Monday, November 3, 2014


On my old website I wrote up a detailed description of the trip that my friend Andrew and I took to Berlin to see Der Glöckner von Notre Dame. It's amazing, re-reading it now, to realise that it's been 13 years since I saw the show! Anyway, here is the unabridged account of my trip for your reading pleasure...

My friends, I am ecstatic to report to you that I have, after all this time, indeed seen "Der Glöckner Notre Dame" on stage in Berlin! Before I begin, I would like to pre-warn readers that this section is long, and full of (potentially useless) information. With that said, I hope you will enjoy my memoirs of my trip around the world, that lead me straight to Potsdamer Platz to finally experience the show that I have been writing about for the last year or two. 
  PART ONE - The Lead-Up
Ever since we were young teenagers, my best buddy Andrew and I had planned to go on an overseas holiday together someday. Then, in the year 2000 we finally realised that the dream was a very real possibility. Andrew had finished his university course at the end of 2000, and I was due to finish in 2001. We realised that if I deferred my course for a year and we both worked hard at our part-time jobs during the year, we could afford to travel the world at the end of 2001. It eventuated. All year we were kept busy saving, all the while talking about all of the amazing places we would go and things we would see. Even though we were away for three months, the world is an incredibly large place. We were restricted as to what places we would have time to visit. There was one place that I simply refused to bypass though - Berlin. I suppose you can guess why. 

Meanwhile, throughout the year, I had been in touch with many people via e-mail, people who had somehow come across my website and felt the urge to write to me. A couple of them were cast members of the show itself, which was very exciting! The one I communicated with most, Seth Lerner, had actually left the show after 2 years of performances in the ensemble, as well as playing Quasimodo 9 times. He said that "cast members have been looking for some kind of cool web site about us since we opened. Always lamenting that, here we are, the largest, most expensive... and hardest to sing... musical EVER, and we have no cool web pages. So it was very nice to see yours." Cue warm fuzzy feelings. Throughout the year, as the holiday plans solidified, I kept in contact with Seth, and he said that if he was still in Berlin when I came, we'd meet and he'd introduce me to some cast members. (He also gave me a heck of a lot of backstage information, which I found absolutely fascinating - some I will post to the website, some I won't!) 
Once our dates had been finalised and we knew when we would be in Germany's capital, I jumped on the internet and began e-mailing Stella back and forth, negotiating how I would go about purchasing tickets. Due to a rather unfortunate incident on Broadway 4 years ago (I turned up on the doorstep of "The Lion King" and just expected there to be spare seats) I decided I should definitely pre-book. I must say, the Stella staff were very friendly and understanding in all their e-mails. They did seem a little baffled though, that some guy from Australia was so interested in coming all the way across the world to see this show. Eventually I ordered the tickets, and they were sent through the mail to my house... I didn't know what the mailing system is like between Germany and Australia, but through some kind of incident, the tickets never arrived. So I immediately went into panic mode. The Stella people assured me that there was nothing to worry about. I had my order number, and I was told that all I needed to do was show the people at the box office that number, and they would give me new tickets there. Phew! 

The plans for the holiday continued. The date drew closer and closer, and the time seemed to fly. Finally, we were ready. Backpacks on our backs, we made our way to Melbourne airport and flew an enormous distance... to New Zealand.

PART TWO - The Holiday
 Now, I'm not going to bore you with every detail of the places we went, but there was over 2 months of travelling before we actually got to Berlin, so I will touch on where we were in the lead-up. As mentioned, first stop was New Zealand. Two weeks there, buzzing round the country in a rental car, seeing the absolutely beautiful scenery. I'm not surprised that "Lord of the Rings" was filmed there. 
After that we went to Los Angeles, where we stayed in a hotel in West Hollywood. We both found L.A. a little creepy, but Disneyland was brilliant, as always. They were playing a live show there which I think was called "Animazement." It was really good! It took songs and scenes from "Little Mermaid," "Beauty & The Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Hercules" and combined them all together. My favourite part was when "Just Around The Riverbend," "Go The Distance" and "Out There" were all blended together, with the three characters singing simultaneously. 
In our L.A. leg, we took a Greyhound bus up to the Yosemite region and spent a week there. Absolutely beautiful country. It was so relaxing, and we stayed at such a cool place called the Yosemite Bug. Then we went back to L.A. and flew across the country to New York City. Anyone who has never been to N.Y.C. really should - it's a magical place, with such atmosphere. The Americans (and especially the New Yorkers) had become even more patriotic since the 11th of September, and everywhere we went, American flags were flying. While in New York, we saw the other two Disney shows that hadn't yet been to Australia, "The Lion King" and "Aida." The former was very clever, but unfortunately over the years I have read so much about it, there were very few surprises in store, and the majority of the script is a carbon-copy of the movie script. Don't get me wrong though, it was an amazing (and very original) spectacle, and I got goosebumps over and over again while watching it. Beautiful African music. The latter, Disney's newest stage musical, was very enjoyable, and very nicely staged. The story of "Aida" is a very powerful one, and the music, while entirely different from "Der Glöckner," is very catchy and singable. A little bit like "RENT," I thought. 
From New York, it was on to Merry Old England, the Mother Country. Both Andrew and I loved England. On one hand, it felt a bit like home. On the other hand, it was absolutely nothing like home. We went on a Stray bus tour around the U.K., which was so much fun - mainly full of Aussies, so we didn't feel too alien. 
After the U.K., we flew down to Holland (a very pretty, very foggy country) and then we caught the train to... wait for it... (drumroll) Berlin. 
PART THREE - The Theatre
As it turned out, Seth had left Germany by the time we got there, but he had left us a contact - Barbara Raunegger, another original cast member who had seen the site. I rang her number when we got to Berlin and she agreed to meet us at the stage door before the show. The day came. December the 6th. After a rather scary experience at the box office (a heap of people shouting at each other in German, a broken-down computer system and stressed staff who didn't speak much English) we finally got our voucher to get into the show, and at 6:30, wandered through the Stage Door to page Barbara. Imagine my face when she handed me a programme, signed by the entire cast! She took Andrew and I up to the cast and crew's cafeteria room and we sat and talked for a while. Not only was she really nice, but she and some other cast members (Karin Sang and Lachlan Youngberg among others) told us all kinds of incredible stories of the original workshops in New York, the awe of watching professionals like Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken at work, and what it's actually like to perform the same show day-in, day-out, month after month. Everyone in the production seems extremely close and friendly, which is great to see. It must make the working conditions so much nicer. 
After wishing the cast a great deal of leg-breaking, we were taken around the stage and backstage area by a member of the stage crew. My first impression was "Where's the set...?" When looking at the stage before a show, one can't help but notice how empty everything looks. There are no big set pieces in the wings, there are a few flies, but not a great deal, and there are no elaborate backdrops. Just a plain white backing, and a black, plain-looking stage. There are 6 wings though -- on either side of the stage, there are 3 levels where cast members can enter from. What this offered the show wasn't obvious until we actually saw it in action. I have written about the famous Cubes in the "Theatre" page, so I won't bother writing about them here. They looked pretty much as I expected them to. When at rest, it just looks as though the majority of the stage area is made of grates. We were also taken beneath the stage, which is huge! These cubes don't only move up, they also move down, and hence a lot of space is needed for them to lower. There's probably about as much space BENEATH the stage as ABOVE! The hydraulics system used to operate the cubes is mind-boggling! Looking at the technical aspect of it gave me a whole new reason as to why Disney is reluctant to tour this show. But I'll leave that for the "Rants" page. 
So after the tour, we wandered back around the front of the theatre (which, I must note, is a simply enormous, awesome-looking building) and walked around the foyer, feeling very smug. I almost felt like saying to some of the other people waiting, "Hey, guess where I'VE just been!" Finally we went into the auditorium, sat in our seats (middle of the 8th row - PERFECT view!) and prepared to be swept away.
PART FOUR - The Performance
Instantly, the unique wings were put to good use. The opening chants are performed by ensemble members, shrouded under hoods, standing in all 6 of the openings on the side of the stage. Then enters Clopin, an old peg-legged man, to tell his tale. 
I must say at once, that "Der Glöckner von Notre Dame" is a visual feast. That is the best way I can think to describe it. The very original structure of the stage and settings have been designed with one image in mind - what the audience will see. By having the stage as such a basic, blank canvas, the set can literally be made into whatever is needed. And the stage comes alive, thanks to the awesome lighting effects and the state-of-the-art projections. The projections are more stylistic than realistic. Don't expect to see a photo-realistic image of Notre Dame thrown on to the backdrop. Instead, we are shown what looks like old outlined paintings. When seen in still photos, I must admit, it looks rather unimpressive. But when you're in the audience watching the set transform itself while the projections are thrown all over the place, giving an amazing sense of place and space, it's a sight to behold. And there is often so much happening on stage at once (especially in songs such as "Topsy Turvy" and the "Finale") you often don't know where to look. By having the option of showing action right up at the top of the stage, as well as the bottom, as well as in the 6 wings, the entire stage area literally comes alive in every corner. It's truly a work of genius. I know that it's impossible to describe in written words. I'd had it described to me before, but I had no idea what it was really like until I saw it. Visually, this show is every bit as impressive as "The Lion King," but in a very different way. 

The performances from the actors were all very good, as far as I could tell. (Not that obvious when you don't speak the language) Aaron Paul played a shy, fearful Quasimodo, and Ruby Rosales was wonderful as the gutsy, oppressed gypsy Esmeralda. After the movie, I was very set in my ways in having a Tony Jay-style voice accompanying Frollo, and after listening to the C.D. I was a little concerned about Norbert Lamla. However, after seeing him in action, I can say he is absolutely brilliant in the part. He has a fantastic way of holding himself around the other characters, especially talking down to Phoebus, (Brad Spencer) and we also see his inner torment in "Hellfire." (A scene which, by the way, holds an amazing surprise. I won't tell you what it is, you'll just have to see it for yourself)

The gargoyles were good - I know it's debatable, but I thought they fit into the story much better in this version than in the film. They are still funny, but not silly. There is a difference. The person who stole the show though, Andrew and I both agreed, was Christopher Murray as Clopin. Wow, talk about changing a character for the stage! Clopin has a whole new attitude in this version, while still being the loud and outspoken jester that we all know him as. The crowd clearly loved him. Overall, this cast seemed magnificent to me. I commend them on the superb job they did.
I think one of the things that impressed me most about this show was that, unlike "The Lion King," the flow of it was largely unknown to me beforehand. I had read the English script, so I knew basically what they were saying, but the look of the scenes themselves was still largely a mystery. I mouthed the word "wow" so many times throughout the show. It is a true spectacle. I'd love to write about all the amazing visual effects, but I wouldn't want to spoil them for anyone else. Suffice to say that "Esmeralda," the finale of Act I, has a very impressive "falling-off-a-bridge" scene! And the scene that I held the most fear for, the pyre finale, worked magnificently.

The dance scenes were excellently choreographed, as was the show in general. It has to be, because if someone isn't where they should be at any given time, injuries could occur. The sound, apart from a couple of brief microphone drop-outs, was superb. The choral chanting really soared through the theatre, and the orchestra sounded top-notch.

After all that praise though, there were a couple of things that, while not necessarily disappointing, I expected a bit more from, mainly from a directoral point of view. Two songs come to mind, "Out There" and "Top of the World." Both of them are played on exactly the same set, with no major alterations of lighting or anything, just sung straight. Perhaps my memory of the movie's "Out There" is a bit vivid, where Quasimodo goes galloping along the rooftops of Notre Dame, and I know that couldn't be done on stage, but I just feel that SOMETHING more could have been done. Still, these are very minor gripes, and everyone involved in the show should feel so proud of themselves that they have helped create such an awesome spectacle.
So, do I recommend going to Berlin to see it...? That is largely up to you. Some people may find that watching a show in another language is hard and frustrating work, and may be put off by this factor. Personally, it didn't bother me much. It was just like watching a foreign film without the subtitles. There are scenes with a lot of talking and not much action, but it's not too difficult to get the general gist of what's going on. Obviously, if you don't live anywhere near Europe (like me) it's going to cost a lot of money to get there, so it may not be justifiable just for one show. Make sure, if you're putting a lot of effort in to go, that you get good seats. This way, the memory will stay clearer in your mind. The extra money will be worth it. If you are already going to Europe, or live in Europe, then you have no excuse. SEE THIS MUSICAL, it is groundbreaking, phenomenal, a feast for the eyes and ears, and has a very powerful message about freedom that, while being performed just by where the Berlin Wall once stood, has a whole new relevance. Bear in mind though, you only have until June 19th 2002 to see it, before it closes for good.
I give "Der Glöckner von Notre Dame" two big thumbs up! Thank you to everybody who made this visit a possibility!
January 2002

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