Hunchback Writer Stephen Schwartz on Binge-Watching Disney and the Next Movie He Wants to Bring to Broadway

News   Hunchback Writer Stephen Schwartz on Binge-Watching Disney and the Next Movie He Wants to Bring to Broadway
 
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is swinging bells at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. But the most recent adaptation of a Disney animated film differs greatly from its 1996 big-screen release. Stephen Schwartz tells Playbill.com how and why the changes were made.

Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz Photo by Jeremy Daniel

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Stephen Schwartz is reading non-stop these days, but it's not on a Kindle.

The award-winning composer and lyricist, who has brought beloved outcasts Pippin and Elphaba to Broadway, is now introducing another title character to theatregoers: Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Schwartz had previously made Quasimodo's acquaintance when he wrote the lyrics for the 1996 Disney animated feature, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score. But the stage adaptation, which opens at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse March 15, differs greatly from the Disney film. For one, it's much closer to the book — hence, Schwart's reading material.

"I'm just constantly there," he said of his copy of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel. "By know I know exactly where to find things in the book. If I'm revising something for Frollo, I know where that scene is. I just find it and read what Monsieur Hugo had to write. [The book is] all marked up with dog-eared pages and things underlined and paper clips in certain sections." With Michael Arden (Big River, The Times They Are A-Changin’) starring in the title role, The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes to New Jersey from California's La Jolla Playhouse where it premiered in October 2014. With a book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Schwartz, the musical is directed by Scott Schwartz and also features Patrick Page (The Lion King, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) as Dom Claude Frollo, Ciara Renée (Pippin, Big Fish) as Esmeralda, Andrew Samonsky (Little Miss Sunshine, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) as Captain Phoebus de Martin and Erik Liberman (Lovemusik) as Clopin Trouillefou.

The stage debut of Quasimodo seems inevitable, given Schwartz's repertoire. After all, this is the man behind the songs of the films "Enchanted," "Hunchback," "Pocahontas" and "The Prince of Egypt" (both music and lyrics on the latter). And that's to say nothing of his stage musicals, which include Pippin, Godspell, Working and the long-running blockbuster Wicked. But, despite Schwartz's seeming penchant for child-friendly entertainment, he insists that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not simply an adaptation of the movie and, in fact, is a show intended for mature audiences.

"While I think people who are fans of the movie will be fans of this — and maybe even greater fans — if you bring a certain set of expectations to something and then it doesn't meet those expectations, you'll be disappointed," he said. "Most of the music in the film is in the show, and most of the lyrics, but we've really taken a different approach."

"Because the movie was an animated feature and therefore had an audience that was made up largely, if not primarily, of children — even though we were trying to push the envelope of how far can you take an animated feature — nevertheless, we had to really be cognizant of that," he said. "There were certain things we couldn't do, in terms of specific events in the story, how it ended, the need to have funny sidekicks and things like that. We just don't have to do that. We've really approached this as if from scratch we were doing a musical adaptation of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' for a theatre audience, that is essentially an adult audience and that's meant that there are things that we could do in terms of storytelling we were just not able to do" in the animated film.

But, he said, he hesitates to refer to the musical as "dark."

"I think it implies this grim slog through misery, and it's really not that. There's a lot of joy and humor and love in it, but it is definitely unflinching in its picture of life and some things that you would avoid if you were doing something with an audience of children in mind."

Patrick Page
Patrick Page Photo by Kevin Berne

One aspect of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that differs greatly from the film and the book is the character of Esmeralda, the gypsy woman with whom Quasimodo falls in love. Schwartz said that he, Parnell and Menken considered the development of Esmerelda's character carefully, adding, "To me it's one of the — I hate to say weaknesses of the book — but she's not a very rounded character. She's more of a device in the book. And she's not very smart, frankly. And not very tough. She's sort of blundering around and falling in love with a really bad guy and things like that. We've tried to be very careful not to make her contemporary, to have her be the kind of woman that could have existed in 1482. Still, given what her life has been and what her experiences have been, we've tried to really make a real character there who's tough and makes some courageous choices but is by no means a saint. [We've tried] to actually make a real woman who is someone that contemporary audiences can identify with without feeling that she is anachronistic."

The winner of three Academy Awards and four Grammy Awards, and a six-time Tony Award nominee, Schwartz is well-versed in the works of Disney. In fact, when he was first approached about writing for the movie "Pocahontas," he was sent all of the animated features. "I watched all of them," he said, laughing. "One of the ones, oddly enough, that really impressed me and stuck with me was 'Dumbo.' For whatever reason I love how they tell the story, that's quite unflinching in some ways too, and the most astonishing visually is 'Bambi.' It's so beautiful. To think that was all done by hand. Every raindrop was done by hand. It's astoundingly beautiful."

But despite his penchant for animated films, the next Disney film Schwartz hopes to bring to the stage is the part live-action and part animated film "Enchanted."

"I have a notion of a way to do 'Enchanted.' I've sort of mentioned it to [Disney Theatricals chief Thomas] Schumacher," he said. "I know they're completely obsessed with 'Frozen' now. But someday now I feel there's a lovely and theatrical way to do' Enchanted' live that could things that we weren't able to do in the movie and use theatre in a very interesting way."

(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.)

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