Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was always going to be a hard sell for a Disney movie and despite being perfectly animated and having the obligatory happy ending, it was greeted with middling reviews and disappointing box office when it was released in 1996. But it has remained a firm favourite with a lot of people and for one main reason – its score. Following their partnership on Pocahontas (1995), Disney paired Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz again to produce the songs for this. Menken admits that the subject and setting of the story hugely inspired both of them and the result is Disney’s richest, and most interesting and mature score – perhaps even their best.
Rumours of an English-language stage version of Hunchback circulated for years (it was staged in Germany in 1999) but didn’t surface until 2013. A Broadway try-out followed but proved unsuccessful and the show closed at The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in April 2015. This studio cast album has been produced and issued due to public demand.
Here Menken’s fabulous score and Schwartz’s soulful and witty lyrics are performed perfectly without exception. Michael Arden adds depth and suffering to the innocent Quasimodo’s vocals while retaining the purity required for his beautiful songs. Ciara Renee makes a fiery Esmeralda but also wrenches at the heart with numbers like God Help the Outcasts and Someday (reinstated into the score after being relegated to being sung by Eternal over the credits of the movie). Patrick Page gives a stunning performance as the villainous Frollo, his rich voice dripping with pious menace and commanding your ears to listen every time he appears. One of the many highlights is the clever pairing of Quasimodo’s tender Heaven’s Light with Frollo’s Hellfire – songs about the same subject sung from two very different perspectives. However it is the powerful and intricate liturgical choral work performed by a strong supporting chorus that dominates this CD – much of it sung in Latin.
The newly added songs are all excellent with Menken drawing the melodies for some from his original movie instrumental score with most of them being dramatic, propelling the action as it gets darker in act two. In fact the stage production reinstates many of the original darker aspects of Victor Hugo’s source novel such as the downbeat ending, while lighter additions to the film have been toned down including the loss of the trio of wisecracking gargoyles. It is testament to the movie soundtrack that most of the songs transfer to a darker stage version with little alteration. This is more Les Miserables than Little Mermaid and is all the better for it.
Throughout, Schwartz’s lyrics posit the question “what makes a monster and what makes a man?” By the end of this CD not only will you know the answer to that, you will also know what a simply stunning piece of musical theatre sounds like.