Bells are ringing
Don’t look for Disney’s name in the title of the new musical version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” While the production includes some of the more well-known musical numbers by Alan Menken from Disney’s animated movie, it keeps to the original text’s more mature and darker themes. This is more sophisticated fare than you might expect from the folks who brought you “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan” on Broadway.
And for that reason, says Abigail Paxton, director of the local premiere of the show at Children’s Musical Theaterworks, she hopes that audiences will approach the material with open minds, both toward the idea that younger actors can handle darker material, and that powerful literature can be translated into musical theater without it becoming silly and frivolous.
“I think this a story that a lot of people need to know — and, let’s face it, not everyone is about to sit down with a 500-page novel to devour,” she says. “It’s Menken’s little musical masterpiece. The score is powerful and resonates alongside the plot to convey Victor Hugo’s work.”
The production, which features cast members ages 14-20, opens Friday, July 14, at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. I caught up with Paxton via email to talk about the show.
Q: I’ve been reading about the history of “Hunchback” as a musical, and it’s been through a number of variations, including a German-language version.
A: I was surprised to see just how many variations there were as well! I think Hugo’s presentation of love, justice, and “judging a book by its cover” (among others) cause audiences to be immediately reflective. At this point I’ve had innumerable conversations with cast and crew regarding how this material and these themes remain relevant. The ideas of self-reflection and relevance might prompt artists to generate a variation of the text that will speak to their current audience.
Q: Do you agree the show is darker than the typical Disney musical?
A: Absolutely. It’s obvious why “Disney’s” isn’t the precursor in the title, although the company does own the rights to the production. The themes are universal, but Hugo presented them for older audiences — this production respects the intentions of the author. Further, Disney made changes to the text specifically for the young viewers of the animated feature released in 1996. Some of these alterations for the film were not made in this musical.
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with the story, give us a brief rundown.
A: The musical begins as the bells of Notre Dame sound through the famed cathedral in fifteenth-century Paris. Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer who longs to be “Out There,” observes all of Paris reveling in the Feast of Fools. Held captive by his devious caretaker, the archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, he escapes for the day and joins the boisterous crowd, only to be treated cruelly by all but the beautiful gypsy, Esmeralda. Quasimodo isn’t the only one captivated by her free spirit, though – the handsome Captain Phoebus and Frollo are equally enthralled. As the three vie for her attention, Frollo embarks on a mission to destroy the gypsies – and it’s up to Quasimodo to save them all.
Q: Quasimodo is one of the great characters of literature. What insights have you gained about him directing this show?
A: I’ve never really directed a character like this before, and it has been difficult at times. My personal background is in English Literature; when I direct textual adaptations, I always strive to respect the author’s original works and present them as intended. It’s a little challenging here because Menken and Disney have taken their own liberties in constructing the musical. As I director I need to find balance and still respect and align with the book and score in addition to the novel.
In a recent conversation with the actor portraying this character (Ian Jones), he commented that Quasimodo is “beautifully innocent living in a corrupted world.” I had to agree. We’ve had to stop-and-go as a cast a number of times to really ensure that we are highlighting this component of of the character. The audience has to fall in love with Quasimodo and really care about what happens to him, so the ensemble needs to be on the same page and work together to elicit this mood from the audience. There is a reason he is the title character. The book does a wonderful job of presenting the theme of discrimination in a way that audiences can grasp and evaluate.
Q: Quasimodo is depicted as deaf as a result of ringing the bells of the cathedral. How is this depicted physically and psychologically in the show?
A: We learn this in a conversation with Esmerelda. One of my stage managers knows American Sign Language and has taught the actors a few words here and there that they utilize in performance. The actor portraying Quasimodo makes sure to always “listen” to other people by facing them head on. I told him he obviously doesn’t have to do that when communicating with the characters of his mind, like the statues and gargoyles.
There’s a great scene in Act Two when Quasimodo and Phoebus are searching for the gypsy hideout, “the Court of Miracles,” and Quasimodo hears the location and Phoebus cannot. As a team, we first assumed this was an error in the book until the revelation that Quasimodo has experienced a miracle when looking for the the Court of Miracles.
Q: Are you surprised this production never made it to Broadway?
A: It’s not intended for a young crowd and that can be a risk for a company that had to pull big name musicals like “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan” from the Great White Way. This musical is not written like a lot of showy, successful, Broadway musicals; the text is abstract and requires a stylistic, artistic aesthetic. Most notably, the material will be more successful in a small, packed house than a large one. The moral is powerful and strongest when it can fully consume each audience member— that’s hard to enforce 40 rows back. The best way to get this show to the masses, to best get the story’s purpose to the public, is to make it available to amateur theaters as soon as possible.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge as director?
A: Those who have worked with me in the past, or have seen my work, know that I love sequins and glitter. I’m a spectacle-focused director and designer. I like flash and sparkle! Unfortunately, my favored materials don’t really have a home on this stage with this book, so I have had to stretch myself to find spectacle in other ways.
Q: Tell us something “insider” about the show we’d never know otherwise.
A: I saw “Hamilton” in March. Prior to going, I could not get into the music at all. I did not understand the hype. Then I saw the production (in San Francisco) and absorbed everything about it like a little sponge. The foundation of the designs for this production are inspired by “Hamilton.” I liked that Lin-Manuel Miranda presented history on an open canvas and let the story do all the work. So our set is similar, our costumes are similar, and so on and so forth. If you walk into the theater and some of what you see reminds you of something else—that’s on purpose. We’re not relying on spectacle. The story and the characters have more to say this time around.
Also, our stained glass window is made out of vinyl, which helps us achieve maximum vibrancy with lighting!
Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
A: I have been directing for a little over five years, and this is my fourth year with CMT. I’m currently the theater-arts teacher at Buchanan High School. I love education and cultivating young talent. When I’m not directing, I really enjoy the technical theatre design specifically costumes.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away?
A: I hope Fresno can be impressed by the talent of the younger generation of performers. This score is challenging and to have young people on stage executing it with ease, alongside a young orchestra playing flawlessly, is a treat! Our vocal director, Daniel Hernandez, really stresses the complexity of the music to the cast, and they are so inspired to sing Menken’s score. If anything, head down to Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium for a night of fantastic music.
In Act Two, Esmerelda and Phoebus sing “Someday.” It’s a ballad, and I am often moved by the music even in rehearsal when the performance is stripped down. Though decades apart, Hugo, Menken and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) have collaborated to present a very, very current song. On some days, this number makes me sad, but most days it gives me hope. I want audiences to really listen to Esmerelda in this number and hear what she has to say. Although she lives 500 years in the past, what she struggles with remains relevant.
Q: Anything to add?
A: One of my favorite elements of this production is the inclusion of live orchestration. Children’s Musical Theaterworks Fresno has partnered with Dr. Randall Cornelison and University High School to produce a professional, live sound. Alan Menken’s score is complex and demanding. Not only do these students execute the music with precision, but the audience will be able to truly experience the music as the composer had envisioned.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 14, runs through July 23, Fresno Memorial Auditorium, 2425 Fresno St. $10-$22.
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