Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz Turn Hunchback Into a Stage Beauty

News   Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz Turn Hunchback Into a Stage Beauty Disney collaborators Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz re-team to bring a new adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the stage.

Alan Menken
Alan Menken

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The character of Quasimodo, Alan Menken says, is a perfect example "of ugly on the 
outside and beautiful on the inside. That strikes a chord with everyone."

Stephen Schwartz agrees. Quasimodo "resonates very much for me. I write a lot of shows with outcasts in the lead. Think of Elphaba," the Witch of the West "in Wicked. I think Quasimodo is like that."

Menken and Schwartz are talking about "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Victor Hugo's classic 19th-century novel about Quasimodo, the title bell ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1482 Paris. Specifically, about the successful 1996 Disney animated movie adaptation, with music by Menken and lyrics by Schwartz, and its stage version, which has its United States premiere this month at California's La Jolla Playhouse. The musical is co-produced by La Jolla and Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., where it is set for March, by special arrangement with Disney.

"The animated film seemed as if it was a stage musical waiting to happen," says Schwartz, 66, a six-time Tony nominee, winner of three Oscars and four Grammys, and whose impressive Broadway credits as composer and lyricist include Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. "This story has been told countless times. People keep trying to do it in various forms — a film, a television movie, a musical, an opera. The story, as they say, has legs."

In fact, the original stage adaptation of the Disney movie — directed and written by James Lapine — was a success in Germany more than a decade ago. That version was considered even darker than the somewhat dark animated original. The current librettist is Peter Parnell. Scott Schwartz, artistic director of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., directs.

Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The animated film was dark for Disney, "yet light for 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,'" says Menken, 65, whose imposing composing credits include Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Little Shop of Horrors. He has won 11 Grammys and eight Oscars and has five Tony nominations, winning for Newsies.

The development of Hunchback for the stage, Menken says, has been "a steady evolution."

"It's emotionally deeper. We're liberated from needing to... reach the family audience as we did in animation. Even though I believe this can reach a family audience, this definitely lives much more on the adult side of Hunchback."

For instance, he says, "We are bringing more nuance to the character of Frollo," the cathedral's archdeacon and Quasimodo's adoptive father, exploring "how Frollo became who he is, and the complexity inside him."

Parnell (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) says that the stage musical's style "differs, both in form and at times in content, from the original Disney movie." He "looked carefully at the original novel," and "used some of Hugo for the narrative voice of the show," but "also looked at many of the varied previous treatments of the story."

The current stage version, says Schwartz, has "a different ending" and about "ten new songs or pieces of songs." Some were in the European version, "and some we wrote specifically for this one."

The musical is co-produced by Disney, La Jolla, and Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., where it is set for March.

Menken and Schwartz have teamed for two other Disney films — "Enchanted" and "Pocahontas." "It's always been a happy collaboration," says Schwartz.

Menken concurs. "We're both very comfortable with who we are as writers," so "there's never any feeling of two composers in the room competing for influence. It's just whatever feels right to both of us. There's really no ego in the process."

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