Patrick Page places a can of Red Bull and a copy of Malachi Martin's "Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans" on a conference room table at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Thus armed, the star of multiple Broadway and regional productions both musical and classical, is ready for his latest challenge. The Martin book is research for — of all things — the latest musical produced by Disney Theatrical Productions.
"I have a lot of books now about exorcism and Satanism," says Page, who is playing Frollo, the tormented archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral in the new adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. "I have a hard time believing in Hell, and it's something I really have to believe in for this show."
Was he, perhaps, raised Catholic? "I was an altar boy," says the Spokane, Washington–born actor. "My brother is a deacon in the church. It's all very familiar to me. I was raised Catholic, and that may be one of the reasons I have difficulty believing in Hell. But when you really steep yourself in it again and read the testimonies of people who claim to have been to Hell, they are the most terrifying stories, and they scare me."
Those who have followed Page's Broadway career will note that he is often the one doing the scaring. From his turns as Scar in Disney's The Lion King to the Christmas-stealing Grinch to his year and a half stint as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, the Broadway veteran is often the one under heavy makeup doing some serious menacing. His one-man show, at New York nightclub 54 Below, explored "theatrical villainy from Captain Hook to Sweeney Todd."
And those are just the musicals. His classical credits include Iago, Malvolio, Cyrano de Bergerac, Richard III, Dracula and Macbeth at regional theatres around the country. He recently completed the Broadway run of Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina.
"I play a lot of narcissists, which is a really common type to put on stage," says Page. "But when a narcissist is confronted with a more accurate picture of himself, the way he reacts is really damaging to people. I find that very interesting."
And that's Frollo, the ultra-holy keeper of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame. He believes himself to be a saint, a certainty that is challenged by his sexual infatuation with the gypsy, Esmerelda.
Featuring a score by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, The Hunchback is based on the 1996 animated Disney movie. A 1999 Disney-produced stage version, featuring a book by James Lapine and the Menken-Schwartz score, ran for several years in Berlin, Germany.
The new American adaptation, currently at the La Jolla Playhouse and scheduled to play in early 2015 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, features a new book by Peter Parnell ("The Cider House Rules"). The score contains some new songs and much of the liturgical music featured in the original version, but Page and director Scott Schwartz (Stephen's son) both caution against viewing this reworked Hunchback as an overtly family-friendly show. The wise-cracking stone gargoyles are gone, and the terrain is dark.
"We really are trying to go back to some of the more mature themes and approaches," says Scott Schwartz. "At its heart, Hunchback is what I call a love quadrangle between these three men, Quasimodo, Frollo and Captain Phoebus, who are all sexually obsessed with this exotic woman. There's nothing that parents would find objectionable, but that's the core of the story, and we're not shying away from it." A significant portion of the more mature terrain centers around Frollo who — in the Victor Hugo novel "Notre Dame de Paris" — was an alchemist dabbling in the dark arts. Hugo makes a pretty convincing case for Frollo being possessed, according to Page. As part of his research, the actor re-watched multiple film versions of "The Hunchback" to gauge how the Frollos portrayed by Cedric Hardwicke (in a 1939 film), Alain Cuny (1956), Derek Jacobi (1982) and Richard Harris (1997) handled the role. (He deliberately did not re-watch the animated movie.)
Where various films have made Frollo a judge, Page prefers that the character remain a deacon of the church as he is in the novel.
"In each version, there's a completely different version of Frollo," says Page. "The Laughton version dodges the religious question, so that wasn't terribly helpful to me. With the later ones, it can be quite useful because you watch them and let them go, but it opens up a window of your own creativity. Jacobi went from a man who was completely sexually naïve and surprised by what was happening to him, whereas with Richard Harris, you got the feeling that he was a very twisted soul before he even met Esmerelda, and all he needed was a spark to light that fire."
As reliable a go-to performer as there is in the Disney Theatrical Productions Stable, Page will soon reach his 20th year of DTP projects dating back to a 1995 stint as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast before playing the villainous uncle Scar in The Lion King. He also did a workshop of Newsies.
The Hunchback team is fortunate to have him, Schwartz, says, adding, "Not only is he this amazing musical theatre performer, he's also well known for his work in Shakespeare and his classical work. He's a great collaborator and, for someone who plays lots of villains, he's a really nice guy, too."
What about that demonic possession research? Is the actor living his character's torment during rehearsal? "He kind of closets himself away to get into the place of being Frollo," Schwartz says. "It's a challenging role to play emotionally, to have to be in this place of being at war with yourself for the entire show. So I do understand why Patrick needs to stay on his own a little bit when he's fully in the character."
Also read: Menken, Schwartz and Parnell discuss the stage adaptation, which features a new ending and nearly ten new songs, in the Playbill.com feautre: Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz Turn Hunchback Into a Stage Beauty.