"I got to wear lipstick for the first time," Ciara Renée said, recalling her first Halloween costume. "I was so excited!"
Renée's costume, which was of the gypsy woman Esmeralda from the animated Disney film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," not only provided the five-year-old the opportunity to wear makeup, it foreshadowed her future as a leading lady onstage.
Last seen on Broadway as the Leading Player in Pippin, Renée has applied many tubes of lipstick since she first dressed as the love interest and heroine in the animated Disney film. Currently performing at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, she is putting on even more makeup to play the spirited gypsy woman in the United States premiere production of the new musical based on Victor Hugo's novel.
Renée made her Broadway debut in Big Fish, playing The Witch featured in Edward Bloom's tall tales. She then debuted the role of Esmeralda at La Jolla Playhouse, where The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered in October 2014. While creating the love interest of Quasimodo, Captain Phoebus and Dom Claude Frollo, Renée said she appreciated how the character was developed into a more complex and complicated woman for the film and stage adaptations of the novel. "In the Victor Hugo novel, she's a little naïve, a little scared," she said. "I think the movie and this version kind of made her a little stronger, a little more savvy, a little more of a survivalist. It's really fun to play a character that is so inherently good and honest but also gets herself in trouble all the time because she's very outspoken and very strong willed... She flirts within the line of being wanted by the white society or the Christian society of that time period but also being needed in her gypsy community because of her skills and talents. And she wants to bring those two worlds together. She wants to bring equality. But in that time period that was not close to happening whatsoever."
With a book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Schwartz, the musical is directed by Scott Schwartz and features Michael Arden (Big River, The Times They Are A-Changin’) as Quasimodo, Patrick Page (The Lion King, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) as Dom Claude Frollo, Andrew Samonsky (Little Miss Sunshine, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) as Captain Phoebus de Martin and Erik Liberman (Lovemusik) as Clopin Trouillefou.
Renée drew upon the history of the gypsies that lived in Paris at the time Hugo's novel was set, researching their social and economic status and how they would have interacted with people like Captain Phoebus and Dom Claude Frollo.
"She's technically a gypsy, or the more PC word would be a gitana," Renée said of Esmeralda. "It's a group of people who have been very much underserved, underrepresented in our world. It's interesting how they kind of fly under the radar still. Their plight has not been taken up by anybody.
"Back then and still now they were countryless people. They didn't have a set homeland. And yet they have this very strong community, so they were always kind of forced to be the people who steal, who perform, who kind of live on the outskirts of society, the pariahs a little bit."
Prior to Hunchback beginning performances in New Jersey, Renée traveled to Paris to meet with gypsies. She saw a gypsy circus and talked with some of the people performing there, adding, "They are still kind of in the same position [as] all those years ago."
An avid Disney fan ("I still watch Disney movies all the time!") who counts "101 Dalmatians" as one of her favorites, Renée said Esmeralda is one of her favorite Disney princesses "because she is strong and she is honest. She's going to put out what she believes and hope that it gets received. And many times it doesn't. That's a reality, and I really, really respect that."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)