The Hunchback of Tennessee

After years on the road, Dennis DeYoung is tired of living out of a suitcase. But for the past two months DeYoung, a founding member of Styx, has been doing just that in Nashville, where his musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame finishes its world-premiere engagement this weekend at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre. The production, directed by Tennessee Rep artistic director Mac Pirkle, was mounted in association with Chicago-based producer Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals and Cleveland-based Magicworks Entertainment. When Hunchback ends its Nashville run, Fox and Magicworks must decide whether the show merits further development in a more elaborate Chicago or New York staging. The Nashville Tennessean’s review, while respectful, acknowledged “elements that need to be polished carefully before a truly finished work emerges.”

Since 1972 DeYoung’s written about 60 percent of the songs on the 12 albums by Styx; including greatest hits compilations and live recordings, the band has sold some 30 million records worldwide. But Hunchback marks DeYoung’s debut writing musical theater. He first saw the film of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot back in the mid-60s, and “after falling in love with that show and wanting to play the role of King Arthur, I became infatuated with musicals.” While writing for Styx, DeYoung realized he had a skill that might serve him well in musical theater. “I thought I would be suited for the medium because my songs have always been melody driven.”

But like so many before him who’ve been bitten by the theater bug, DeYoung has learned that creating a great musical isn’t easy. The long process of bringing Hunchback to the stage began in 1992, when he took a break from the band to play Pontius Pilate in a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Initially DeYoung was reluctant to try acting: “I didn’t want all the criticism rock stars get when they try something new.” But he took the job anyway as a lark, and as the tour wended its way across the country, his relatively small role left him a lot of free time each evening to watch the production. After about 200 performances of Superstar, DeYoung knew he didn’t want to pursue acting. “But I started to get the feeling I should try my hand at composing a musical,” he says.

DeYoung discarded several possible ideas before he discovered Victor Hugo’s novel; instead of the more obvious story of Quasimodo’s tortured relationship with the Gypsy girl Esmeralda, DeYoung was drawn to the plight of Father Frollo, who befriends Quasimodo and finds his deeply held religious convictions sorely tested by Esmeralda’s allure. “I wanted to explore what there is in all of us that allows us to take a fall from grace,” DeYoung explains.

He roughed out a series of scenes and, using a portable electronic keyboard, began composing a score. The first song he wrote, a soaring pop ballad called “Who Will Love This Child,” is one of the show’s strongest. “I started out writing this score with the premise that I was writing a series of pop arias,” says DeYoung, who professes to be a big opera fan. When the Superstar tour ended in late 1993, DeYoung returned home with the score nearly completed. Singing all the roles themselves, DeYoung and his sister Dawn Marie recorded the score at his home studio in south suburban Frankfort. Then he began looking for a producer. He invited Michael Leavitt to his house for a two-hour presentation, and Fox Theatricals agreed to codevelop Hunchback with Magicworks Entertainment (which put together the Superstar tour).

All parties felt the show’s book needed more work before a workshop or a full-blown production could be mounted. DeYoung began collaborating with Canadian dramaturge John Murrell, while Leavitt tapped New York director Susan Schulman (who staged the Tony Award-winning The Secret Garden) for a Chicago workshop in the spring of ’96. Friction quickly developed, however, when Schulman took control. “I was basically shut out of that workshop,” DeYoung claims. Murrell threw in his lot with Schulman, but when their workshop failed to satisfy the producers, Hunchback was suddenly in limbo.

At that point Tennessee Rep’s Pirkle stepped in. Introduced through a mutual friend, Pirkle and DeYoung shared a vision of the musical, and Pirkle wanted to spotlight his young regional company’s mission of working closely with writers to develop new shows. “We firmly believe in putting writers at the center of the process,” he says. Fox and Magicworks agreed to let Pirkle and DeYoung organize another workshop. Last January, a new workshop took place in a Nashville recording studio. This time the producers liked what they saw and green-lighted the show to premiere at Tennessee Rep in the fall of ’97.

A week into that engagement, both DeYoung and Pirkle say they’re pleased with the musical but admit that it still needs work. Hunchback opened after only two days of technical rehearsals (with the lights, sets, costumes, and orchestra in place) and a single preview. During the first week of the run, DeYoung obsessed over the sound design, sitting at the back of the theater to coach the sound engineer. “We want this production to be as polished and tight as we can possibly make it by the time the run ends,” says DeYoung.

After attending the show’s opening night, Leavitt plans to return for the concluding performances this weekend. “We’ll see what it looks like at the end of the run, but I’m optimistic,” he notes. If the show is to have a future, Leavitt wants to move quickly, possibly reworking the book and score, staging another production at a different regional theater, and debuting the show in Chicago at the restored Palace Theater in the Bismarck Hotel, which Fox and Magicworks hope to unveil in the fall of ’98. Leavitt says, “I don’t want to let Dennis’s show sit for another year.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dennis DeYoung photo by Harry Butler.