I love me a good musical

I also love singing, if unprofessionally, and one of my favorite things to sing is Hunchback of Notre Dame, at least in the privacy of my own car. To the movie soundtrack, not the book. That would be weird

Anyone who reads anything I write knows I like Disney, but Hunchback sort of fell to the wayside when it was released. It came at the tail end of the Renaissance, moving into Disney’s more experimental phase. It didn’t really have the same kind of soul as the other films, the themes were for an older audience. Plus, there was the added controversy of the movies religious and sexual themes, so people were wary to bring their children to see the film.

Later in life, after finally getting to watch the movie, I tended to think the same thing. Not as good as its predecessors, but good in its own way and with its own heart that was charming. Say what you want about the story, but the music is spectacular, and they did an excellent job and making the music a mix of religious hymn and theater set pieces.

Fast forward to now, like many of the other 90s Disney films, Hunchback has its own stage adaptation. Like the films, no Disney adaptation has yet to live up to The Lion King Broadway show. It’s costumes, music, and puppetry really bring the movie to life on stage. Aladdin and The Little Mermaid have both had their own stage plays, but I haven’t really enjoyed them as much as The Lion King. Still, friends online told me I should give the Hunchback cast album a try, so how does it stack up

Weak Notes

If you don’t spoilers, stop reading and start listening to the album before I go on. The whole thing is up on YouTube if you don’t want to pay for it first (that’s how I listened to it the first time).

There are some major changes that happen to the story and some characters throughout the course of the performance, some we’ll get into more detail later. That has to happen, since the show is twice as long as a movie, some characters need some expansion and others really won’t work on stage. For one thing, the gargoyles are no longer their own characters. Instead, they represent the choir and the voice to the audience about what’s happening on the stage. It’s a great idea; although Victor, Hugo, and Laverne were good characters for the movie, for the most part, it would have changed the tone of the play to bring them on stage. They were the comedic aspects that helped children make it all the way through the movie, but a musical can usually expect an older audience that can pay attention for more than 10 minutes, so I thought it was a good change to make.

There are some new songs added, and I’ll be the first to say, the ones they added for Phoebus really suck. I’m sorry, he’s a great character in the movie and has some really great lines, which he mostly keeps in the play, but the ones that involve him tend to be boring. His song when entering the town is a total snooze and not very well sung. After that, he gets a little better, and the songs he shares with Esmeralda are a lot more interesting and evocative, but his own song is a bit of a let down. They could have tried to make it more funny or something, but him just singing about how he can’t wait to take some time off from fighting in the Crusades and what he plans to do is just a snore.

Another song about Quasimodo comparing himself to the Flight from Egypt is also a little slow, but it’s not as bad as Phoebus. You guys had one job, his character was already pretty amusing before. How does it get that boring?

The High Notes

And it’s boring because, in my opinion, the rest of the musical is so well done and fascinating that it seems like a let down to have his song fall short. The rest of the music is adapted well, even improved on, and the other added songs really help fill out the pieces of the story that the movie doesn’t get to address

See, in my humble and unprofessional opinion, Hunchback works infinitely better as a stage show than a movie. The material that’s being used is undoubtedly for a more mature audience with its themes of sex and desire, faith and religion. The movie tries to explore some of these things, but it’s mostly euphemism since you can’t expose the kids to too much.

On stage, however, you can have a sexy song in there. You don’t have to really hide what Frollo’s intentions are toward Esmeralda. What’s more, they can take some time and expand on Frollo’s character, making it more accurate to the version from the book. He actually becomes the Archdeacon on stage, which gives him control of the church. He his brother, from whom he receives Quasimodo, which gives him a more personal connection to the Hunchback himself, and a responsibility to try and save the soul of what he thinks is a monster to repent for not being able to save his own brother. An interesting dynamic, but too complicated for most kids to understand (and too boring. Where are the talking gargoyles?).

Speaking of Quasimodo, I really enjoyed the changes to him as well. In the film, although he looks pretty ugly in the way they animated him, his voice is normal and actually really nice to listen to. It helps kids understand right away that he isn’t someone to fear, even without looking at him. On stage, however, he acts more like perhaps someone who had those maladies might have. He has a noticeable hobble and has a lot of trouble speaking normally to people with a difficult speech impediment.

Yet when he sings, suddenly his voice is crisp and powerful. Only when he’s talking to characters does he have a speaking problem. When he’s alone with the gargoyles and singing, his voice is one of the best in the cast. It implies that what we’re seeing is his inner thoughts, which are strong and beautiful. In front of other people, he appears stupid, but in his own thoughts, he’s strong and courageous, thoughtful and gentle

That’s a pretty nuanced way of presenting the character, one that probably wouldn’t fly in Disney standards for their animated films. But on stage, with an older audience, you can grasp that nuance and deal with it. What’s more, although the gargoyles do speak at certain points, they only ever really speak to the audience and Quasimodo. He very blatantly states that he’s the only one who can speak to them. In the film, it’s more or less implied, since they stop moving whenever someone else is around. But it’s a kids movie, right? People just don’t believe hard enough to see them move, they’re not like Quasimodo. If the characters, like Quasimodo and the audience, had an open heart, then they could see the gargoyles move and talk too.

But here, it’s very clearly all in Quasimodo’s imagination. Which is very vivid, since many of the gargoyles speak, and many of them have great voices too, so it goes further to show just how internal his character is, and that he’s self aware. He knows the gargoyles speaking to him and giving him advice is a product of his loneliness, he knows they don’t actually move. But who else really is there? It’s not like anyone really cares if he talks to stone. Kind of a minor thing considering the massive hump on his back.

Painfully Accurate

Like I said before, the stage more closely mirrors the book. In the film, there’s a happily ever after kind of vibe going that Disney loves, everyone lives and it’s all great and people accept Quasimodo and it’s just all awesome and lovely.

For anyone who’s read the books, however, you know that’s not the case. On the stage, it’s no different, and it really packs a punch to the finale of the musical. Esmeralda does indeed die of smoke inhalation after a very moving song by Quasimodo arguing with the stone statues about whether he should save her or not. Even when he decides to, it’s already too late, and you get a very moving performance from his character trying to comprehend the loss.

Even more brutal, when Frollo attempts to console, he more or less admits that he’s never really cared for Quasimodo. Sure, he’s tried, as he said he would try, but he really misses his brother, and resents him for his weakness which would lead Frollo to carry the burden of responsibility for Quasimodo. That’s a pretty complicated emotion, so that definitely isn’t going into a Disney movie.

Here, it leads to the final confrontation between ward and master. In the film, Frollo is undone by his own hate for Quasimodo, and he himself falls from Notre Dame. Here, Quasimodo very explicitly grabs Frollo and throws him from the top of the tower in a very intimate killing, coaxed by the voices of the gargoyles telling him to kill him. It’s a chilling moment, and it really brings the whole thing together at the end. That’s not something the movie can offer, but it really makes the stage performance more powerful and fleshes out the characters. The show ends with a epilogue and Quasimodo shedding off his physical ailments and essentially ascending. In the book, a heartbroken Quasimodo crawls into Esmeralda’s tomb after killing Frollo, where he dies next to her. Years later, when they’re exhumed, the two skeletons are entwined together, and crumble to dust when they’re touched. The musical doesn’t outright say it, but it implies the same kind of ending, which was so powerful from the book.

The Verdict

Sorry Disney, you goofed. You would never know at the time, but rather than making a good movie, you’d make an even better foundation for a musical. Here we have all the adult themes in their brutal and sensual glory, and it really makes the experience that much better.

Buy the album (and check it out on YouTube, it’s kind of low quality but you can find the stage performance there). Listen to it, even the songs with Phoebus and you can decide whether or not his songs are good for yourself. Enjoy all the nuances and little things that make the show that much deeper. In a strange ands cruel twist, the show didn’t really see a big audience, meaning it staying in smaller theaters and isn’t getting a Broadway slot (the Hell?). But even still, the cast album is great, and the more people know about it and listen to it, who knows. With Disney on the Marvel train, negotiations are always open as long as there’s money involved. Although it’s been cast aside from many of the other Disney success, God definitely helped this outcast on the stage.