Michael Arden: Inspiring Change with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Spring Awakening

Adriana Nocco

Deaf West Theatre’s recent production of Spring Awakening, directed by the multi-talented Michael Arden, was a triumph, acclaimed by both critics and the public. It employed both the musical’s English text and American Sign Language (ASL) to tell the story, and was apparently amazing in every way. Theatregoers everywhere cannot seem to stop talking about the potential (likely) mounting of this production of Spring Awakening as a Broadway revival. Most are incredibly excited by the prospect, and I for one am as well, especially since I very recently performed in a production of Spring Awakening and the show is still fresh in my mind.

I unfortunately was not able to see the production of Spring Awakening that Michael Arden helmed as director during its limited Los Angeles engagement. However, this past April, I did witness Michael Arden’s work on a different dark musical, as a leading actor rather than as a director. Sadly, the musical ultimately did not make the big move to Broadway, and I was highly disappointed. I figured I would shed some light upon the brilliance of the production that I did see as a tribute to Michael Arden’s creative abilities, and sincerely hope that his revolutionary reinvention of Spring Awakening will be granted the opportunity to reach Broadway audiences.
On April 5th, I saw a matinee performance of the new musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was being performed as a limited engagement at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey from the beginning of March until the beginning of April. Peter Parnell wrote the book of the musical, Alan Menken wrote the music, and Stephen Schwartz wrote the lyrics (both Menken and Schwartz are famous for the prior writing they have done for Broadway and otherwise). Scott Schwartz, Stephen Schwartz’s son, directed this production of the musical (which had previously been mounted at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California). It starred Michael Arden as Quasimodo, Patrick Page as Dom Claude Frollo, Ciara Renèe as Esmerelda, Erik Liberman as Clopin Trouillefou, and Andrew Samonsky as Captain Phoebus de Martin.  

The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical tells the story of a deformed outcast named Quasimodo who is kept hidden and pent up as a slave in the church bell tower of Notre Dame by his guardian and uncle, an Archdeacon named Frollo who places what he perceives to be religious piety, righteousness and purity above all else. Frollo believes that Quasimodo’s severely deformed face is the result of Quasimodo’s father’s (Frollo’s brother’s) sin: sleeping with and impregnating a gypsy woman. (Ironically, he becomes sexually attracted to another gypsy woman named Esmerelda and torments himself for it because this goes against everything he has always so rigidly believed in). Frollo’s treatment of Quasimodo, gypsies, and anyone who is different or who believes in something different than his church is one of the many ways in which one of the musical’s overarching themes, punishing “the other,” is demonstrated. 

It certainly must have been difficult for the creative team of this production to decide upon a tone for the piece due to Hunchback’s story’s vastly different source materials. The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s origins stem from an 1831 novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo, which possesses a very dark story and tone, but also claims to draw influence from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was an animated film. This musical’s tone, a prominently dark one, was set almost immediately, when Michael Arden walked onstage and strapped Quasimodo’s hump onto his back in front of the audience; this made audience members such as myself feel pity, for it was as if we were witnessing him physically strap on the burden of Quasimodo’s tragic, dark story, preparing to carry it around with him for the duration of the show. Additionally, the impressive work of Alexander Dodge, the set designer of the production, definitely helped establish a foundation for the dark world of The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the very beginning. It was beautiful yet haunting and overwhelming, and made me feel as if I were trapped in the world of oppression and religious pressure alongside the musical’s central characters. 

The upstage area was made up of hard, strong, oppressive-looking rows of wooden structures that functioned as church pews. These pews dominated the background of the set, demonstrating traditional religious values’ domination over the world of Hunchback, and also functioned as a seating place for the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus members (a local choir that was prominently featured vocally in the production). Whenever a scene took place in the bell tower in which Quasimodo is pent up, a huge row of Cathedral bells would be flown down from the ceiling. Quasimodo would ring the bells throughout the show; they served as a motif, a symbol of simultaneous hope and desperation, for they were the only sound that Quasimodo was permitted to hear by Frollo other than Frollo’s own voice (Quasimodo is so isolated and alone inside the bell tower that he constantly hallucinates that the tower’s gargoyles are talking to him, serving as his conscience). A sound designer created the overwhelming ringing sound effect and definitely made it seem as if the onstage bell structures were producing it themselves. 

The lighting design (by Howell Binkley) of The Hunchback of Notre Dame also served as a crucial element in the process of setting the mostly dark tone of the show. In most scenes, deep, dark reds and blues drowned the stage, creating an illusion of light shining through the stained glass windows of an almost maleficent-seeming church whose vast influence causes most of the antagonism in the central characters’ lives. The lighting design particularly stood out to me during a song entitled “Hellfire” (which is basically what I refer to as Frollo’s ‘villain anthem’). In “Hellfire,” Frollo sings about his tormenting, lustful desire for Esmerelda, a gypsy woman he saw dancing out on the street. He prays desperately and wonders why, if he is such a righteous man, he still feels what is considered to be “sinful” desire for a “sinful” gypsy “blazing in me out of all control.” Frollo concludes that it is not his fault, but rather Esmerelda’s for being a “witch” and casting some sort of evil spell on him; he claims that the devil is “so much stronger than a man,” singing: “Destroy Esmerelda and let her taste the fires of hell, or else let her be mine and mine alone.” Throughout the song, as Frollo illustrated his complex, racing thoughts, what started out as a light amount of red shining solely on Frollo himself became heavier, deeper and more spread out until the climax of the song was finally reached. When the climax of the song was reached, heavy, bright, aggressive reds drenched the entire stage and Frollo himself, creating the illusion of actual hellfire engulfing Frollo himself and everything in his path as well. 

Paper Mill’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame possessed a truly incredible Ensemble cast, and I felt that each and every cast member exceeded expectations. For instance, Ciara Renée (previously of Pippin fame) played Esmerelda; I loved both the musical’s treatment of Esmerelda as a strong, independent, capable woman, and the way that Renée brought her to life. However, I felt that the two highlights of the production were Patrick Page as the pious yet conflicted Frollo and, of course, the phenomenal Michael Arden as the tormented, isolated Quasimodo. Both Page and Arden have powerhouse voices, and each of them conveyed such complexity and agony within their performances. Page’s Frollo was tyrannical, but everything he ever did was rooted in the beliefs that were taught to him from a very young age and in his desire to be morally upstanding. During Frollo’s most vulnerable moments, in which he doubts everything he ever believed in, Page was able to evoke sympathy in me that I did not believe I could feel towards Frollo; Page illustrated a truly vivid and complicated character. 

Arden’s Quasimodo spoke with a strangled voice, which was ironically fitting due to the oppression he constantly faced, but when he sang, the beauty of his liberated singing voice rang out (like a bell, if you will). I felt that his desire to see the world and to be free of its oppression was perfectly illustrated through the difference between Quasimodo’s slurred speaking voice and his soaring singing voice. Combine that clever choice with the rest of Arden’s touching performance, which demonstrated innocence (and the loss of it), pain, longing, fear and simultaneous bravery, and Arden had me in the palm of his hand the entire time. In one scene, Quasimodo is publicly shamed and beaten, and his tortured cries and sheer terror were absolutely heartbreaking to bear witness to. Arden’s performance made me feel, and also made me think, as did The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a whole. 

I have come to realize that both Spring Awakening and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are dark musicals that are difficult to present unless a strong creative team and talented cast who are up to the challenge are on hand. I have also come to realize that, although The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Spring Awakening are different in many ways, are actually about the same thing at their cores. (I find it quite interesting that Michael Arden has been involved with both so recently.) Both are about the immense amount of influence that religion can have over society (in these cases, said influence was too extreme and was harmful), but more importantly, both are about society’s punishment of that which it feels threatened by. Spring Awakening and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are each thought provoking and, in my eyes, are capable of inspiring change. I believe that The Hunchback of Notre Dame should have moved to Broadway, and am disappointed that musicals with dark tones like it are often panned and tossed aside. Yes, theatre should serve as an escape from reality, but it should also serve as a vehicle through which the human experience (flaws and all) is demonstrated. Theatre should be a forum for thought, reflection, and subsequent change.

I wish that Hunchback had been given a chance to shine on a Broadway stage. However, I am thrilled that Spring Awakening (a different dark musical) was such a success when it first opened and will likely have the chance to move audiences and inspire change once again, this time in the image of a new creative vision. Well done on both counts, Michael Arden. You are a gift to the theatrical community.