The latest blockbuster musical to come out of France isn't by the team of Boublil and Schonberg (Les Miz, Miss Saigon), but by Luc Plamondon (Starmania) and Richard Cocciante. The blockbuster is none other than Notre Dame de Paris and it happens to be the 3rd or 4th musical incarnation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame to appear in as many years. This version, as far as I know, adheres to the book more than any other adaptation.
The other famous musicalization by Disney, which hit the silver screen in 1996, opened as a stage production in Berlin last year (which produced a superb cast album), and is targeting a Spring 2001 opening on Broadway, took many liberties with the story and with good reason. It was an animated musical aimed at entertaining children. The odd thing about Disney's version is that it contained Broadway caliber music and was probably enjoyed more by adults than children. It was very theatrical and I knew the minute I heard it that it should be on Broadway - I wish I could say the same for Notre Dame de Paris.
In an unusual move, the producers of Notre Dame de Paris decided to film the show with its original leads and release it on DVD (available now) and videotape (soon to be released) while it is still running in France and other cities around the world.
Since DVDs have many options on them, one being subtitles, I figured I would take a chance and buy the DVD. Since the lyrics are in French, I would be able to follow the story while having the English subtitles turned on. Well, after one viewing, I was hooked. What I found was a very entertaining pop-rock musical that loosely told the tale of Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame.
Trying to judge Luc Plamondon's lyrics from the subtitles is not an easy thing to do - they aren't always a direct translation. But one can figure out enough to tell that there is just too much repetition here and many lines are repeated ad nauseum. Luckily Richard Cocciante has provided a lovely and lush pop-rock score that makes one forgive the repetition, at least for this reviewer. Mr. Cocciante's score has a European sound and probably will not go over big with audiences here though it seems to have found a loyal following. I have a feeling most theater fans will not like this show. (For proof of that just check out the production currently playing in Las Vegas. I hear they are struggling to find an audience). In view of the fact that this is not a traditional musical theater score it was not staged as such. The actors use head- mikes, and the show is staged more like a concert with very little set pieces - sort of Rent meets Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately, one rarely gets the feeling they are anywhere near Notre Dame. Only when we see shadows of large windows on the stage do we get that feeling; there are no sets to suggest otherwise.
There is a lot of unusual choreography going on here featuring acrobatics and break dancing. I can't figure out why this is, but for some reason the show works as a whole. While Notre Dame de Paris may not be to everyone's taste, no one can deny that it was filmed beautifully. One improvement could have been to tone down the actors make up. I can understand why is it so severe since they are playing in a large house but it should have been modified for video.
Most of the enjoyment of this show comes from its leading actors. I was very impressed with 4 of the 7 leads Bruno Pelletier (Gringoire), Daniel Lavoie (Frollo), Patrick Fiori (Phoebus) and Garou (Quasimodo). Three of the four possess strong pop-rock tenor voices that could rival any of Broadway's best tenors and the fourth, Garou, has a gruff-sounding baritone (think Joe Cocker) that is absolutely perfect for Quasi. I have heard many differing opinions about his voice from outright bad to marvelous. I found his voice to be terrific and I can't wait to hear his solo CD, due in April. The other three men are established recording artists and their experience shows. They all blew me away on first listen.
Unfortunately, I was not so impressed with the female leads and that's a shame. It makes the show a little unbalanced. Esmeralda as played by Helene Segara is a major disappointment. While she may be beautiful and a fine actress, she is simply not a musical theater performer - she cannot project or belt. This is a surprise since she is a seasoned performer who has released 2 solo CDs. She has a sweet voice and is at her best on the ballad Ave Maria Paien. Julie Zenatti, who plays Fleur de Lys, is another story. She plays Fleur, at least on video, as if she were the hunchback. For some odd reason she spends most of her time on stage with her shoulders up and her head thrust forward. She is young (17) so she is forgiven and might actually grow into a fine performer. I had no real problem with her voice. In fact, she has a stronger voice than Miss Segara. The last lead, Luck Mervil, who plays Clopin, the King of the Thieves, was satisfactory but didn't impress me much.
If one wants to experience Notre Dame de Paris for the first time, I recommend watching this video, which costs no more than the 2 CD live set of the show. Not only that, you get a gorgeous hard cover booklet containing all the French lyrics and pictures from the show (the 2 CD box set has a small version of this booklet). The cast is exactly the same on both the 2 CD set and the video.
Since Notre Dame de Paris is set to conquer the world, an English-language recording was inevitable. This recording was made prior to its premiere in London's West End (May 2000). As a preview of this upcoming production, they have decided to use the West End cast for this CD. Four of the original French leads have been retained (3 of my favorites) Daniel Lavoie, Bruno Pelletier, and Garou along with Luck Mervil. They are joined by Steve Balsamo, Tina Arena, Natasha St. Pierre and Celine Dion as a guest singing one of the shows hit songs, "Live" (the best version on record yet). But, once again we have uneven casting. Tina Arena is perfectly awful as Esmeralda. She might be more of a belter than Miss Segara but I found her voice to be flat and lacking character. She is no actress. Maybe she will grow into the part one can only hope but if one is to judge her performance from this CD, then she is the wrong choice for the role. Natasha St. Pierre, on the other hand, is a true find. Her voice simply took my breath away. It's a shame she isn't playing Esmeralda. She is better than any of the actresses who have sung either Esmeralda or Fleur de Lys on CD. Steve Balsamo first burst on the musical theater scene playing Jesus in the recent West End revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. He was spectacular on that recording and does well in the role of Phoebus, though I was not as impressed this time around. I suppose that is because I thoroughly enjoyed Patrick Fiori in that role to begin with. As for the rest of them, they all sound just as good singing in English as they do in French.
Will Jennings is responsible for the English translation and he has done an uneven job. Sometimes his lyrics are imaginative and beautiful as in "Live," "The Bohemienne Song," "The Bells," "The Birds They Put in Cages," "My Heart If You Will Swear," and "Belle" (the show's hit tune). Other times he uses direct translations and they don't always work as in "God You Made the World All Wrong" ( "I'm so ugly, he's so fine" puh-lease!!) or "Your Love Will Kill Me" (in which he repeats the title line 25 times), but that problem I blame mostly on Luc Plamondon.
This CD is a good introduction to the show if you do not have a DVD player. But if you do I recommend getting the DVD - the music sounds much better sung in French.
That's all for this column. 'Til next time, happy listening (and watching)!