybody involved all the very best. I hope this show has a long and successful future, and I hope they bring it to Australia really soon!