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Monday, February 24, 2014

Movie Music Monday: Looking ahead to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, looking back to Der Glöckner von Notre Dame

Film Flam Flummox

It's only taken 15 years since it was first officially brought to a live theatre--and 18 since the film hit cinemas--but Disney's most undervalued modern animated masterworks, 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is finally making its belated bow on an American stage later this year, beginning Sunday, October 26, at the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego, California. Even the most devoted of cinephiles may be baffled at my opening statement, for aside from the most ardent of Hunchback devotees, not even too many Disney fans are aware of Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, the highly acclaimed and very successful live adaptation that was produced in Germany from 1999 to 2002. The Mouse clearly had high hopes for Hunchback to become its third Broadway production following the blockbuster stage translations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, for a theatre in Berlin was built expressly to house the production, whose book and direction was by multi-Tony-winner James Lapine, best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim.

But for all the outward votes of confidence, the '99 stage incarnation of Hunchback seemed to be suffering from oddly dragging feet by the studio, most obviously in premiering way out of town--and thus mostly off the American entertainment radar--across the Atlantic. A few reasons were speculated as to exactly why. While the film was a financial success, it was not nearly as huge a one, in terms of both box office and pop culture zeitgeist, as its immediate predecessors The Lion King and even Pocahontas. But perhaps the biggest reason was, ironically, that for which the original film mostly earned its plaudits. The wide critical acclaim for Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's ultimately Oscar-nominated score and the film as a whole zeroed in on its gritty, Gothic qualities that threatened to earn the film a then-animation-kiss-of-death PG rating (which the existing film would surely receive today). Lapine, most famous for his and Sondheim's dark, revisionist fairy tale mash-up Into the Woods (ironically enough, set for a much-belated film adaptation to be released at the end of the year from Disney), amped up those qualities even more so in his adaptation, with our outcast bellringer hero Quasimodo more of a stunted, awkward type; the comic relief trio of gargoyles more explicitly figments of his lonely imagination; and, most infamously, reworked the film's sanitized (though still poignant) ending to a much grimmer one more in line with the original Victor Hugo novel. But like many tearjerking stage sensations before it, such as another little Hugo-based show by the name of Les Misérables, this didn't matter to audiences, whose world-travelling word of mouth drove the show to a three-year run, an unprecedented duration for a live production in Germany. Despite all this, no concrete plans were ever set into motion for the show to make its way back home to the States, and as the years passed, with Disney giving the stage adaptation treatment for Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Aladdin, and even the notorious live action flop Newsies, it seemed like those hoping for a proper English language Hunchback production would have to content themselves with the excellent German cast recording and a number of complete video recordings of varying quality, which only confirmed how spectacular it was in terms of production value and emotional impact, not to mention the Broadway-ready grandeur and power of that Menken/Schwartz score.

The Hunchback that will be premiering in La Jolla will be a different one than that which wowed Berlin audiences. Lapine is gone both as director and librettist, with Peter Parnell writing the new book and helming duties taken over by Scott Schwartz, son of Stephen; thus, Lapine's ambitious, and technically demanding, staging featuring hydraulic cubes and image projections, is also gone. Der Glöckner already featured some new Menken/Schwartz compositions in addition to most of the film's score (the late number "Court of Miracles" was replaced for the stage), but word is that the pair have wrote even more new songs for the American premiere, so what numbers from both the film and Der Glöckner is very much in question. So bearing in mind that while Hunchback will finally see its day on the U.S. stage, and the Der Glöckner incarnation is more or less completely dead, below is a reel of mostly unsubtitled musical numbers from that terrific production, including the complete ending--whose operatic emotional wallop one hopes the new production is able to match with its finale.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is scheduled to make its U.S. premiere engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse October 26 through December 7. For more information, visit the website.

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