When Disney first announced a stage adaptation of the famed animated movie musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame, fans rejoiced at the opportunity to hear the bells (bells, bells, bells) live onstage. Bowing at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015 (a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse), the musical surprised audiences with its dark tone, harkening back to the original Victor Hugo novel of the same name and less to the shiny veneer of family-friendly fare.
Despite the surprise, many audiences expected the show to transfer to Broadway. After all, Paper Mill often moves productions to successful New York runs, including the upcoming A Bronx Tale and Disney’s Newsies in 2012. But Hunchback was different.
Instead, the show went direct to regional theatre. The Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, ME, mounted the first production since Paper Mill as part of its 84th season. Unlike in typical regional shows, these actors were the first to interpret the roles since the original cast created them.
Taking on a show in its infancy marked a new endeavor for the Playhouse and the actors in the cast. “It was cool to go at it blind,” says F. Michael Haynie, who played Quasimodo. “There are 13 productions or something that are going to happen in the next year, and it was kind of cool to be the first one and to get to create all new characters and all new relationships.”
“I think it’s way more fun [to be first] because it still feels like a young story and fresh and new, and so it’s still being developed,” says Christopher Johnstone, a.k.a. Captain Phoebus.
“By the time you get to do a regional production of something, [usually] people have seen it like four times, they already know all the words,” says Sydney Morton, Hunchback’s Esmerelda. “The discovery that we see on their faces wouldn’t happen if it had come to Broadway already.”
Certainly that discovery is, in part, a result of audience expectations for the work versus the story that unfolds onstage. The musical still follows Quasimodo, the titular hunchback taken in by Notre Dame’s Archdeacon, Claude Frollo. But in this production, Frollo’s narrative takes center stage as he grapples with his own orphaned childhood, his devotion to the church and his simultaneous attraction to and disgust for the gypsy, Esmerelda. He is a man reminiscent of Les Misérables’ Javert in his unflinching quest for punishment of the wicked.
Between the persecution of gypsies in 15th-century Paris and the cruelty to Quasimodo as he is held captive by Master Frollo, it’s a heavy piece. “I was thinking I was doing the Disney film I watched when I was younger,” admits Morton. “I think we all were shocked that it just kept getting more dense and deep and scary,” adds Johnstone.
As a traditional summer stock theatre, the Playhouse typically mounts in-house productions of proven Broadway hits and crowd favorites. (Anything Goes preceded Hunchback this summer season, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert opens August 12.) Hunchback marks a departure thematically, but also marks a milestone.
“It was one of the most lavish and the largest production ever to be created here,” says artistic director Bradford Kenney. “The chorus and cast combined had over 50 performers onstage; the beautiful, massive and intricate set designed by Adam Koch built by the Ogunquit production team makes it the largest undertaking for the scenic shop to date….”
Indeed, the massive set captured the grandeur of Notre Dame. Made of rafters, platforms and gargantuan cathedral bells, the set made an impression, while pushing the bounds of the audience’s collective imagination.
“When we saw the designs of this set that Adam did, we all went, ‘Ok, I’ll believe it when I see it,’” says Haynie. “It was really incredible what this crew was able to create here and that this epic amount of material was gifted this beautiful, no-holds-barred set that we get to play on.”
Still, mounting the production was a risk.
“At the opening-night party, the board members and donors [said], ‘We were nervous at first because we didn’t know what this was, and Bradford Kenney, he pioneered [this] and ushered the rest of the team into believing this is what we have got to do,’” recalls Haynie. “And I think it was a brave and awesome choice.”
The cast also felt nervous about audience reception, but Kenney had faith, and his instinct was spot on. “It’s incredible how many people have said, ‘I’ve been coming here for 16 years and this is the best show I’ve ever seen,’” says Johnstone. “People want to see this, and they’re ready for it.”
They were even ready for an alarmingly realistic villain.
“I think one of the strengths we have is that so much of it is current,” says Dean. “So much of what I say [as Frollo] is directly what Donald Trump says. [Lyrics like] ‘Let’s take our country back through borders porous as a sieve, we let them come and let them live.’ … I certainly feel what keeps the fire in me is we need to tell this story right now.”
Dean’s portrayal of a man pushed to a near psychotic break climaxes with his singular rendition of “Hell Fire,” a shakingly frightening and Tony-deserving performance if ever there could be one in regional theatre.
Morton agrees that the current political climate made Hunchback the perfect fit for this season, saying that in another year there’s a chance the show could have felt out of place, but now, “you come in, and it’s kind of cathartic.”
The catharsis doesn’t only come from the plot of the show, it comes from Hunchback’s iconic score from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. “So much of this score is so godly,” says Dean, “and I think that’s the hero of the show when people really believe in it and throw all that voice at it.”
Ogunquit Playhouse threw all of the voice at it. In addition to the strength of their principals and a professional 15-person ensemble, a choir of 32 volunteer singers performed the “congregation” and background vocals each performance. Sixty-four vocalists were cast and rotated throughout the three-and-a-half-week run of the show. Under Brent-Alan Huffman’s music direction (the musical director from the original cast recording), the sound overwhelmed the audience to tears. As Dean says, “I think [the choir] has a lot to do with the overwhelming, epic quality of the piece.”
In fact, all four principals noted the last 30 seconds of the show as their favorite, in which the entire company sings full force as the set’s massive bells swing to the melody of thematic title phrase. “Everything is just so [incredible at that moment], it hurts,” sighs Dean. “The orchestrations that are at the end are just so gorgeous and heartbreaking, and it’s set against those words [capturing] yearning of the human spirit in this music.”
The impact makes itself clear at the curtain call. “It’s a visceral reaction,” says Morton. “Every night there will be one older man in the audience who is moved to having a physical reaction, like a fist in the air or reaching out to Quasimodo like he’s Michael Jackson.”
The reception of the show confirms what Kenney suspected, that the small theatre could execute such a massive production and that the Playhouse could expand its wheelhouse in terms of genre. As Kenney says, “The magnificent cast, under the direction of Shaun Kerrison, gave our audiences a powerful and awe-inspiring experience that is surely to be long remembered.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.