Bells Will Ring for the Latest Hunchback of Notre Dame

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Hunchback of Notre Dame

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

You have seen some play or movie version of Victor Hugo’s 1831 story The Hunchback of Notre Dame sometime in your life. There have been more than a dozen versions of it made for the movies, several plays and even an animated film (Disney, 1996). The story of the deformed but beloved hunchback, who ventures away from his safe bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral into the congested streets of 1482 Paris is a classic heroic and redemptive story.

It is a complex tale and difficult to stage. There are several love stories, a brother story, a big, big, world famous cathedral and, at the heart of it all, the very tricky role of the hunchback, who has to lumber across the stage all night and still be an admired and very emotional character.

The Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, New Jersey, has done it, and done it well in its musical version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, that opened last night. Book writer Peter Parnell and director Scott Schwartz have given the story a darker hue than the 1996 Disney film, substantially built up the character of Esmerelda, the gorgeous gypsy with whom just about everybody falls in love, and made all of the major characters deeper. They have added a lot of drama to the story, produced an impressive second act that carries the tale to an explosive finale and really underscored the role of the fabled hunchback, Quasimodo, made legend by actor Charles Laughton in the 1939 movie.

The new, revised musical, said to be headed towards Broadway, is a lustrous story that really brings the history of Paris in 1482 to life in all of its glory, and in all of its poverty and misery, too.

The story opens with a wonderful song, The Bells of Notre Dame (it ends with that tune, too) and the lyrics of the song tell you the story of the hunchback, a hideous child given to a deacon of Notre Dame at birth (his brother’s child), who raises him with loving care and warns him never to leave the safety of the cathedral.

The deacon is right; Quasimodo is jeered and hit with apples when he sneaks out and makes his appearance in downtown Paris. Esmerelda saves him and he is smitten with her. So is a just installed captain of the cathedral guard, Phoebus, a former soldier just back from the wars. So is the Deacon, Frollo, who propositions her and then later tells her that is she does not become his lover he will destroy her.

It is the ugly Quasimodo who must make all of the decisions and most of the rescues in the story, and in doing so he grows from a deformed freak into a brave man, a nobler man than any in Paris. He brilliantly carries out Hugo’s theme that many ugly men are good men and many handsome men are bad.

The music by veteran composer Alan Menken is very good. Parnell’s book is dramatic and reminds you of what a fine character Hugo created in Quasimodo nearly two hundred years ago, a man as vivid now as when the book was published.

The power of the story, and most credit, should be given to director Schwartz for the way that Esmerelda is transformed from a seemingly vapid gypsy girl into a bold woman fighting for her life and unwilling to give in to the Deacon, Frollo. It is Esmerelda who saves Quasimodo, Esmerelda who makes a good man out of Captain Phoebus and Esmerelda who stares down Frollo, again and again.

Ciara Renee is sensational as Esmerelda, whose beauty causes such trouble for just about everybody in Paris. Michael Arden has given new life to the character of the majestic Quasimodo. He moves about the stage, hands scraping the floor as he does, a deformed “menace” at the start. Soon, though, Arden brings him to life as a loving and concerned man who breaks away from the bell tower, the church and Frollo, and seeks his fortune, and loves, in the neighborhoods of Paris. At the end of the play, Arden stretches to his full height and Quasimodo ceases to be a monster and becomes a heroic figure.

Others in the play are just as good. Patrick Page is a completely immoral and evil Deacon Frollo and Andrew Samonsky is a good and highly admirable Captain Phoebus.

One wishes that book writer Parnell would have added a little bit more about the conditions in Paris, and France, in 1482, just a decade before Columbus set sail for the new world. The country had been in political strife with England for years, and both commerce and residential construction had boomed. There should have been some note that the Notre Dame Cathedral was over 300 years old already at the time of the play and provided some history of its lengthy construction.

The musical has some drawbacks. There is a chorus of people, a dozen or so, who are supposed to represent the cathedral’s “gargoyles” to whom Quasimodo goes for advice. It does not work. The first song of the second act, a long, dull religious number, should be cut, along with one or two other unneeded songs in the first act. The whole play could be trimmed by fifteen minutes or so. You should see something more of the cathedral, even if just stock film footage, on a screen and you do not. You do see the inside of it, and the bell tower, on stage, but more is needed.

Other than that, the play is a triumphant addition to the season at the Paper Mill, which has just scheduled an all history season for next year.

PRODUCTION; Produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse with special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Group, La Jolla Playhouse. Sets: Alexander Dodge, Costumes: Alejo Vietti, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Sound: Gareth Owen, Wig Design : Charles LaPointe, Fight Director: Steve Rankin The play is directed by Scott Schwartz and choreography is by Chase Brock. The play runs through April 5.

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