Notre Dame de Paris returned to London this month, and it was interesting to read references in some reviews to the Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon’s musical as previously being a failure. In actual fact, the West End production staged at the turn of the century ran for 17 months, which is a perfectly credible run.
This recent week-long return to London, a stop on its tour, did not leave me feeling the critics had grossly misjudged a lost masterpiece, but neither can its success over the past 19 years be ignored.
Notre Dame de Paris is a fusion of stage spectacle and musical and has no shortage of fans around the world. Its original trajectory to the West End followed more of a Cirque du Soleil path by moving from arena spectacle in France to Las Vegas to the West End. The show has subsequently been a popular revival in France and successfully performed in countries across Europe and also in South Korea and Canada.
Given this international success, perhaps we should ask whether the UK and Broadway musical industries have become too linear in the perceptions of what they consider “a musical”. Have they ignored and unfairly dismissed other countries’ models of musical theatre?
Over the past few decades, France’s large-scale musical work has frequently come from arena stagings rather than black-box theatres and the industry has boomed as a result.
Notre Dame de Paris holds the Guinness World Record for the most successful first year of any musical in history. In some respects, Broadway and the West End have only recently woken up to this large-scale stage format and its potentially lucrative results. Last Sunday’s primetime TV broadcast of Rent Live! in the US was the latest in a series of live musical arena-format broadcasts.
Notre Dame de Paris’ roots and influences can be found more in such works as Michel Breger’s French musical Starmania, for which Plamondon also contributed lyrics.
Because of the great success of Les Miserables, in the UK we may consider Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schoenberg to be France’s most successful musical theatre composers. In France, however, the more frequently revived Notre Dame de Paris, or the beloved Starmania are arguably just as famous.
Aside from the original Les Miserables’ Paris arena performances at the Palais des Sports in 1980 – before Cameron Mackintosh became its producer – the musical has only been seen in France twice since. It had one Paris run in 1991, and again in 2009 when the 25th-anniversary production played a limited season in the capital as part of its tour. Both times, the production played in a theatre.
Despite Boublil and Schoenberg being perceived as France’s most successful musical composers aside from Les Miserables, none of their other blockbuster musicals have had their West End or Broadway productions remounted in France.
What’s often omitted from reports of Les Miserables’ success is the contribution made by John Cameron, its original British orchestrator, and Herbert Kretzmer, the English lyricist Mackintosh brought on board for its London premiere.
It would be wrong to describe Kretzmer’s work as being a translation: what he did was take the language and adapt it, bringing his own voice to the work. It is Mackintosh’s choice of Kretzmer that reflects his skill as a producer – in many respects, a foreign import in the West End or Broadway stands and falls by the person who adapts the lyrics.
The translation of a play has to understand the nuance and rhythms of the original work. But with a musical it is even more complicated, as there is the additional language of sound embedded in the originals, defining where they come from.
This must be understood and respected for a successful West End or Broadway transfer. France’s home-grown musicals are often a mix of big anthems, rock ballads and throwbacks to Eurovision. It’s also why in a musical like Notre Dame de Paris, its songs have worked so well as covers for recording artists including Celine Dion and Josh Groban.
The reality is that often these shows sound better in their original language. This reflects how the wrong adaptation or translation can kill the material. This recent London revival of Notre Dame de Paris was performed in French with subtitles and garnered critical praise for its lyrics – a very different reaction to back in 2000 when many critics and theatregoers were sniggering into their programmes.
From a producing perspective, looking closely at a country’s musical theatre influences can be the key to understanding whether these home-grown works will successfully transfer.
In France, The Lion King, Sister Act, Mamma Mia, Grease, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Zorro have all proved successful imports. This may be down to them capturing elements of spectacle, rock, ‘Euro sound’ or swashbuckling style that’s seen in their French musical counterparts Mozart L’Opera Rock, Romeo et Juliette, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood and Notre Dame de Paris.
This may also explain why a musical like The Phantom of the Opera, despite an aborted attempt in 2016, has never been produced in France. Even though it is set in Paris, the musical’s sound and style may well struggle to get the right foothold in this market.
Nineteen years later, it seems that Notre Dame de Paris has been influential on a number of subsequent works. These include Bat Out of Hell, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, Paramour, King Kong, We Will Rock You and Moulin Rouge. These are always going to be Marmite shows that may split audiences and divide critical opinion.
Crucially, they may also reflect that Broadway and the West End are not necessarily the best place, or crucial to the success, of every musical in the international musical marketplace.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan