“Sexual obsession” isn’t necessarily a phrase one expects to hear when discussing a Disney musical. But then, director Scott Schwartz’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, now at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, isn’t the typical Disney stage adaptation. “I like to refer to it as a love quadrangle, because it basically is,” he told EW over lunch recently. “It’s a show about sexual obsession and passion and love and both the redemptive power and the destructive power of love.”
This Hunchback is indeed based on the studio’s 1996 animated film, to which Scott has a familial connection: His father, Stephen Schwartz, was its lyricist. And while Scott felt at the time, “as a twentysomething, that they were pushing animation into more adult territory,” his production, with a book by Peter Parnell, is a more serious take on the source material—one that seeks to honor Victor Hugo’s novel and the psychological complexities of its characters, allowing for an ending that isn’t exactly kid-friendly. “He came with a very specific vision,” Stephen told EW. “I think that’s really what triggered this production.”
The show still features the elder Schwartz and Alan Menken’s songs, such as “The Bells of Notre Dame” and “Out There,” along with songs that weren’t in the film—some written for a previous stage musical incarnation, some all new. The score is buoyed by the presence of a standing choir on stage. Scott recalled being drawn to the Latin in the original Disney film, and that ecclesiatical chorus highlights what was once in the background.
Hunchback‘s stage life started years ago. The film was originally brought to the stage in 1999, when James Lapine adapted and directed a production—deemed “intimate yet massive” by Variety—in Berlin. This production—which uses some elements of the Berlin version, but is otherwise completely new—is a co-production between Paper Mill and the La Jolla Playhouse in California, where it ran last fall. And changes have been made on its way from California to Jersey.
Scott, who got involved with Hunchback about five years ago, has had three guiding principles: to produce a show for adults that remains “tonally loyal” to Hugo’s novel, to put the score “front and center,” and to allow complications to imbue the four main characters—the hunchback Quasimodo (Michael Arden), Quasimodo’s conflicted and villainous caregiver Frollo (Patrick Page), the soldier Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky), and the gypsy Esmeralda (Ciara Renée), the woman they all love.
Working on the piece for so long has given Stephen Schwartz, a deep understanding of the characters. “I really have gotten to know them,” he told EW. “Maybe more accurately I’ve been able to zero in on the places in myself where we correspond.” Frollo, in particular, has become less of a “two-dimensional, mustache twirling villain,” according to Menken. His backstory—and therefore the show’s opening number—is different; his brother, a character in the novel, has been brought back in to the show. And as in the novel, Frollo is Archdeacon rather than minister of justice.
“Nobody is all good and all bad,” Scott said. “Nobody is all light or all dark. Even the characters like Frollo, who do horrifying acts, there are moments where they are trying to be good and they’re trying to do their best. Even the characters who are the most heroic have moments of doubt, have moments of selfishness, have moments of anger.”
That subtle sensibility extends to the production as a whole. While the Berlin production was darker than the film, it was also a technological spectacle. Here, Scott’s philosophy has been to pare things down so much that, aside from the fact that the cast wears microphones, this production resembles one that could have taken place during Quasimodo’s time. Initially, Menken was skeptical: “What we did in Berlin was a gigantic production, which I loved,” he said. “I was afraid that in scaling it back it was going to lose some of its power, but it just gained a sense of balance that is amazing.”
Scott took cues from the dramas not of Hugo’s period, but of the period in which the story is set. “I was very inspired, and my design team were very inspired, by the medieval mystery plays and liturgical drama and Catholic services, which used storytelling to communicate messages,” Scott said. “We’ve kind of gone at it from that perspective: What in 1482 were the theatrical tools and devices available that people could use to gather to experience a story?”
The ensemble is deemed the “Congregation,” and its members narrate some of the action—drawing from the novel—and play a variety of characters, including, at times, gargoyles with whom Quasimodo converses. (The three vaudevillian gargoyles from the film have been removed entirely.) The set does not try to replicate the interior of Notre Dame or even the streets of Paris. It simply tries to evoke elements of Notre Dame: the cathedral’s rose window and marble floor; its jamb statues and pews. As Scott said, “It’s all the raw materials of the cathedral, and then we use those materials to tell the story.” And, yes, there are enormous bells that descend from the theater’s fly space to symbolize Quasimodo’s tower.
“One of the things the piece is about is perception. It’s about the way we look at the world; it’s about the way we look at ourselves; it’s about what we choose to present to the world and not and the things we can’t hide from the world,” Scott continued. “So the whole production, I think, focuses on that idea of perception and asking the audience to also use their imagination in telling this story and envisioning it.”
For now, plans for the show haven’t extended beyond the two regional productions at La Jolla and Paper Mill. “At this point, my hopes are to do the best production we can for Paper Mill and for the audience at Paper Mill,” Scott said. “I honestly don’t know what the future will hold for Hunchback of Notre Dame, and that’s okay.”
The Paper Mill production runs through April 5.