Alone in the night

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (viewed last night at New Jersey’s Paper Mill) seems inevitably bound for Broadway. Because, as sure as all dogs go to heaven, all Disney properties beat a path to the Street. Now, the original form this musical took – a feature length cartoon (for adults, no less!) – is something I have quite a bit of fondness for. Few moviegoers can accept an animated drama filled with musical comedy conventions, but I’m one of the few: If I didn’t love it, who would?

Putting it on stage, though, robs it of the benefits of animation. This production has no color at all, and the outdoor scenes appear to be indoors, and barely lit. City of Lights? Not in 1482, I guess.

But more importantly, the animator’s palette has a wonderful way of telling a story through images, including various levels of abstraction. Two decades ago, songwriters Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz – probably the best composer and lyricist working today – sat down to create a terrifying moment for the villain. He’s a man of the cloth, consumed with lust. In the film, the magnificent number, Hellfire, is illustrated by, naturally, the fires of hell, but, within the swirling flames is a rendering of the sexy lust object, swiveling her hips. Did I mention that this flick is not for kids? It seemed to me at the time that the writers were trying to outdo Sondheim’s wisely-cut Sweeney Todd self-flagellation, Johanna Johanna, in which, at the climax, the ugly old guy literally climaxes (gross!). And they succeeded. But the success had a lot to do with the visual.

Alone on stage, we have Patrick Page, a very strong actor with formidable vocal gifts. He does a wonderful job with it, aided by a sound design that adds a bit of echo to all its cathedral scenes. But, it fails to land. We’ve nothing to look at, and the original concept for the song had everything to do with the accompanying reds and oranges. This needs to be a major dramatic moment, stirring and frightening but it fails to pack the requisite wallop.

The lyricist’s son, Scott Schwartz, is the director, and it’s clear he’s given some thought to the problem of finding a theatrical equivalent to the stuff animation does so easily. If he seems tied down by certain budgetary constraints, these clearly will be lifted when Disney injects money into a transfer to The Great White Way. Now, much of the cast wears religious robes much of the time. Movie critics derided the oh-so-Disney cute gargoyles, that like Cinderella’s mouce pals, are Quasimodo’s only friends. I was surprised to find the gargoyles still roam about, but they’re just people in robes. And they’ve lost their funny old-fashioned tuner tune, A Guy Like You. Here, they serve very little purpose. In the film, they added comedy and amplify the emotions of the poor little hunchback who thinks he has a chance with the girl. Was it overly cute? Or did it provide something to engage our feelings?

Of course, Menken and Schwartz came up with a good amount of new material and, if this show’s going to get fixed, a lot of attention needs to be focused on the bell-tower scene with Esmeralda. It’s her first time with a bird’s eye (gargoyle’s eye?) view of Paris, and that naturally stirs up some sort of excitement in her. She or the hunchback could conflate the breathtaking viewing with a sign of affection. As done here, it’s a missed opportunity. Quasimodo’s there but is hopelessly (and unhelpfully) inexpressive. If he has any sort of romantic soul, this is the time for him to let it out. Maybe his confinement to this tower has given him an unusual power of observation, and she’s charmed by his point of view. Maybe his stuttering his way through his first conversation with a woman is charming or disarming. It’s very important that we begin to root, from this scene forward, for these two pariahs to get together. Instead, it’s revealed he doesn’t hear very well and is practically unable to talk. She has reason to pity him, but no reason to love him, so we’re given no reason to buy into the possibility of them having a romance.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame relies on shorthand: we’re supposed to feel for the characters because of the situations, but we don’t. The show plays the pity card far too often: Pity the hunchback, so malformed a crowd throws fruit at his face, because it’s that ugly. Pity the gypsies, victims of racial bigotry. We’re even expected, I think, to pity the archbishop who’s not allowed, by his religion, to have lustful thoughts. Of course he loses our sympathy by so often offering Indecent Proposals – have sex with me and your lover won’t die; that sort of thing.

I swear I’m not making this sound any ickier than it is. This malformed musical presents unrelenting misery, unleavened by much joy, and it’s tiring rather than moving. If I’m not caring a whit about what happens next, I’m not likely to note wit in the lyrics. Or mellifluous tunes.

But they’re there. In spades. Alan Menken is the master tunesmith of our age, dressing up the simplest of musical ideas in devilishly attractive ways. Go down seven notes of the major scale in three-quarter time and you’ve got an amazingly catchy and stirring ballad. Build your I-want song on a two-note motif, a descending seventh, and it comes out gutsy and exciting. Stephen Schwartz effectively utilizes rhymes of individual syllables – if I were in their skin/I’d treasure every instant – and I don’t mind it when he’s a bit forced: merlot is paired with furlough and he makes Notre Dame rhyme with a bunch of things it really shouldn’t, like a beggar receiving an alm.

However, if they don’t fix all the botched emotions of the story, Notre Dame will end up rhyming with bomb.

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