With challenging source material and heavy themes, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame always seemed like an odd fit for the family-friendly studio. The 1996 animated film is considerably toned down from the grittiness and racier plot points of the 1831 Victor Hugo novel. But even with its G rating, Disney's Hunchback is more adult than, say, The Little Mermaid: It's a film about religious hypocrisy, the treatment of people with disabilities, and the marginalization of minorities. (Though, yes, there are singing gargoyles.)
The film has its fans, due in large part to an exceptional score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. But Disney's Hunchback wavers from typical Disney fare to far darker, albeit restrained, territory. Songs like "The Bells of Notre Dame" and "God Help the Outcasts" reflect a grim underbelly to the Disneyfied story, which removes the rape and violence that characterize Hugo's novel. "Hellfire," antagonist Judge Frollo's condemnation of the gypsy Esmeralda, underscores his lustful urges: "Destroy Esmeralda / And let her taste the fires of hell /Or else let her be mine and mine alone." But because this is Disney, his sexual desire for Esmeralda is otherwise implied, and a stunning song loses its context and much of its power.
In the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is finishing up its first North American run at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California, the songs crafted by Menken and Schwartz finally match the material. The stage adaptation owes more to Hugo's novel than it does to the Disney film — which might seem odd, given that all of the music comes straight from the latter, albeit with added and modified lyrics. And yet, seeing Hunchback on the stage, with the less kid-friendly elements clearly spelled out, it's obvious that this is Hunchback as it was meant to be experienced. The complex score meets an updated, more mature book by Peter Parnell, to create a gorgeous and emotionally stirring production.
Those who attend the Hunchback musical hoping to see the Disney film onstage will be sorely disappointed: The changes are staggering from the beginning. Gone are the trio of gargoyles that provided Quasimodo with comfort and company, which might have represented his internal conflict in the Disney film. Instead, the musical articulates that with Quasimodo (Michael Arden) literally conversing with the inanimate world around him, from the stone walls of Notre Dame to its stained glass windows. There are moments of levity, but there is no sense of "comic relief." This Hunchback offers a more straightforward representation of Quasimodo's pain and isolation.
In doing so, the show gives its audience a more compelling protagonist. The film's Quasimodo was a typical Disney hero: a misunderstood outcast who dreams of bigger things and ultimately proves his worth by saving the girl in the end. The musical's Quasimodo is, at times, heroic, but he's also deeply flawed. In the same vein, the characters around him are allowed the same depth of moral ambiguity: Frollo (Patrick Page) is a sometimes sympathetic monster, Captain Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky) can be an unlikable cad, and even Esmeralda (Ciara Renée) — the object of desire for every man in the show — wrestles with inner demons. Hunchback has no easy answers, preferring instead to let the audience interpret the material as they see fit.
The result is a musical that lingers with the audience long after the — spoiler alert — unhappy ending. The lack of moral is distressing but ultimately more effective — particularly given the musical's Disney associations. Unlike the film, which reaches a pleasant if not realistic conclusion, the musical veers into bleaker terrain, all while refusing to offer any simple solutions. The question of what makes a monster and what makes a man, though not unique to Hunchback, has rarely been better articulated.
It helps that the cast at the La Jolla Playhouse is phenomenally talented: The leads are bolstered by local choir Sacra/Profana, who instill in the show the unmistakable feeling of a church service. The minimalist staging, in stark contrast to Disney theatrical productions like The Lion King and, more recently, Aladdin, allows the music and the performers to shine. Arden is a perfect Quasimodo, made all the more impressive by his relative lack of makeup. His transformation into the hunchback is a hump he wears on his shoulder — applied in full view of the audience — and black makeup he smears on his face. But with Arden's performance, coupled with the contortions he puts his body through, the invisible physical deformities become clear — and, more to the point, the crippling emotional pain they bring with them.
The Hunchback musical doesn't take anything away from Disney, whose movie musicals — particularly in the '90s — and stage adaptations continue to delight families, and rightfully so. But there is something uniquely thrilling about taking the chance to push that further. When it comes to making movies, there are more considerations to be made: There are concerns about age appropriateness and marketability. Onstage, the possibilities are close to limitless. And an adaptation like Hunchback is a good reminder of how breathtaking pushing those boundaries can be.