The Hunchback of Notre Dame Bailiwick Repertory

We live in the age of the composer-lyricist—a time when musicals are believed to be the creation of one Great Person like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Sondheim, surrounded by a host of lesser beings (directors, actors, choreographers, musicians, and all those faceless backstage people) who exist merely to ease the artistic birthing process. This hero worship may sell tickets. It certainly builds brand identity. But it also distorts what really goes into the making of a musical.

The best musicals are the result of creative partnerships. It took Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and director Rouben Mamoulian and choreographer Agnes De Mille to transform Lynn Riggs’s play Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma! My Fair Lady was the brainchild of Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Moss Hart, and George Bernard Shaw (not to mention Ovid). Sondheim may get cultish adulation for his work, but he makes a point of working with great directors, talented choreographers, and writers who know how to tell a story.

Dynamic collaboration is necessary because musicals are complex things: a melding of at least three performance genres to create something more entertaining than the sum of their parts. When one person dominates—or worse still, creates alone—the end result usually seems off balance. The story’s weak, or the characters are undeveloped. The show doesn’t feel finished somehow.

That’s the problem with Dennis DeYoung’s musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the classic 1831 novel by Victor Hugo about doomed love in 15th-century Paris. A gifted songwriter, former Styx front man DeYoung has packed his adaptation with power ballads and soaring anthems. But he desperately needs a stronger book to set the scene for each song and give the characters context.

Certainly the elements for a good show are there. Hugo’s three central characters are as fascinating as they are iconic. Quasimodo is physically deformed but beautiful on the inside. Frollo, his guardian, is a religious man who’s taken a vow of chastity but now finds himself sexually obsessed. And then there’s the beautiful, contradictory femme fatale Esmerelda. DeYoung’s music goes a long way toward giving them life. Dana Tretta’s Esmerelda stops the show when she enters singing “When I Dance for You.”

That’s not to say the songs couldn’t use some work: Many of them come across as a pastiche of material from other sources, including The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and ABBA. And many of them, of course, are reminiscent of Styx (although not as much as you might think: watching this show makes you realize how much the band’s sound depended on guitar work and the specific voices of DeYoung and Tommy Shaw).

But even with its flaws, the score is far superior to the book. DeYoung’s characters don’t develop gracefully—they either fail to change or change suddenly. Take Frollo, for instance. In one scene he’s a wise father, in the next he’s murderously jealous of Esmerelda’s lover; in the third he’s suicidal.

The weakness of the book ultimately compromises the songs by forcing DeYoung to weigh them down with exposition and character development. This makes it harder for them to do their true job, which is to express those feelings that can’t be expressed any other way. That’s a shame, because if DeYoung’s songwriting for Styx demonstrated anything, it’s how much a rock ‘n’ roll song can evoke.

Director David Zak has given this potentially powerful but problematic material as good a production as one might reasonably expect. George Andrew Wolff communicates both the likable and freakish sides of Quasimodo. And even if Jeremy Rill’s Frollo never convinces us that he finds Esmerelda attractive enough to kill for, Tretta succeeds in making her both a beautiful damsel in distress and a strong, independent woman.

But without a decent book, the show becomes little more than a glorified cast album. Ironically, DeYoung has already released a CD of songs from Hunchback, sung by him and Dawn Marie Feusi—and it’s more moving and dramatic than this production.

At the opening I overheard DeYoung in the lobby telling someone that though he thought the show was good it will be better in two weeks, and better still two weeks after that. He may be right. But this Hunchback will never achieve its full potential until DeYoung finds a real book writer to partner with.v