The long-awaited American premiere of Disney’s musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is not a transplant of the film onto the stage, nor a forced, drawn-out adaptation of its source material. Director Scott Schwartz’s vision is an undeniably artistic one, as daring as it is ambitious, rivaling even Les Miserables in its sheer power and emotional impact.
One key element to achieving this, of course, is through its incredible score. Alan Menken’s Academy Award-nominated music is given the full treatment it demands onstage, with knockout vocalists in the lead roles and a powerful, omnipresent choir lurking in the shadows. Their constant presence seamlessly sweeps the score between the gloomy realities of medieval Paris and the glorious beauty of humanity.
Another key to the profound impact of this show is its jaw-dropping set design, a sheer marvel in itself. Deceptively simple, a grid of balconies and ladders, the show comes to spectacular life as the bells of Notre Dame descend from the ceiling, in arguably the most powerful moment in the show as Quasimodo takes his place as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
How he takes on this role is a metafictional puzzle all on its own. The story is framed as a company of players, taking on these characters through clearly visible theatrical transformation. The show’s opening number ends with a handsome young man disfiguring his face with dark makeup and tying on an artificial hump, as he becomes Quasimodo; in reverse, the show is bookended with him removing the hump and cleaning his face.
These choices are not, of course, purely narrative but wholly artistic and intellectual ones. Schwartz’s direction is masterful in its constant, but always meaningful, decisions of action and gesture. As clustered and busy as the stage may appear, every element is clearly a premeditated and important one. In one moment, atop the bell tower, Quasimodo is gripping the hands of his gargoyle companions as he limps over to Esmeralda – not only a logistical, theatrical necessity, but of course also symbolic of his reliance and support from his closest companions.
The entire piece is rich with this depth of meaning; granted, with so much swirling around, it’s easy to miss a few things (I completely missed two key characters’ appearance in the climax). In a way, though, the constant motion and sensation of getting lost in it all only enhances the musical. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an epic tale of epic ambition, not only worthy of its source material but enriching it even further.