I waited for five years to see Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical.
Having now seen Klokkeren fra Notre Dame in Fredericia Teater, Denmark... I could have waited for 15 years and still have been completely satisfied.
Let me tell you.
Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame the animated movie premiered in 1996. It's based on Victor Hugo's very dark novel featuring a hunchbacked bell-ringer, a beautiful Romani girl, and an obsessive archdeacon. A story set in medieval Paris that centers around prejudice, religion, lust and death – an odd choice for a family picture, to say the least.
While the movie is by far Disney's most daring animated feature, it's still a weird collision of darkness and Mickey Mouse. On one hand, you have a powerful villain song detailing the antagonist's burning yet forbidden lust for a woman. On the other hand, comedic singing gargoyles.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical is what the movie could have been, had they dared to go all the way. It's dark, it's upsetting, it's so close to the novel I'm sure Victor Hugo himself would approve. What's more, it's incredibly massive. The music (composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz), the emotions, the story... It's such a rollercoaster of everything that it makes Les Misérables look rather bland in comparison.
In other words, it's got everything I love in musical theatre.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical first premiered in Berlin in 1999. Finding out about Der Glöckner von Notre Dame five years ago and listening to its cast recording, I fell in love right away. At the same time, was sure I would never see the musical live – certainly Disney wouldn't bring it back, with more family-friendly productions like The Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins making bank on Broadway and all around the world.
Little did I know. The musical went through a handful of revisions and was premiered in La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2014. And on October 14th 2016, the revised Hunchback had its European premiere in Fredericia Teater.
I have never been luckier to be a part of an audience.
This was no ordinary theatrical experience, so this is not going to be an ordinary review either. I was so overwhelmed and amazed by every single thing, from the performances to the stage tech, that there is no use trying to be the least bit analytical or objective about it.
Instead, I'll list the things that left the biggest impression on me, and try to tell you how the performance made me feel.
Alan Menken's music is massive and absolutely breathtaking. One of the best musical scores ever composed, especially if you're like me and enjoy huge and dramatic. In Fredericia Teater, every bit from ballads to booming ensemble numbers, every Latin chorus and solo line, is sung and played to perfection.
The sound mixing is flawless. On Friday, it felt like I was like being enveloped by music instead of barely listening to it.
It didn't matter a thing that I'm Finnish and the show was in Danish. Knowing the novel, the movie, the cast recording and some Swedish, I understood about 20% of the dialogue... and 100% of the emotions.
It actually feels nice, that there are still things for me to understand here, dialogue that I couldn't yet grasp that contains more insight into the story and the characters. You see – I feel like this premiere was just the beginning of a long relationship with a new favourite musical, a musical I will in time see in many different languages and learn to know by heart.
I can't wait.
I would love to say something informative and profound about the actors performing in this fantastic show, but right now, I can't. As far as I'm concerned, they are all absolutely perfect for their roles – and while little moments I loved keep coming back to me, I'm still too awestruck by everything to really analyze what I enjoyed. I truely wish I could say more, but as of now, there are no words.
Maybe I can come back to this after I've seen the musical the second time in summer 2017.
First of all: I have never seen digital scenography like this.
With screens surrounding the first six rows of seats from three directions, the digital imagery by Jacob Bønsdorff Eriksen and Thomas Agerholm takes us inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral and on the streets, squares and rooftops of medieval Paris. The 3D animation of moving up and down in between the floors of the church was so impressive the whole audience applauded.
The production is an intriguing mix of digital and traditional, combining the animation with simple yet gorgeous wooden sets. One fantastic idea is how a part of the audience sits onstage in movable pews wearing cloaks, acting as spectators and congregation members. This way, by moving the audience to the right spot, it looks like the already big ensemble suddenly doubles in size.
What's more, the floor itself shakes with the events. I'm not exaggerating when I say that. They have literally installed some technology in the theatre that makes the floor shake.
And the best part? Watching all of this, it didn't felt like I'm surrounded by impressive theatrical gimmicks. It felt like I'm surrounded by the story, that I'm being a part of what the characters are going through. Of course everything around me is lit by digital fire and shaking – that's what the character is feeling. It's only natural that the audience sees and feels it too.
If there is something better in the world than live theatre, please, do tell.
This premiere wasn't watching a group of actors acting out something for an audience, not even an audience really enjoying a performance. This was performers and audience existing in a symbiosis, sharing and amplifying the same experience. I have never been a part of a theatre audience as genuinely excited and enthusiastic as this one – and I've been a very active theatre fan for eight years now.
The moments after Hellfire, the big showstopper near the end of the first act... The best two minutes I have ever experienced in theatre. First, almost falling into a trance for a moment watching Mads M. Nielsen's so-good-it-transcends-words performance, snapping out of it to understand how gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous the music and the scenography is and how it feels like you're completely surrounded by it, enveloped by what's happening. Then the song ending and all of us in the audience exploding, screaming, stomping our feet. Heaven knows how long we would have gone on had they not continued – with a fantastic, drawn-out comedic scene that made the audience's overcharged emotions spill out in near-hysterical giggles.
Moments like that, a room full of total strangers experiencing the same story and feeling it together, reacting and sharing our feelings with each other... The world is cruel, the world is ugly / But there are times and there are people / When the world is not.
For me, experiences like this make life worth living.
It sounds like such a cliché, saying something is the best you have ever seen.
The thing is, sometimes that statement is true.
By the intermission, I felt like climbing on walls, ripping my skin off and strangling someone – all out of sheer excitement. Heart beating twice its usual rate, hands shaking, running out of breath. Jumping up the second the show was over, clapping my hands until they hurt. Waking up at 4:12AM the following morning, completely awake with heart pounding in my chest, all because of what I had experienced the night before.
Friday's Klokkeren fra Notre Dame premiere is the best musical performance I have seen in my life.
11 flames of hellfire out of 10
Photos by Søren Malmose.
Performances in Fredericia in fall 2016 and in Copenhagen in summer 2017. Book your tickets now.
Also read: another review in English at dlp-photos.com