Possibly attempting to mimic the success of the play ‘Les Miserables’, Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon adapted the other famous Victor Hugo novel ‘Notre-Dame De Paris’ (a.k.a. ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’) as a musical stage play. Gilles Amado filmed the stageplay and the result is a confusing hodgepodge of anachronism, revision of plot and frustrating missed opportunities. Major scenes are missing or mishandled. The idea might have been good, but the execution is lacking.
Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
The French play ‘Les Miserables’ is an international sensation. I suppose this naturally suggested that someone should try to follow in its footsteps adapting that other popular novel by Hugo, ‘Notre- Dame De Paris’. It has been adapted by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon to be a stageplay, but everywhere lacking the same impact. The production has been filmed under the direction of Gilles Amado and the audience sees little beyond a filmed performance.
The musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel started well by giving the production the same title that Hugo gave the novel. There are many characters in the story and the first-time reader may not expect that Quasimodo, his innocence, his pain and his love will become the main focus to the story. Re-titling the novel ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ is something of a spoiler. So the play starts out with points in its favor but quickly squanders them. The only adaptation that seemed worse was, of course, the film in which Disney turned this bitter, misanthropic tragic novel into a children’s film.
In this adaptation, written by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon and based on the Hugo novel, the deaf and usually nearly mute hunchback is talkative and to far too great a degree eloquent. Much of the book only works with Quasimodo unable to speak up in his own defence. Here the story omits the trial of Quasimodo, but the story is the poorer for it. But where the real deficit occurs is much later. It is in the novel, Esmeralda is going to be unjustly executed and nobody can do anything to stop it until the seemingly least powerful character in the city, the bell-ringer, does what nobody else can and rescues Esmeralda and saves her life. For one moment, the seemingly least powerful man in Paris becomes the most powerful. In this play, it is the peasant army who frees Esmeralda with the participation of the bell-ringer. It is the most exciting moment in any telling of the story and to not have the scene is a real let-down.
The production we see has little interest in creating a feel of 1482. Nobody is in period dress and most of the dancers dress in what look like loose shirts (or no shirts) and pants for men, shorts for women. Gringoire sings of how the world should accept the gypsies in a ‘world without borders’. It is a very nice sentiment, but not one we would likely have heard in the 15th century. It is very much a 20th century concept. He sings about ignoring the color of Esmeralda’s skin tone, which looks exactly like Gringoire’s own skin tone.
In fact, there is no apparent concession to making Esmeralda appear to be gypsy. She wears a non-ethnic-looking dress and appears very 20th century-ish. There is nothing about her appearance that supports or even fails to refute her being a gypsy. The musical lyrics claim that Quasimodo is ugly and has only one eye. He appears to have two perfectly functioning eyes. His face is done with a little bit of face paint and some blackened teeth. The crooked body just appears to come from some cloth padding under his jacket. This is a very unconvincing hunchback.
In any case, trying to give Esmeralda the appearance of a 15th century gypsy would not have been entirely successful since all the speaking or singing actors wear very large obvious boom mikes spoiling any effect. The Notre Dame Cathedral is portrayed by a climbing wall with pegs for handholds. The peasants blockade the streets with bicycle racks.
The translation is poor and it is not always easy to understand what is happening on stage, but the DVD does have sub-titles. If the idea was to make another ‘Les Miserables’, it is well beyond the play writers’ reach. The score is not as complex, melodic, or even as interesting as the musical score for ‘Les Miserables’. The staging has a lot more dance that seems to have little to do with the plot. While ‘Les Miserables’ is full of memorable (or earworm) melodies, the words are sung to no memorable or often even identifiable melody.
Sadly, as much as I like the novel, there is little to like in this musical film version. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. Undoubtedly someone someplace is trying to adapt the same novel to try to catch the lightning of ‘Les Miserables’. I wish him better luck.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper