The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a tale popularised by the 1996 Disney film, appears in a darker than expected stage adaptation in Stuttgart. With strong performances and hauntingly beautiful music, this production demonstrates that the musical theatre spirit is alive and well in Germany.
In the opening moments, the grand knell of Notre Dame bells ring in the dimly lit theatre and the ensemble enter one by one in dark grey robes. In turn, they introduce our main characters and reveal an unexpected sombre backstory to the well-known tale. The cast are then joined by a full orchestra and choir to build and deliver this rich wall of sound. It was an unforgettable opening sequence which stands as one of the most arousing experiences I’ve had in the theatre.
I leapt at the chance to see Der Glöckner von Notre Dame in Stuttgart; the opportunity to see my favourite Disney musical delivered in one of my favourite languages, was a perfect combination I could not miss. I’m not yet a fluent speaker, however I understood enough to follow along. I spent most of the show marvelling out how beautiful the score was in German and how clever the translation was in maintaining the rhyme scheme without entirely compromising the meaning, often finding new ways to convey the same ideas.
In the musical, the Bell-Tower Ringer Quasimodo, has lived his entire life isolated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. When his guardian, Frollo, goes on an all-out attack on his friend Esmeralda and her Gypsy community, Quasimodo faces one of the biggest challenge of his life.
This adaptation is a marked departure from the Disney film and much closer to the novel, Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. It contains many of the well-known songs in the Alan Menken score such as Out There (Draußen) and the stirring number God Help the Outcasts (Hilf den Verstoss’nen). Although some of the songs from the film are gone, there have been some brilliant new additions such as On Top of the World (Fern von der Welt) and Someday (Einmal).
The plot changes darkened the tone which I’d say weakened it in parts but strengthened it in others. The important difference is that Quasimodo is no longer our central character and we’re given more of an insight into Frollo, our antagonist’s history which makes his character more compelling. Frollo is relentless in his pursuit of Esmeralda, much like Javert, the antagonist found in Victor Hugo’s other well-known novel – Les Miserables. Although Esmeralda’s crimes are not so clear, his conflicting thoughts between wanting her gone yet also his sexual desire for her are developed convincingly.
A further change is that the much beloved gargoyles in the Disney film and also the Narrator are gone. Instead, the ensemble narrates the show together and act as Quasimodo’s inner thoughts. This definitely made the show more of an ensemble piece, but I’m not sure how effective it was. At times, it felt similar to when school productions give students one line each at the end of year show so that their parents can see their little one take centre stage. It grew tiring quite quickly.
The staging as a whole was visually impressive and employed creative theatre-making techniques to recreate the fifteenth century world. One standout number, ‘Topsy Turvy Day’ which takes place during the Festival of Fools, was a jubilant spectacle and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ‘One Short Day’ number from Wicked.
In the show, a pertinent question asked of the audience is – What makes a monster and what makes a man? The actor, Jonas Hein, enters the stage as a man with simple clothing at the start. But as he puts on his costume, padding and smears black marks on his face, he physically transforms into Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, before our eyes. It was a simple yet powerful means to challenge us to think twice about how accurate our face-value perceptions of people are, and was an unsettling moment which has stayed with me since.
Disney Enterprises are adapting a number of their well-known films for the stage at an increasing pace with shows such as Frozen, Aladdin and Newsies to name a few. It was a daring decision to take this well-known show and bring out some of its darker themes in an adaptation and risk losing some of its core fans. But I believe it’s a decision which has paid off.