The Hunchback of Notre Dame has always held a special place in my Mickey Mouse heart, as the film, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, significantly impacted me with its musical magnitude when first premiering in 1996 – at the time I was only a four-year-old kid.
Two decades later, the release of the studio cast recording from the production (which played at two American theaters over the past couple of years) reminds listeners of why Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have crafted some of Disney’s most gripping and diverse music. The soundtrack’s successful sales figures is indicative that people are ready to embrace Hunchback again, and this serves as a great opportunity to review the studio cast recording, available on Amazon, iTunes, and other retailers.
Gregorian chant-like “Olim” opens the show, complete with a choir, sounding like it came straight out of the end of the 15th century, in which this production takes place. Transitioning to the supreme “The Bells of Notre Dame,” much in the vein of the 1996 film, although containing more of a narrative approach, this remains one of my most cherished Disney introductions of all time. The new lyrics tell the story of Frollo taking in deformed Quasimodo, who, in this version, is his nephew (the son of his estranged brother who left the church to be with the Gypsies). In case you cannot identify all of this subtext, the booklet (and digital version) share the synopsis. It also includes the lyrics of all of the songs, because who wouldn’t want to sing “Bells of Notre Dame” with friends at the newest congregation in town? Even so, this rendition, at a robust seven-and-a-half minutes in length is just as bewitching as the one featured in the movie. The congregation escalates the tenseness associated with the scene. Patrick Page is a qualified choice as Frollo, his intimidation bursting.
This continues to be evident in other songs, such as the underappreciated “Out There,” perhaps among Alan Menken’s best songs. Michael Arden portrays a haunting Quasimodo, whose despondent attitude is quite evident, but he wears rose-colored glasses in “Out There,” once again the highlight of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m sure Tom Hulce would appreciate Arden’s take on the character. They both have equally tremendous vocal range, but each adds different traits to Quasimodo. Arden is nothing less than fantastic. “Out There” is almost identical to the film, especially in the lyrics. Indubitably, when any movie is translated to a musical production, certain songs change – and often with good reason. I’m glad “Out There” stays consistent. Disney On Broadway’s YouTube channel shows Michael Arden performing “Out There.”
The wildly fun “Topsy Turvey” exists in two parts, with the shorter first part introducing Captain Phoebus. This leads into his song, a new one, called “Rest and Recreation.” Phoebus, played wonderfully by Andrew Samonsky, emits masculinity as the wartime hero in this bombastic tune, which has sentiments of Beauty and the Beast‘s “Gaston,” but without the villainy. More debuts of characters occur with the following song: “Rhythm of the Tambourine.” Esmeralda (Ciara Renée, star of the new DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) has a chance to shine in this seductive song with exotic musical influences. Much like her musical counterparts, Renée is unbelievably mighty in this role. The second part of “Topsy Turvy” reflects the film in both instrumentation and lyrics to a great extent, save for the dialogue. Everyone gives it their all in this ebullient sequence.
“Into Notre Dame” follows an exchange between Frollo and Quasimodo following the hunchback disobeying his master. The expository piece grants the congregation to carry into the next song, Esmeralda’s solemn soliloquy: “God Help The Outcasts.” Heidi Mollenhauer and Bette Midler both famously sung the moving piece previously. Renée is up to the task, and that’s a triumph. That the song digresses little from the film version allows listeners to make comparisons, but I find that as unnecessary. I was just as stirred up in hearing this version as I do when watching the movie. But The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s more touching moments come from the rapport between Esmeralda and Quasimodo. “Top of the World” allows for that to happen via song. Quasimodo’s little voices inside his head – and no, not the colorful friends from Inside Out, but rather the gargoyles – speak for his interpretations of the sensitive gypsy as she takes in the sights of Paris from this magnificent vantage point. Raspy Quasimodo is oddly charming to listen to as he suggests his feelings to Esmeralda, and I’m glad this song is included to portray more of their dynamic.
“Tavern Song – Thai Mol Piyas” is a salsa-like song set in a bar that showcases the budding romance unfolding between Esmeralda and Phoebus. Poor Frollo is jealous. This unexpected and original treat may appear as it conflicts with some of the other music within The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I find it very engaging and worth listening to on repeat. “Heaven’s Light,” the cozy tune by Quasimodo, seeking love, is just as sweet here as in the movie. Once again, it precedes the bleakness and yet tantalizing feelings felt by Frollo in “Hellfire.” The polar opposites of these two songs exhibit the genius of Menken, Schwartz and company. Page validates his commitment to the role in this chilling performance. A new song called “Esmeralda” follows suit, chronicling the hunt for the gypsy after Frollo issues her arrest. It carries along the pace well. Whereas “Hellfire” takes place in the film’s final act, in this show, after the conclusion of “Esmeralda,” we are only at the end of Act I. The Hunchback of Notre Dame compacts all of this heavy material into one act. Kudos, indeed! The studio cast recording illustrated in this YouTube video, again from the Disney On Broadway channel.
Latin “Entr’acte” begins the second act with a similar gravitas to the production’s opening. Neal Mayer of the congregation plays Quasimodo’s vision of Saint Aphrodisius, who serves as a guide to help the hunchback to the Court of Miracles, in the “Flight Into Egypt,” another new entry to The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s songbook. It’s soaring in nature and special. “The Court of Miracles” was always my least favorite piece from the movie, and while it feels improved here, does little to win me over with its absurdity. However, one nonsensical song I loved from the film – and you probably did, too – was “A Guy Like You,” sung by the gargoyles. But because of their alternative roles in this production, the song’s omission is understandable. “In a Place of Miracles” is a new song primarily led by Phoebus and Esmeralda. Poor Quasimodo, whose love for Esmeralda will not be returned in the same romantic way. Samonsky, Renée and Arden all make this piece work. New to most listeners is “Justice in Paris,” a bridge that moves the storyline.
“Someday,” the unnoticed end credits song from The Hunchback of Notre Dame film, although altered for the stage production, is sung by both Esmeralda and Phoebus with such beauty. “While The City Slumbered” is a quick piece that heads into the powerful “Made of Stone.” This showstopper by Arden demonstrates Quasimodo’s reluctance to do anything to save Esmeralda from her imminent doom, because he feels helpless. The gargoyles admonish his recalcitrance, but eventually accept their friend’s feelings. “Finale,” at an astonishingly long 13+ minutes, concludes the musical with all of the tragedy and terror you would expect from Disney’s darker dramas. But the denouement departs from the relative “happy ending” in the movie. Listen for yourself and avoid shedding any tears.
Here is a video that showcases the development of the musical by the Disney On Broadway YouTube channel.
Sorry, The Lion King. It’s viewed to be Disney’s best Broadway-style musical production (and soundtrack) to date. I would consider putting The Hunchback of Notre Dame near the top. How disappointing it is that Hunchback will not experience the Broadway treatment, but thankfully for the rest of us, even if we didn’t have the chance to see this version at the La Jolla Playhouse or Paper Mill Playhouse, we can hear it via this soundtrack. And good news, Hunchback friends: the musical will be playing later this summer in Utah at the Tuacahn Center. The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s awesome studio cast recording should prompt everyone to not only revisit the film, but also purchase this soundtrack right away. It’s “out there” for the masses to cherish!
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, released on the first and third Thursdays of each month on Geeks of Doom.