Early on in Victor Hugo’s tragic novel Notre Dame de Paris, the poet Gringoire proudly presents his latest play to the public and finds it rudely rejected. In a case of life imitating art, a French musical version of Hugo’s epic – which remains better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – opened in London in 2000 to some of that year’s harshest reviews. The show’s brutal critical reception rested chiefly on its clunky English lyrics (translated from the French) and the use of a prerecorded backing track instead of a live orchestra. The lyricist Luc Plamondon also complained of xenophobia among the hostile reviews.
Yet the production ran for over a year in the West End’s enormous Dominion theatre, with Tina Arena and Dannii Minogue both having stints as Esmeralda. It has been a smash hit elsewhere in Europe, as well as in South Korea and Kazakhstan. Now, as part of its 20th-anniversary tour, the show is returning to London for another run, this time performed in the original French at the Coliseum, with new English surtitles, in a translation by Jeremy Sams that aims to capture the richness of Plamondon’s lyrics. This time, there will also be a live string accompaniment played alongside the prerecorded score. The show will hope to enjoy a boost from the BBC’s popular new TV adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables, starring Dominic West, as well as the ongoing success of Les Mis, the longest-running musical in the West End.
“We all know what happened in 2000,” says the actor Richard Charest, who plays Gringoire in the current revival and also appeared in the original London run. “The critics were really hard at that time.” Also returning from the London production is Daniel Lavoie, who again plays Frollo – the archdeacon who adopts the hunchback and, like his ward, falls for Esmeralda in Hugo’s story. “I had always dreamed of the West End,” says Lavoie. “I knew the West End was the place to do a musical in the world.” He believes British critics were “taken aback” by the style of the production. “I don’t think Notre Dame De Paris fits into the class ‘musical’. It’s more like an opera. Nothing is spoken, everything is sung from beginning to end. The story is told in singing.”
The story is also told with a crack squad of back-flipping acrobatic dancers, who dangle from giant, swinging bells, against a stark set comprising huge slabs of stone and buttock-baring gargoyles that are wheeled around the stage. The sense given by the design is of a dystopian world rather than the panoramic view of 15th-century Paris that Hugo details with precision in the novel. But scenes involving persecuted refugees and civil unrest should strike a chord with modern-day French audiences.
Notre Dame de Paris has just concluded its third consecutive winter run at the cavernous Palais des Congrès in Paris, which seats almost 4,000 and once hosted the Eurovision song contest. This is where the production had its premiere in 1998. Composer Richard Cocciante remembers searching for potential backers in Paris and being repeatedly told “that I was crazy and it would be a disaster”. Certainly, a Quasimodo song-and-dance spectacular sounds like it could rival Springtime for Hitler, the show that is designed to be a surefire disaster in Mel Brooks’s satire The Producers.
Influenced by Italian opera and French popular song, Cocciante says he felt no affinity to the tradition of American or British musicals while creating the show. Pop and rock singers are often cast in the major roles of the production rather than classical singers. Notre Dame de Paris was released as a concept album before it was even staged; the first song that Cocciante and Plamondon wrote, Belle, sold 2.5 million copies as a single. Unusually, the lyrics were written (by Plamondon) after the music had been composed rather than vice versa. “When you compose the music first,” says Cocciante, “the impact of the music is primary.”
Charest says that when Notre Dame de Paris was first put on in 1998, there was a vogue for large-scale musicals in France: it was soon followed by a major staging of Romeo and Juliet. But he believes it is becoming more difficult to originate musicals of that scale today. He and Lavoie are now collaborating on musical projects about both the poet Rimbaud and The Elephant Man.
According to Lavoie, Notre Dame de Paris has been “tightened and tweaked” for this revival, which uses an international cast: the Italian Angelo Del Vecchio plays Quasimodo and the Lebanese actor Hiba Tawaji stars as Esmeralda. Conductor Matthew Brind says it will prove to be a stylistic change for English National Opera when their string players perform alongside the prerecorded score. The lead actors each wear an earpiece that enables them to isolate specific elements of the score – such as the strings or wind instruments – at different times throughout the evening.
Although best known as a novelist, Hugo was an important playwright whose drama Hernani is a key text of the romantic movement and sparked riots upon its premiere in 1830, when it was renounced by classicists. His plays are still regularly performed in France but rarely in the UK. In 2016, Bristol Old Vic had a hit with The Grinning Man, a musical version of Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, which transferred to the West End. But while the musical Les Misérables had a successful premiere in Paris in 1980, it is the stage version of Notre Dame de Paris that continues to ring the bells of French audiences.