Monday, June 11, 2018

The Hunchback Musicals: A Rambling Yet Incomplete Comparison

From the Paper Mill Playhouse production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

As a Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame superfan (there are dozens of us!), I was thrilled to finally get to see the updated Disney stage musical last week when it was put on by South Bay Musical Theatre. The community theater troupe pulled the show off with aplomb, mostly because of the cast's powerful voices - especially Jen Maggio as Esmeralda and Jay Steele as Frollo (Steele also had multiple roles behind the scenes, including graphic design and assistant master carpenter). The audience I sat in was dazzled, and shows sold out. Full disclosure: Christine Ormseth, who is a member of my childhood church, did the hair and makeup design and was in the ensemble. 

If you're not right on the pulse of the musical and/or Victor Hugo fan communities, you might ask what the updated Disney stage musical is. Remember the 1996 Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which had almost nothing to do with Hugo's novel? If you don't, it had Frollo as a judge (instead of a priest, to pacify the Catholic church) who ended up taking in baby Quasimodo after he straight-up murdered Quasimodo's mother (rather than adopting Quasimodo to save him from Parisians who wanted to burn the ugly child to death); talking gargoyles (including one with saggy boobs); and most shocking of all, a happy ending.


If you do remember it, it's probably due to two tour de force Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz songs: "God Help the Outcasts" (sung by Heidi Mollenhauer) and incel classic "Hellfire" (sung by Tony Jay). Indeed, these songs belted out by Maggio and Steele were highlights of the South Bay Musical Theatre production. 

Disney first did a stage play of Hunchback in 1999 - in Berlin, in German. This version was similar to the movie, but had Esmeralda die. Then in 2014, a new version with a book by Peter Parnell premiered that was even closer to the novel. That doesn't mean, however, that there weren't some big of which was completely whackadoo. 

The production I saw 

When I opened my program, I was shocked (and delighted!) to see Jehan's name in the first song. Jehan Frollo, Claude Frollo's rebellious teen brother, probably gets chopped from adaptations more than Fleur-de-Lys (Phoebus's fiancee - more on that later), and at least she gets a starring role in the French Notre-Dame de Paris musical (more on that later as well). Jehan gets nothing! 

I always think this is a shame, because I kind of love Jehan. Yes, he's an asshole that I'd hate in real life, and at sixteen he's already a drunk mooch who has instigated his fellow students to carry out raids on wine shops, but he's also sassy, charismatic, and a good source of comic relief in a dark book. He's the first character we meet by name, and we meet him when he's hanging out on a column and heckling people during the interminable wait for a play to begin. 

There's our boy!

I gathered from the fact that he was only in one song in the program that he was possibly going to be killed off before his time, but I never would have predicted that The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical would make him...Quasimodo's father!

This is surprising and hilarious for two reasons:
  • Jehan hates Quasimodo
  • Jehan is about three-four years younger than Quasimodo

I'm guessing most people watching the musical didn't care that they made a character they had never heard of Quasimodo's dad, but I care. However, I don't disapprove. Mostly because it's hilarious for the above reasons (Jehan would be so mad and then make a great joke about it), but also because I get what they were going for by having Jehan and a Gypsy be Quasimodo's parents: correcting the way-off-base explanation for Frollo adopting Quasimodo, linking Quasimodo and Jehan in Frollo's mind (in the novel, Frollo decides to raise Quasimodo in honor of fellow orphan Jehan), keeping the movie's conceit that Frollo wants Quasimodo hidden, and explaining Frollo's bigotry towards Gypsies.

Frollo: anti-baby-burning killjoy

The Jehan inclusion highlights how much stuff is in Hugo's novel, and how adaptations have to pick and choose what to keep or cut. Do you try to work in how Frollo's madness is linked to alchemy and the dark arts? What about the whole part with Esmeralda's mother, a prostitute who is erroneously told that Gypsies ate her baby? There's a plethora of characters, subplots, and themes to choose from, so not surprisingly, another musical based on the same source is much different from this one.

Notre-Dame de Paris is a 1998 French musical (available on DVD!) by composer Riccardo Cocciante and lyricist Luc Plamondon and is basically the Gallic Phantom of the Opera. Despite not bothering with Jehan, the show is hugely popular in French-speaking countries, and its original cast will never be fully freed from the expectation of reunion concerts. 

Hope you all get along, original Hamilton cast!

As an excuse for me rambling some more, here are some other big differences between the two musicals. From here on out, the Disney/Menken musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be abbreviated as HoND, and the French musical Notre-Dame de Paris will be NDdP. 

Garou as Quasimodo in NDdP

Quasimodo's Freedom

Something HoND carries over from the Disney movie is having Frollo keep Quasimodo hidden from public view and forbidding him to leave the cathedral. For the musical, this is a major plot point, encapsulated in the sweeping Out There. Will Quasimodo disobey Frollo and go out to the city on his own? How will he fare in the alien world outside the walls of Notre-Dame?

In the novel, this imprisonment simply isn't a thing. For one, novel Frollo lacks the social awareness to care what people think about him and his charge, and he actually has Quasimodo in the public eye way more than the public would like (when Frollo and Quasimodo go out on walks everyone talks behind their backs like they're Belle in Beauty and the Beast, except the Parisians think they're literally demonic instead of just weird).

Although disobeying an increasingly evil Frollo is still a major personal struggle for Quasimodo, he's otherwise no shrinking violet in the book; if someone makes fun of him, he picks them up and throws them. Problem solved! We don't get to see Quasimodo throw anyone in NDdP, but neither is he locked up like Rapunzel.

Point: NDdP

EJ Cardona and Josh Castille in the 5th Avenue production

Quasimodo's Deafness

The fact that Quasimodo is mostly deaf due to his lifelong love of giant bells has sometimes been left out of adaptations, but this is starting to be rectified. Not only does HoND acknowledge this by making him hard of hearing, but a current production at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle has cast Deaf actor Joshua Castille as Quasimodo. Castille uses American Sign Language in the play, which makes sense - in the novel, Quasimodo and Frollo converse with their own sign language. For Quasimodo's songs in the musical, one of his imaginary/statue friends (played by EJ Cardona) acts as his singing voice. (Update 6/16: here's a clip of Castille and Cardona at work.)

Point: HoND

Helene Segara as Esmeralda and Patrick Fiori as Phoebus in NDdP


The biggest change Disney made in their movie was having Esmeralda live and have a happy ending with good guy Phoebus. In HoND, even though Esmeralda dies, Phoebus still gets a hero role. He's a soldier with PTSD who learns to buck the system to stand up for what's right. This is in stark contrast to the novel, where he is a total fuckboy.

Novel Phoebus is engaged to aristocratic Fleur-de-Lys, but he screws around and parties a lot. (Jehan is one of his drinking buddies!) He has zero interest in anything more than sex with Esmeralda. When he gets stabbed by Frollo while trying to have that sex, he decides the affair isn't worth it and bails.

Although NDdP humanizes him a bit, it still keeps him deep in fuckboy territory and even gives him a fuckboy anthem, in which he explains at length to his fiancee why it is totally not his fault that he ended up in a hotel room with a different woman, who is now condemned to death.

Point: NDdP

Jeremy Stolle as aged-up Jehan in HoND for Paper Mill Playhouse,
Julie Zenatti as aged-down Fleur-de-Lys in NDdP

Often-Cut Characters

The only characters you really need for a Notre-Dame de Paris adaptation are Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Frollo. An adaptation with only those three main characters would be quite minimalist, while using all of Hugo's characters would be difficult to juggle: there's a goat, there's Esmeralda's mom who lives in a hole, there's a whole subplot with Louis XI, there's a very funny Flemish hose-maker, etc. Neither HoND or NDdP risk putting a live goat onstage, but they do both use other supporting characters who don't always make the cut.

While I have to give HoND credit for the sheer ballsiness of their Jehan stunt from which I have still not recovered, and they include a quick Louis XI appearance, NDdP takes the gateau here. First of all, they put historical writer cameo Pierre Gringoire to work by having him narrate (they also make him way cooler than novel Gringoire, who is a hapless dork).

More importantly, the NdDP writers give voice to Fleur-de-Lys. Instead of giving Phoebus's fiancee the "bitch" treatment, they let her be human. The NDdP Fleur-de-Lys is giddy with love for Phoebus, but she's also very young and nervous about sex. Even in what could be seen as a villain moment - her song demanding Esmeralda be hanged - what really comes through in Julie Zenatti's masterful performance is her character's anguish and immaturity.

Point: NDdP

Nothing binds men together like singing "Belle" for the 1000th time.
Garou (Quasimodo), Daniel Lavoie (Frollo), and Patrick Fiori (Phoebus)


Here's the big one! And...I'm not picking sides. Sort of. This one truly is a matter of taste. For HoND, you've got Menken's score made even more haunting and grand with a choir, repeatedly calling the epic cathedral itself to mind. Then you have the aforementioned "God Help the Outcasts" and "Hellfire," both unusually mature and complex for Disney songs. There are a slew of covers of these, including this badass metal Hellfire.

And in its corner, NDdP has "Belle," in which Quasimodo, Frollo, and Phoebus talk about how much they want to bone Esmeralda. It's hard to overstate this song's popularity in the francophone world. It came on the radio when my sister and I were in a restaurant in Bruges a year ago, which was awesome. It is to Garou, Daniel Lavoie, and Patrick Fiori what "Let it Go" is to Idina Menzel or "On My Own" is to Lea Salonga. There are endless videos of them singing it in concerts and fundraisers, but this one is typical: the audience loses its shit every time one of the guys come on, and the guys gaze adoringly/awkwardly at each other.

This isn't to say "Belle" is NDdP's only great song. The whole soundtrack is worthwhile, and I will say that its song about the place of ill repute Phoebus and Esmeralda plan to hook up in is way better than HoND's version. (Probably goes without saying, but unlike the French musical, the Disney staging does not include simulated sex.)

Point: whichever you prefer! 

The original NDdP cast in what appears to be a 90s sitcom

Anyway, to sum up: I am a crazy person and please watch a musical based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel.

By the way, now might be an exciting time to join the Hunchback fandom. Idris Elba is producing, directing, and starring as Quasimodo (???) in a modern-day Netflix version, which is possibly also a musical? But Elba's not alone. Josh Brolin also wants to play Quasimodo, as does Tom Hollander. Is Quasimodo the new "it" role, like Hamlet or the Joker? Will any of these productions include Jehan? If so, The Hunchblog will probably have the news first.

In the meantime, here is a bonus character guide:

1) Quasimodo, 2) Jehan Frollo!, 3) Phoebus, 4) Fleur-de-Lys, 5) Chantefleurie/Sister Gudule (Esmeralda's mother), 6) Esmeralda, 7) Djali, 8) Pierre Gringoire, 9) Claude Frollo. (The man in the hat above him is possibly Clopin?)

Image info:

Jehan etching: Gustave Brion
Frollo with baby Quasimodo: Luc-Olivier Merson
The guys kissing: The Hunchblog of Notre Dame
Character guide: Aime de Lemud 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

De-Whitewashing the Past, Illuminating the Present: Girls of the Golden West

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley

I went on a big Nixon in China bender awhile back. Actually, I'm still kind of on it. For a long time, Bluebeard's Castle was the recording always in my car's CD player, but currently it's Nixon in China, the 1987 opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman. So I was eagerly awaiting the world premiere of Adams's latest opera, this time with Peter Sellars as the librettist and director, at San Francisco Opera.

I originally had a ticket for last week (pro tip: if you're in the Bay Area, an opera fan, and under 40, BRAVO! CLUB is the way to go for cheaper tickets), but then my cat Eponine, the best cat in the world even though she is sometimes naughty, got sick with a flare-up of pancreatitis. With an intermission, the show's run time is over three hours. Since I'd be going directly after work, I knew there was no way I'd be able to give the opera my full attention while worrying about how my special girl was doing. Fortunately, I managed to change my ticket date, Eponine got better, and I was able to at last see Girls of the Golden West on Tuesday, 12/5.

Reviews have been mixed, and I will admit there are some glaring weaknesses. However, when I left the War Memorial Opera House, I was dazed and shaking. Despite flaws, I felt I had seen something truly important and of the zeitgeist.

The special girl in question

Those familiar with opera might be asking, "Wait. Isn't there an opera already with that same name?" Sort of, and that's part of the story. Some years ago, Peter Sellars was asked by La Scala to direct a production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, often translated as The Girl of the Golden West. But Sellars disliked the whitewashed, corny opera about the Gold Rush. Instead, he decided to produce, with longtime creative partner John Adams, a Gold Rush opera that told the reality: that the Northern California of the Gold Rush was beautiful and diverse, but rife with racism and sexism. Girls of the Golden West, particularly the second act, focuses on the spates of white supremacist violence that broke out and the lynching of Josefa Segovia on July 5, 1851.

The cast of Girls of the Golden West is young, diverse, and mostly American. Julia Bullock stars as recent East Coast transplant Dame Shirley, and Davóne Tines is Ned Peters, a former slave she befriends and possibly has an affair with. Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, a 49er in a violent downward spiral. Ryan McKinny is his friend, Clarence. Hye Jung Lee (who played Madame Mao in SF Opera's production of Nixon in China) is Ah Sing, an ambitious Chinese victim of human trafficking who latches onto Joe in an attempt to better her life. J'Nai Bridges is the doomed Josefa Segovia, and Elliot Madore is her lover, Ramon.

Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon and J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia

Like other Sellars/Adams operas, Girls of the Golden West uses various texts to tell its based-on-a-true story. The main material is the collection of letters Louise Clappe, better known as Dame Shirley, wrote while living near the mines with her doctor husband. Passages from Mark Twain, Shakespeare, journals, contemporary reporting, and folk songs are also worked in. Tines's aria based on a speech by Frederick Douglass is a high point, but this collage of sources is uneven (obviously a composition by Douglass, one of our nation's greatest speechwriters, is going to sound better than some random dude writing in his diary). Sellars isn't Goodman, who brought her own poetry to librettos.

That Sellars is working from this patchwork means that characterizations and relationships are limited by what he happened to find, relying on the performers and audience to fill in the rest. Bullock and Tines probably do the best with this. Their charisma and chemistry make you believe they are kindred spirits. They even pull off a scene where their characters start to fall for each other while pantomiming a rocky stagecoach ride - no easy feat.

The relationship between Ah Sing and Joe, on the other hand, is much harder to "get." Lee and Appleby also have chemistry, and the reason for their coupling is straightforward: Joe needs a rebound, and Ah Sing needs a meal ticket. Obviously that is going to turn into a hot mess. But when it does, something about the train wreck becomes inscrutable. Of the titular "Girls," Lee's Ah Sing is the least knowable, and we don't get a resolution for her. Joe's fixation on Josefa comes out of nowhere.

Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing and Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon

But the faults here could be overlooked, at least for me, due to the sheer power of the second act. With a set, tight time frame (July 4th and 5th); a built-in structure (the July 4th holiday pageant and then a hasty trial); and rapidly rising racial resentment, the hour-and-a-half second act had me on the edge of my dress circle seat. It felt like an encapsulation of 2017.

Two scenes especially stand out in this regard. At one point, the angry mob of white miners come marching out with torches. At this point, I felt my stomach drop, and heard from the audience a noise mirroring that emotion - part gasp, part moan. The image, of course, immediately brought to mind the white supremacists bearing (tiki) torches as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August this year. And those marchers, of course, were purposefully bringing to mind the many marches of white men bearing torches that came before them.

While media outlets have been criticized for focusing so intently on white supremacists rather than those they aim to terrify, Girls of the Golden West never lets the audience lose sight of the victims. As the white mob rants and riles each other up and commits off-stage atrocities, Josefa and Ramon remain onstage, huddled in their home, cycling through terror, anger, hope, and despair.

Another moment that feels especially relevant in 2017 happens after Josefa has fatally stabbed Joe, her attempted rapist. In the mock trial she is put through as a prelude to lynching, the men of the town rally around the idea that the sexual predator was actually a great guy and surround his victim, intimidating and threatening her, drowning out anything she might say with their chorus of platitudes.

Josefa's "trial"

Adams was well aware of the growing real-life parallels, as revealed in this New York Times profile with Michael Cooper:

It was particularly jarring, he said, to write the opera’s climax — in which a Mexican woman is lynched — against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential race. “I kept hearing ‘Lock her up!’ at those horrible rallies,” Mr. Adams said, recalling news footage of Trump supporters chanting for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment being shown as he wrote choruses for his opera’s angry mob.

Girls of the Golden West is not a perfect opera, but it is a powerful one, and a stark reminder that there is nothing new about a diverse America and strong women, nothing new about white supremacy as a reaction to "economic anxiety," nothing new about sexism, and nothing new about imagining an America that wasn't there.

Girls of the Golden West runs through 12/10 at San Francisco Opera, and then moves to the Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera.

Image info:
All Girls of the Golden West photos: San Francisco Opera & Cory Weaver
Special Girl Eponine: my own photo

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Enigma in Chrome: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

"You'll do well in the First Order, Phasma."

"Is that a whole book about that one character?" a guy in line behind me at the bookstore asked as I handed Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson to the cashier.

One could argue whether his surprise was warranted or not. Despite the fact that Phasma was a visual standout in Star Wars: the Force Awakens - decked out in a chrome version of the iconic stormtrooper armor, played by 6'3" Gwendoline Christie - the character was a bit player. On the other hand, the choice to have an entire novel written about such a character feels like a throwback to the stories of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called Legends), where no character's appearance was too fleeting to merit a detailed backstory.

Still, Phasma has become a somewhat controversial character. Many fans compared her popularity with that of Boba Fett's - another character with a badass design, but with few badass feats actually accomplished on screen. Furthermore, Phasma came off as a bit of a coward - when Finn and Han order her at gunpoint to lower Starkiller Base's shields, she acquiesces rather than risk her life, leading to Starkiller's destruction. Especially considering the lack of a villainess in the Star Wars films, the character seemed like a missed opportunity.

But having read Dawson's novel, Phasma acting differently on Starkiller now seems inconceivable. Instead of ignoring that future action (Phasma is a prequel), Dawson plunges into the heart of it. While lots of stories deal with the aftermath of a moment of cowardice (the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure, the 2011 German film The Loneliest Planet, Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series of novels, etc), Dawson looks at what lead to it. By the time the novel is finished, Phasma lowering Starkiller's shields with a blaster pointed to her head is no longer evidence of weakness, but evidence of terrifying ruthlessness.

Her life, or the glory of the First Order? No question for Phasma.

Phasma opens with peppy, adorkable-ish (if you like that sort of thing) Resistance spy Vi Moradi's capture by the First Order. Once on the Resurgent-class Star Destroyer Absolution, she's taken to an off-the-record interrogation by Cardinal: a captain with solid red stormtrooper armor. Cardinal has one goal: to learn enough about Phasma to take her down. Vi has just left Phasma's home planet, Parnassos, on a mission to learn the same thing. Vi's narration of this information to Cardinal makes up most of the novel.

Before becoming Captain Phasma of the First Order, Phasma was part of a tribe called the Scyre in a blighted, toxic area of Parnassos, a planet that has suffered an apocalyptic event. The Scyre don't know the specifics of the disaster that happened generations earlier, but they doggedly eke out a living in their harsh coastal territory. Phasma and her brother Keldo rule the clan jointly, but there are cracks in their partnership: Phasma wants to expand their territory, while Keldo is satisfied with what they have.

Phasma's brother Keldo

That simmering conflict reaches a boiling point when First Order General Brendol Hux (father of future General Armitage Hux) and a few stormtroopers crash land on Parnassos. Imperious but diplomatic Brendol wows the clan with his stories of the First Order and how its medicine and technology can benefit them...if they help him back to his crashed ship. When Keldo refuses, Phasma rounds up some of her most trusted warriors and undertakes the task herself, abandoning the Scyre.

I've seen several readers compare Phasma to Mad Max: Fury Road, and Phasma, Brendol, and co.'s mad dash across the Parnassos wasteland warrants that. That isn't to say Dawson copies - her barren dystopia is its own place with a well thought-out history. As the group contends with the unforgiving environment and unpredictable encounters, Brendol and Phasma become closer and more conspiratorial. Soon, Phasma's followers wonder if they ever knew her at all.


Back on the Absolution, Cardinal must decide what to do with the information Vi has given him. He is loyal to the First Order, and he has good reasons: he was an orphan starving on Jakku (yes, Jakku!) before being taken in by the late Brendol Hux. He trains the children the First Order, um, "finds," and truly loves his young charges. With Cardinal, Dawson has given us an empathetic, moving look at "the other side" that might not be so "other" (I thought of David Schwarz's recent great essay, Burden of Empire: The Complex Relationship Between Star Wars and Fascism a lot while reading Cardinal's parts).

This novel is a must-read for those wanting to learn more about the mysterious First Order. The parts with Brendol and Armitage Hux build upon what we learned of them in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath: Empire's End (we even get insight into their different interior decorating aesthetics!). I feel particularly vindicated in my long-held assumption that the First Order is a lot like the school car in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, and Dawson throws in some Brave New World as well. There's still so much more to learn, however, that I hope will be revealed in The Last Jedi.

And thanks to Dawson, Phasma is now another reason I'm excited for The Last Jedi. I can't wait to see if Phasma's co-commanders, Armitage Hux and Kylo Ren, will learn the truth of what happened on Starkiller. If so, what will this cold-blooded killer do to continue her sole mission: keeping herself alive?

They've had better days. Sort of. A lot of their days have sucked.

Image info:

Header image and Finn & Phasma:
Keldo and Cardinal: promotional posters by James Zapata
Beleaguered First Order leadership: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair