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Why I Love "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

(Spoiler warning for the 2014 stage production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

Paris is on fire. Flames lick at the crowds that gather, running and fighting on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame. High above the crowds, something stirs, and as heads turn in horror and awe, a figure comes into sight, far too large and far too wide, struggling under the weight of...something. Suddenly, a scream rings out, and something bright begins to fall to the streets below. Molten lead is streaming into the frightened crowd, pushing them back from the doors. High above it all, the figure grimaces as he returns to his dark tower home.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, orginally written in French by Victor Hugo and published in 1831, is one of the most poinient and prominent stories of the era, skyrocketing the cathedral that it is set in into international stardom and keeping it there for the more than century and a half that have followed. It's been translated into many different languages (it was first translated into English in 1833), and retold in multiple formats, including various movies, comics, television series, and theatrical productions. The classic tale of man versus self, society, religion, and fellow man is one that hits home for many people, myself included.

I am only familiar with two interpretations of this story (though I'm working on getting to the book), and these two happen to be the Disney versions, the 1996 film and the 2014 musical by the same name. I first saw the film when I was a little girl, in the early 2000s, and beleive me when I say that I was probably far too young to be watching it. It was particularly interesting to me because I was raised as a Catholic, and had had difficulties with my faith for most of my life. I was also a child with many self-esteem issues, stemming from the fact that I have always been heavyset, as well as an outsider in my school for one reason or another (some of it my fault, I take responsibility for that now). I related to Quasimodo, isolaed and an outsider, and to his struggle against the oppressive version of my faith that Judge Frollo forced on him. As I got older, I learned to love more than the catchy music and the beautiful art of the film; I learned to appreciate the themes of racial tension and self versus community presented by Esmerelda and Phoebus.

I first heard of the staged musical a few years ago, picking up the cast recording at Barnes and Noble and listening to it in awe with a good friend of mine on the car ride home. I must say that this version is my absolute favorite so far. In this version, Frollo is Quasimodo's uncle, whose brother had run away with a Romani woman and died shortly after Quasi was born, presumably of the Black Plague. He is also the archdeacon of Notre Dame instead of a judge, adding the theme of corruption in the Catholic church to the already dark show. The show added several songs to the soundtrack, giving more depth to the relationships between Quasi and Esmerelda, Esmerelda and Phoebus, and Frollo and the other three, as well as expanding on the concept of Quasimodo's "friends", the gargoyles, who become the chorus of the show in the style of Greek drama, providing commentary on Quasimodo's inner thoughts and his struggle with his morality. There are five scenes that stick out in my memory as vastly important to the story and the themes that it presents and questions, as well as simply being exceptionally beautiful, and with the recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, they have been on my mind constantly.

The first is the song Out There. This is Quasimodo's "I want" song, where he expresses his longing to be out in the streets of Paris, walking among the citizens "strolling by the ordinary men". The typical staging of this scene echoes the movie, having Quasi climbing the set and making wide gestures with his hands over the imagined skyline as the gargoyle chorus watches with smiles on all faces. It almost begs for us to see what he sees, and to root for him to succeed, though, when viewed with the story known, it becomes a bittersweet moment of blissful ignorance and child-like optimism that we know is unfounded. I'm not sure there is a single person who couldn't relate to the feeling of wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself, of wanting to be accepted and welcomed with open arms in a place where you cannot go for one reason or another.

The second is the first interior church scene, and God Help the Outcasts. This is Esmerelda's theme, her motivation for all of her actions for the rest of the show. She is an advocate for her people, persecuted and hunted down for daring to question the authority of the church and refusing the advances of the highest of its members in Paris. This scene not only touches on the aspect of corruption, but fiercely focuses on the problems of racism and inequality, as Esmerelda begs God to help her people, challenging Him and His followers with the statement, "I thought we all were the children of God." In my mind, she is one of the best portrayals of activism in media, because she fights for what she believes in and never compromises her beliefs, even when it costs her everything.

The third moment is tied to the second, and it is Someday, Esmerelda's requiem from her prison cell on the eve of her execution. This is one of the most poignient moments in the show, with a single spotlight on Esmerelda, in Phoebus' arms, terrified and crying but never backing down and never giving in, eternally hopeful for her people even when she is gone, as she sings for a future "when we are kinder/When we have learned."

The fourth moment is Hellfire, which, to me, is one of the most theatrically beautiful moments ever. It is truly terrifying to see Frollo in his white robe stained red with the light that floods the stage like fire, arms held wide as he takes the position of Jesus on the cross. This song uses Crucifictian imagery ironically, to highlight just how far Frollo has fallen. Its lyrics are darkly ironic as well, with Frollo praising his piety with the oxymoronic line "of my virtue I am justly proud", while also damning Esmerelda for awakening desire in him. He sees himself as a martyr for his faith, but we can see clearly his corruption and the lives he has destroyed.

The fifth and final moment is actually a combination of two moments, from the very beginning and very end of the show. In The Bells of Notre Dame, when Quasimodo is introduced during his line "What makes a monster and what makes a man?", the actor portraying him physically transforms into him as he dawns the hunchback and smears his face to represent his deformity. This staging is reversed in the Finale, as he tells us Quasimodo's fate, being found years later beneath the church, his skeleton curled around Esmerelda's skeleton, and as the transformation finishes, the actor tells us that "when they tried to remove her, he crumbled away to dust." I love this visual representation of the importance of what lies inside rather than outside, and the meta story of the actor taking on the mantle and bringing to life Quasi's story. It is almost like seeing Quasimodo finally get his wish in death, for his story to be told not like that of any other man, but as the most important of all.

I really cannot express how much I love this story. It's one of the darkest tales and yet most hopeful, most tragic but most beautiful. It really is a tale of men, and monsters. Which is which? You are left to decide as the bells toll ever onward.


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