Disney’s 1996 animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame may well be the storied studio’s most gay-relevant production to date. The movie was controversial in conservative Christian circles upon its release for that very reason, as well as for its inclusion of more adult than usual topics like faith, lust and religious hypocrisy.
While it was an international hit, Hunchback has taken a while to make it to the American stage, unlike such Disney predecessors as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. However, that is about to change as the theatrical version finally makes its US premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse from October 26th through December 14th.
A stage musical based on the Disney film ran in Berlin, Germany for three years starting in 1999, but has been completely re-worked for its California run. Academy Award-winning composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have reunited for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it marks their only stage collaboration thus far despite such prior, individual successes as Newsies, Little Shop of Horrors and Aladdin (Menken) as well as Wicked, Godspell and Pippin (Schwartz). Stephen’s son, Scott, is directing this Broadway-bound story centered on Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and his love for a persecuted gypsy, Esmeralda.
Acclaimed playwright and author Peter Parnell was selected to write the book for this new adaptation. Among Parnell’s past credits are the recent gay-inclusive Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, QED and the stage version of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. Parnell also co-wrote with his husband, Dr. Justin Richardson, the 2005 book And Tango Makes Three. Its kid-friendly, illustrated depiction of the true story of two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo who fathered a chick together has consistently landed this charming tale on the American Library Association’s Top Ten List of Most Banned Books.
“It’s been translated into many languages and only two months ago there was a controversy over it in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal but not prosecuted,” Parnell revealed during a recent interview. “The Singapore government said they were going to remove all copies of the book from libraries and pulp them. There is a prominent court case there trying to make homosexuality legal, so there is a cultural push back from conservative forces. Our book has become a cultural touchpoint there, which is both good and bad. Ultimately, the government decided not to remove And Tango Makes Three but move it to another section of the library. Next year, we’ll be publishing a 10th anniversary edition.”
After sharing my admiration of the Disney film with Parnell, I asked him how he became involved in the stage musical of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “I have a similar feeling about the movie as you do,” he replied. “I had seen the premiere in New York and actor Tom Hulce (who provided the voice of Quasimodo for the film) is a good friend of mine. I think it’s an under-appreciated movie with an amazing score, a darker tone and great animation. I had met with Disney Theatricals a few years ago and when I heard they were moving on Hunchback, I really wanted to do it.”
Helping to cement the deal was Parnell’s association with composers Menken and Schwartz through the Dramatists Guild of America, which Parnell currently serves as Vice President to Schwartz’s President. Menken serves on the governing council of the esteemed organization. “They’re amazing,” gushes Parnell of his collaborators. “They are both extraordinary talents, obviously, but they are consummate professionals. They both work quickly but are very sensitive to others’ input and concerns. It has been a wonderful collaboration.”
Whereas much of their original, Oscar-nominated film score remains — including “Out There,” which became something of a gay anthem at the time of its release — Schwartz and Menken have written several new songs for the US stage production. “It’s very different (from the movie and German incarnations),” Parnell revealed. “The director, Scott Schwartz, wanted to take a different approach than the German version, which was very operatic and big. Scott wanted to focus much more on the four main characters — Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Phoebus (the heroic Captain of the Guard) and Frollo (Quasimodo’s villainous caretaker) — and kind of have them tell the story in simpler theatrical terms.” Even so, Hunchback remains very much a work in progress just a few weeks before its premiere. “We’ve done workshops of it and gotten it on its feet for a few days at a time, but we continue to re-think it,” said Parnell.
A terrific cast of Broadway heavy-hitters has been assembled for the La Jolla Playhouse production: Michael Arden (Big River) as Quasimodo; Patrick Page, who recently played the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, as Frollo; Ciara Renee (Pippin and Big Fish) as Esmeralda; and Andrew Samonsky (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) as Phoebus. Parnell noted too that the story’s gargoyle characters, primarily used for comic relief in the Disney movie, live on in the ensemble of the new stage musical but have a somewhat more serious purpose.
Finally, Parnell assured me that his book retains the film’s pro-LGBT undercurrent. “I would say that the element of the outcast and the gypsys’ situation of persecution at that time (15th century France) is even stronger in the stage version.” This will undoubtedly make The Hunchback of Notre Dame more resonant for gay theatregoers than traditional Disney fare.
Tickets may be purchased by visiting the La Jolla Playhouse website or by calling (858) 550-1010.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.