When Disney opened its animated film of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, many scoffed at the idea of turning such difficult material into a family oriented musical. After all, the story of deformed and tortured hunchback, Quasimodo, defeating a lecherous priest for the sake of a gypsy dancer isn't exactly Me And My Girl.
But the liberty-taking movie was a hit, and Victor Hugo's tale does have an epic, romantic sweep. The Hugo novel is also in the public domain, which means it's fair game for further adaptations.
That's paved the way for Dennis DeYoung, singer/songwriter/ keyboardist for the rock group Styx, to write his own musical about the bell-ringing shlimazel. In October 1996, the nationally syndicated newspaper section "Parade" (Oct. 20) reported that DeYoung received financial backing for the project, which he planned to open in Chicago -- with an eye towards Broadway. The show had a reading then at Chicago's Briar Street Theatre.
Now comes the news that Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville will do the first full staging of the story to open their 1997-98 season, Sept. 3-20, rehearsals beginning Aug. 4. Artistic director Matt Pirkle will direct the production, which is co-produced by Fox Theatrical & Magic Productions. Said Fox spokesperson Cheryl Lewin, "Obviously there'll be a life beyond Tennessee, no matter what happens there. But hopefully they'll get really nice reviews and everything will be marvelous. Dennis decided to go to a not-for-profit theatre for development rather than go for a full commercial production immediately."
Author/composer DeYoung, currently on tour with Styx, told Playbill On Line (June 13) that Michael Eldred will play the Hunchback, though the rest of the cast has yet to be announced. Jim Vukovich will serve as music director. On future plans for the show: "We need to get it up and take a look at it," DeYoung said. "It'll go someplace. Where, I'm not sure yet. And there are ongoing discussions about a concept album of the material with outside artists singing the songs."
Commenting on the Chicago reading, Lewin said (in Oct. 1996) "I thought the music was wonderful. The Disney version is all tied up with a pink ribbon. There's humor in this version -- I remember chuckling at some of the lyrics -- but DeYoung stays much truer to the Victor Hugo story." Asked about the score, Lewin confessed she doesn't have an ear to tell Broadway from pop styles, but to her, Q-Modo (the show's working title last year) felt "like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical spectacle...it's an epic. Like Les Miz.."
DeYoung won't star in the show, even though he appeared as Pontius Pilate in the 1994 national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar -- which is when he first got the idea for Hunchback.
"If you're in rock 'n' roll, you're not supposed to admit to liking theatre stuff," DeYoung told Playbill On-Line in a 1996 interview, "but I'm a big theatregoer. I just saw Randy Newman's Faust the other night."
DeYoung's musical might have been in production already had rock not interfered by way of a Styx tour that took up five months of his spring and summer. The tour ended three weeks ago, allowing DeYoung once again to concentrate on the project.
"It all started at my sister's wedding three years ago. I met my brother in-law, Forbes Candlish, and he told me he'd been meaning to ask me to be in Jesus Christ Superstar as Pilate. After months of crucifying across America I thought I might really be suited to this medium."
DeYoung got so heavily into Broadway at that point, he released a CD called "Ten On Broadway," featuring his acoustic versions of such classic numbers as "Memory," "Bring Him Home," and a doo-wop "On The Street Where You Live." "I'd wanted to call the CD "Broadway Unplugged," DeYoung added, "but about 50 MTV lawyers showed up at my door..."
DeYoung also made clear that his being a Broadway baby isn't as incongruous as it sounds. "Styx was always a theatrical band. In fact, we played City Center in 1983 with a rock opera, `Kilroy Was Here.' Essentially I'm a melody person in a rhythm age, and that's what Broadway is really about, the songs."
Asked why he set his sights on "Hunchback," DeYoung joked, "Well, I've had a bad back for ten years... But the real reason is I wanted a historical story with vivid characters. Like in Les Miz, Phantom, larger than life [unlike those shows, Hunchback is not sung-through]. I was familiar with the `39 movie of "Hunchback Of Notre Dame" with Charles Laughton, and also the Anthony Quinn version. Then I read the book -- which was awful. It was about architecture and printing presses. It's not even a good story. But it had these GREAT characters."
But how does one make a musical from characters? "I sat down and laid out the story," explained DeYoung, "and I tell it from the point of view of the priest. He's just been at the Parish maybe five minutes, he finds a baby, adopts it, and really tries to be a good man. But when Esmerelda comes along, celibacy becomes his fall from grace."
As a way of getting a feel for the musical material, DeYoung cut a homemade demo, just for his own professional use. When people expressed an interest in listening to the material more than once, DeYoung went back and pressed more CD's, making them available by money order and at Styx concert concession booths. So far he's sold more than 2,000 copies of a CD he's rather sheepish about marketing. "I tell people, it's just a demo. Things are changing all the time. Besides, I'm singing all the male parts. Dawn Feusi Candlish does Esmerelda." (Songs for a fourth character, Phoebus, were not included because they call for a baritone. "I just sounded too goofy," DeYoung said.)
People interested in hearing Hunchback's songs in their pre-Chicago -- and pre-Broadway form -- can send a cashier's check or money order for $15 to Grand Illusion Music, 15941 South Harlem Avenue, Suite 268, Tinley Park, IL 60477.
DeYoung, who's writing the book, music and lyrics for the show, expects to finish the next draft in two weeks. "You know," said DeYoung, "I've been in one of the biggest rock bands in the world, but there's nothing in the world I want more than to do this musical."
According to Executive Producer Michael Leavitt, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is aiming for a 1998 Broadway opening, after Chicago and several other cities get to hear such numbers as "With Every Heartbeat" and the show's signature tune, "Who Will Love This Child?"
"I saw that line in the book, and I said, `that's a song,'" recalled DeYoung. And now, it's a musical.
-- By David Lefkowitz