As the epic musical adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris returns to London for the first time in nearly two decades, actors and creatives tell Mark Shenton why the show has stood the test of time despite its initial critical mauling
Ask theatregoers to name a global musical smash based on a Victor Hugo novel and most will respond with Les Miserables, which is in the news this month after it emerged that the original English-language production will leave the West End after 34 years to be replaced by the UK touring version.
But there’s another Hugo novel that has been adapted into an international hit musical and can still be seen its original version: Notre Dame de Paris. Like Les Mis, it premiered in Paris, and in the 20 years since, it has been seen in 23 countries.
It played at London’s Dominion Theatre for 18 months at the turn of the century in English, one of seven languages into which the French original has been translated. It had a residency in Las Vegas, also in 2000, and has been seen as far afield as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Lebanon and Luxembourg.
The show’s international appeal suggests it hit a universal cultural nerve, in much the same way as Les Mis. “It is very unusual to see a show like this, performed in French, going everywhere around the world,” its French/Italian composer Richard Cocciante says.
It is also a show – and a production – that does not fit into a single neat category. “For me, it’s not really a musical,” Cocciante, who has lived in Ireland for the past 18 years, says. “I like musicals and I like opera, but most musicals have speaking and music. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted singing from beginning to the end. That makes it more of an opera, but with the modern concept of the music of today.”
The contemporary musical voice he brings to it is rooted in his own extensive work as a pop singer and composer, particularly in Italy. “I wanted to remain completely myself – which is a Latin way of expressing myself with a Mediterranean sound. My way of expressing music is very passionate – not like English, which can be much more restrained. I want my songs to be elegant but popular.”
And popular it has certainly been. The return of Notre Dame de Paris to the UK, 19 years since its previous run here, will culminate with its 5,000th worldwide performance. Yet there will be one big difference in today’s approach to visiting London compared with two decades ago. Cocciante says: “We came the first time in English, and I think it was an error to come as a conqueror – we needed more humility. We return with humility now, in the original French.”
That means it will be heard with Luc Plamondon’s original lyrics. Plamondon is a prolific songwriter and poet who has written more than 500 songs for artists that have included Diane Dufresne and Celine Dion – the latter recorded the tribute album Dion Sings Plamondon in 1992. He also wrote the lyrics for another legendary European musical, Starmania, still unseen in London, which this year marks the 40th anniversary of its original Paris premiere with a new production there.
“We seem to have a rock concert in frocks spiced up with displays of muscular aerobics from performers purporting to be asylum-seeking refugees.” Michael Billington (Guardian)
“Plamondon, Maheu, lighting director Alain Lortie (who evidently once bought a huge job lot of blue and purple gels) and most of the principals are Quebecois rather than French; consequently, I did emerge from the Dominion Theatre with a song in my heart, but that song was the South Park number Blame Canada.” Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times)
“Have there been worse London musicals? Bien sur, some of which are still running. (Others have in the past played this very theatre: Time, anyone?) But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a $7 million production of such astonishing vacuity that it makes the Disney stage treatment of the same material — unveiled last summer in Berlin — look like Gypsy by comparison” Matt Wolf (Variety)
Notre Dame de Paris star Daniel Lavoie on the critical reaction: “The write-ups were horrible – they killed us, they totally nailed us. They didn’t understand what was happening. They were used to a certain style of show and this was something else. Now people have got used to it and it hasn’t aged.”
After the death of his Starmania collaborator Michel Berger, Plamondon was searching for a new project and went through a bibliography of famous characters. “I was ready to put it in the garbage when I got to Q and found Quasimodo,” he says. That’s when the idea was sparked to write the musical, though he was far from the first to do so: “Cameron Mackintosh told me he’d had five versions presented to him.” And Disney, too, did its own film version, scored by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. He reveals that Disney once approached him with an offer to translate that version into French, but that he wanted to write his own.
Notre Dame de Paris quickly became a phenomenon. And it has inspired loyalty, not least from cast members who have stayed with the show for years. Daniel Lavoie, who plays Frollo, originated the role in Paris in 1998 and starred in the original London production, too. “I’ve been with it from the very beginning,” he says. “But I left after the London production and did my own stuff for 15 years. Then they asked me if I wanted to come back, and I don’t regret it one bit.”
Lavoie is particularly pleased to be bringing it back to London in French: “I think it works best in its original language with surtitles. I wouldn’t want to see Turandot in my language – I want to hear it in Italian. And this show was written in French, and sounds good in French.”
Of course there’s a certain irony in the fact that it will be playing at the London Coliseum, an opera house that usually does the opposite – presenting works of opera translated into English rather than in their original languages. But Adam Blanshay, the London-based Canadian theatre producer who has joined forces with the original producers to bring it back to London, says the house was very specifically chosen: “The show is a spectacle, not the sort of thing we usually see in London. So I wanted it to be in a theatre where the conventions are not so neatly drawn out, but where different art forms come together, so that the show was not scrutinised as a conventional piece of musical theatre but can exist as a spectacle itself.”
In that regard, it is reminiscent of the trajectory of the stage version of Bat Out of Hell, which also premiered at the Coliseum, before going on to the Dominion – the original home of Notre Dame. Both the Coliseum and Dominion match the scale of the show’s production values, with its massive climbing-wall set on which a team of dancers and acrobats scramble and hang from giant bells. A couple of those acrobats are English circus performers. One, Nathan Jones, has been in the cast for seven years and says: “This is such a unique show: you don’t usually see a musical with circus performers in it.”
There are other unique characteristics and challenges. Angelo Del Vecchio, who plays Quasimodo, is the only performer to have sung the show in three languages since joining it in 2011: his native Italian, English and now French. He had previously appeared in an Italian adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, scored by Cocciante, called Giulietta e Romeo. He was delighted to return to sing Quasimodo’s songs again: “The strength of Cocciante’s music is that it’s very modern – but the arrangements and music are timeless. You can’t recognise the decade it is composed in. And the melodies are so beautiful and catchy.”
Lebanon-born pop star Hiba Tawaji, who plays Esmeralda, shot to fame as a semi-finalist in the French version of The Voice. She is not from a conventional musical background, but the show defies those conventions too. “You can’t compare Notre Dame to what’s on in the West End or on Broadway. It has its own unique style,” she says. “But it’s a big deal doing this show in London for me: it is the capital of musicals.”
For Lavoie, the secret of the show’s success is more elemental: “It just works. The play is really well put together, and the catharsis of everyone dying at the end is brilliant. People cry – the four main characters have died – but then they smile. That’s the secret of tragedy.”
• Originally premiered on September 16, 1998, in Paris
• The show has been professionally produced in Belgium, Canada, China, France, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the US
• It has been translated into seven languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Korean, Flemish and Polish
• Original London cast at the Dominion Theatre in 2000 included Tina Arena as Esmeralda and Steve Balsamo as Phoebus
Notre Dame de Paris runs at London Coliseum until January 27