Director Brandon Michael is the first to admit that the timing is, in a word, eery.
Aspire Community Theatre’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which he set in an abandoned cathedral, opens Friday, just days after the real Notre Dame was damaged in a fire.
“Just doing the show alone is weird, but the fact that I wanted to set it in a ruined cathedral is even more bizarre,” he said. “The universe is trying to tell me something.”
He’s nervous about how people will respond to the choice, given the spiritual and emotional connection many have with Notre Dame Cathedral, but he feels like it’s the perfect medium for the story he wants to tell.
Aspire Community Theatre’s production runs through April 28.
Audiences get the best of both worlds with the musical, which premiered in Germany in 1999 and the United States in 2014.
It features songs Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken wrote for the Disney film, and Peter Parnell’s book features verbatim passages from the Victor Hugo novel that introduced the world to Quasimodo.
Whether book, movie or musical, the story is largely the same.
Quasimodo (Conner Ealy) is the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame who is confined to the cathedral by his guardian Dom Claude Frollo (Greg Washington).
Quasimodo ventures outside one day but is soon abused by all but Esmeralda (Marlee Andrews), a beautiful gypsy.
Quasimodo is instantly smitten with Esmeralda but quickly finds he’s competing with Frollo and Captain Phoebus de Martin (Seth Weddle) for her attention.
When Frollo sets out on a mission to banish the gypsies, Quasimodo realizes it’s up to him to save the day.
Aspire’s production also features the work of music directors Rick Taylor and Beth Taylor and choreographer Trigger Weddle.
When Michael was first approached about directing, he was a little reluctant because he wasn’t interested in directing a cartoon. But when he read the script and listened to the score, he was taken aback by how much substance the musical brought to the stage.
“It’s definitely not a two-dimensional representation of something,” he said. “It’s the real deal. It has really, really heavy themes. It deals with inter-generational morality, psychological abuse, all of these things that are really above and beyond the pale for Disney but they ring so true and they feel so vital to today’s world.”
Michael decided to set the musical in an abandoned cathedral to call back to the townsfolk who, after the Spanish Inquisition, rebelled against ecclesiastical institutions and reclaimed the cathedrals, nunneries and monasteries that were once stolen from them.
Michael also made the choice to leave the storytelling to the gypsies, who remain onstage for the entire show and portray several characters in order to tell Quasimodo’s story.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the musical, takes a different approach to the characters than the book or movie version, according to Michael.
The book, he said, gives readers more information they could ever need to know, while the Disney movie paints each character with broad strokes.
The musical manages to find the balance between the two extremes.
“It gives you specifics but it still leaves you room to breath and room to infuse every character with your own ideas and instincts,” Michael said.
As such, Michael really wanted to highlight the transformations Quasimodo and Frollo experience throughout the play.
“When I was first looking at that, it really is the story of a man becoming a monster and a monster becoming a man in some ways,” Michael said. “Throughout the course we see (Frollo) trying harder and harder and getting more obsessed with these ideas of control and possession… Then we have Quasimodo, who’s seen as a monster by everyone and throughout the course of the play, he discovers and embraces his humanity.”
Michael notes that though some scenes in the musical can be tough to watch and the production doesn’t have the same cheery ending as the Disney film, it’s overall a show of yearning for a better world.
“There’s a bunch of lines from the play that are really prescient,” he said. “They talk about hoping that tomorrow every man is wiser than he is today and ‘Godspeed this bright millennium,’ all these really beautiful wishes. It’s a very hopeful production.”
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