"Hunchback" at La Jolla
By: T.E. McMorrow
After four years of work by an artistic team headed by director Scott Schwartz, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which goes into previews at La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Cal., Oct. 26, is anything but your child’s cartoon version of the Victor Hugo classic.
Still produced by Disney, and using many musical elements from both the 1996 animated film, as well as the 1999 stage production which had a book by James Lapine, and played for three years in Berlin, this is, none the less, a re-conception of the piece. "This version is completely different," Schwartz said on the phone last week during a break from tech rehearsal. "It is a whole new take."
The key to this "new take" is an entirely new book by Peter Parnell. According to Schwartz, Parnell relies heavily on Hugo’s original 1831 novel. "This is a harrowing story," Schwartz said. Parnell is exploring the darkness and the sexuality of the piece. "It is a quadrangle," Schwartz said about the three men in the story filled with desire for Esmerelda, the moment they meet her. "It is about sexual desire. And, things don’t all work out happily ever after."
When asked whether Parnell relied on the animated Disney feature or the original Hugo novel more for this retelling, Schwartz put it at "50-50, or even 60-40" favoring the Hugo novel.
Parnell is a writer with an extensive resume. On stage, he adapted John Irving’s "The Cider House Rules," an over six-hour long play, which was performed in two parts, playing at Seattle Rep, then at the Mark Taper Forum, in the late 1990s. The Atlantic Theater Company presented Part One of "Cider House" in New York in 1999. He has created characters on the stage based on intellectual, historic figures, such as Charles Darwin ("Trumpery"), and Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman ("QED").
In television, he was a story writer and co-producer of several episodes of the highly successful "West Wing" series, during its formative first two seasons.
He has authored, along with his partner, Justin Richardson, two children’s picture books, published by Simon and Schuster.
It is Parnell’s second time doing a total rewrite on a book for a major musical. In 2011, he tackled the mid-1960s musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."
Schwartz raved about the backing that the creative team has gotten from Disney Theatricals. "They have been incredibly supportive," he said. Disney has encouraged the team to explore the adult themes that Victor Hugo wrote about, moving away from the more simplistic animated version, which itself was considered dark for a Disney feature by critics. "We have a parental advisory," Schwartz said about the current production, directed at parents thinking they were bringing their children in to view a traditional Disney production. Asked if he would rate it PG, Schwartz laughed. "PG-13," he said.
Still on board from both the animated film, and the Lapine stage versions are the composer-lyricist team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The latter happens to be the father of the director.
Menken is best known for his scores of many Disney animated musicals, such as "Beauty and the Beast," "Little Mermaid," and "Aladdin," and has won eight Academy Awards for his work.
But he cut his musical teeth Off-Off-Broadway at the WPA Theater in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He composed the score for the seminal "Little Shop of Horrors," which opened in 1982, and quickly moved to the Orpheum Theater, where it ran Off-Broadway for five years, and has gone on to many productions, including on Broadway, as well as a film version.
The elder Schwartz is a legendary figure in musical theater. By the time he was 24, he had created the music and lyrics for two hit-Broadway shows,"Godspell," and "Pippin." "Wicked" was his musical creation, as well. He is a Drama Desk Award winner, and has won three Grammys. Amazingly, despite his extensive contribution to the Broadway stage, while has been nominated six times for the Tony Award, he has never won one.
He, too, has done several Disney animated films. In the first, "Pocahontas," released in 1994, he wrote the lyrics to Menken’s music, with the pair winning two Academy Awards for their efforts.
The younger Schwartz said that many of the songs from the original score have been retained, with some being reworked, structurally. One example he gave is the song, "Topsy-Turvy," which is sung in the scene where Quasimodo is crowned King of the Fools. Originally a stand-alone song, it now comes after three other songs, which blend and build over 17 minutes to a theatrical climax for the scene.
There is a 32-member choral ensemble, Sacra/Profana, onstage throughout the show. This allows the musical team to use an important tool to explore thematic elements one associates with the Catholic Church and the period the work is set in, such as Gregorian Chant, and Oratorio, Schwartz said.
At the same time, though, this is an intimate story. Don’t expect expensive theatrical pyrotechnics to dazzle the eye. The focus, he said, is on the music, and the story. "We’re keeping the physical production relatively simple, non-technical. We are using classical theater technique."
He is striving to create the feel in the theater dating back centuries, when people would gather together to retell a story.
The four principles all have Broadway credits. Michael Arden is Quasimodo, Ciara Renee plays Esmerelda, Andrew Samonsky is Phoebus, and Erik Liberman takes on the part of Clopin.
Schwartz is coming off his first season as artistic director at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Next season is currently in its planning stages. It will be solidified after he returns to New York in mid-November.
A veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater, he was the director, recently, of "Murder for Two," which after a successful Off-Broadway run, is now on a national tour, currently playing at Pittsburgh CLO.
"The Hunchback at Notre Dame" goes into previews at La Jolla Sunday, Oct. 26, with its official press opening on Nov. 9. It will run there until Dec. 14.
The production will then move to the Paper Mill Playhouse, where it will run from March 4 through March 29.
Then? Who knows?
According to Schwartz, the total focus of the team right now is on La Jolla, and then, after a bit of tweaking, Paper Mill. At that point, he allowed, an assessment by producers and creative team will be made.
Esmerelda’s showstopper number is "God Help the Outcasts." With Disney on their side, and a strong creative team, the outcasts could be headed to Broadway.
Photo: Composer Alan Menken, director Scott Schwartz, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Peter Parnell for La Jolla Playhouse’s production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, running in the Mandell Weiss Theatre October 26 – December 14.