Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel would probably have a hard time getting published today. The title alone is problematic — “hunchback” is a nasty, ignorant label for someone with a spinal deformity. The heroine Esmeralda is an exoticized, eroticized and ultimately tragic version of what Hugo called a “gypsy.”
Music Theater Works had to be aware of such issues they when they programmed “Hunchback,” based on Hugo’s novel, with songs from the Disney movie of the same name, as part of their season’s offerings. (One of Broadway’s biggest controversies in 2018 came with the public outcry over its famed “Gypsy Robe,” annually awarded to the chorus person with the most Broadway credits. The garment was renamed the “Legacy Robe” in order to avoid slurring the Roma people.)
But “Hunchback’s” issues with language can’t diminish Alan Menken’s extraordinary music. The score is one belt-your-face-off showstopper after another. Music Theater Works artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller has put a 23-person choir on stage alongside his two-dozen-strong ensemble. When the nearly 50 voices are backed by music director/conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s 14-piece orchestra, the score soars like the famous flying buttresses of the show’s Notre Dame setting.
Moreover, Hugo’s novel was deeply progressive for its time, and remains so in many ways. Set in the 15th century, the plot is a harsh condemnation of mob rule, lynching and false piety. Peter Parnell’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics make that condemnation as vivid as fine poetry. Clayton Cross’ choreography fills the stage with the intricate bustle of medieval Paris.
When the curtain goes up, it’s a gasp-worthy moment. The ancient interior of the great Notre Dame is gorgeously rendered in thick, curving, wooden beams arching around its famed, awe-inspiring stained glass Rose Window. There’s no set designer credited (Front Row Theatricals provided “scenery and costume rental”), but it’s a stunning moment nonetheless. And that’s before the ensemble delivers a hymn-like, a cappella opener that sounds like it welled up from a place not quite of this earth. Then there are those cathedral bells. When they descend from on high, they are a truly staggering sight: weighty and gigantic.
Hogenmiller filters the story through a sense of make-believe. Ensemble members play the iconic gargoyles perched atop Notre Dame, crowds of bloodthirsty Parisians and nightmarishly hooded religious figures. The twisted Quasimodo (Billy Dawson, whose booming, operatic vocals never flag) ties a lump of rags on his back to serve as a hump and “disfigures” his face with streaks of makeup. By framing the story with artifice, Hogenmiller gives it the feel of a fable. Yet for all its immersion in a century long past, “Hunchback” is often eerily contemporary.
When Frollo, the Notre Dame archdeacon (Kent Joseph, deploying a bass that sounds like it reaches down to Dante’s final circle), condemns Esmeralda (Anna Marie Abbate, who sings like an angel and dances with Salome-like beauty), he sounds like the height of hypocrisy. It’s a timeless noise, despite the long-ago setting.
The show’s plot is worthy of a silent movie. As the heavy exposition tells us through the prologue, we see the cruelly named infant Quasimodo (it means “partially born”) raised by his uncle Frollo. The archdeacon hides the “monster” baby in Notre Dame’s bell tower and eventually puts him in charge of ringing the bells.
Quasimodo’s cruelly isolated life is forever altered during the Feast of Fools, which is essentially a 1482 version of Purge Night, with tricksters and grifters and mischief-makers ruling the day. Quasimodo’s joy at being named King of Fools is more than a little heartbreaking as the celebrants quickly turn on their king. The “honor” almost kills him. Quasimodo is rescued by Esmeralda, the only Good Samaritan willing to stand between an innocent man and the lash.
Goodness isn’t always rewarded — at least not on earth — in Hugo’s story. Yet in the final scene, Hogenmiller creates a remarkable reversal of fortunes. The twisted Quasimodo stands tall. The people who gleefully tortured him morph into twisted, crabbed versions of themselves.
In the end, Hogenmiller turns “Hunchback” into tolling success. Minus that score, it’s tough to see the show working. But when the music takes hold, it becomes impossible to turn away.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.