“The Song is King” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Dennis DeYoung

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Victor Hugo’s classic French Gothic novel from 1831 detailing the twisted and obsessive relationship between Archdeacon Claude Frollo, the beautiful street dancer Esmeralda and the famous cathedral bell ringer, the physically deformed Quasimodo, the “Hunchback” of the title.

Hugo wrote the novel in response to the decay of the famous cathedral at the time. More than 130 years later, this story ironically parallels the work underway today on Notre-Dame, given the massive fire that caused extensive damage on April 15, 2019.

Hunchback has been made into a number of films, including Disney’s animated version in 1996. Next stop? The musical version. Hunchback was first produced at the Tennessee Rep in Nashville in 1997 and then again at the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago where it won the 2008 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Mid-Range Musical.

Now he’s performing at the Skylight Music Theater in his final offering of the season. The show’s writer and composer, Dennis DeYoung of classic rock band Styx, explained his long-term vision for the musical, how he adapted the classic 1800s novel and created a contemporary pop score:

How were you associated with this production? Was it your idea? Have other producers or directors approached you about the collaboration?

My interest in creating a musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic began in 1993 while performing in the national touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar like Pontius Pilate. I got the part because my sister-in-law Dawn married Forbes Candlish, the show’s executive producer, in 1992, who offered me the job. So my advice to aspiring Broadway actors is to have a producer brother-in-law. Until then, I hadn’t considered doing anything on Broadway. I was just a kid from Chicago with an accordion, dreaming of the Beatles.

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Skylight Artistic Director Michael Unger and I have been friends since 1994, when we met by chance outside the Steppenwolf Theater where Michael was then working. We became friends and vowed one day to do this musical together and that day came two years ago when we agreed to do it at the beautiful Skylight Music Theatre.

How did you come up with the music and lyrics for the show? For example, watching movies? read the book?

I knew the 1939 [Charles] version of the Laughton film, then proceeded to read five translations of the original novel. I finally found one in English which sped up the process considerably. Yes it’s a joke

Do your own solo/Styx works play a role in the creation of the music? If so, how exactly?

The music I created for Styx was always written specifically for the five guys who performed it. With this musical, there were no musical boundaries; I didn’t have to meet the expectations of a fanbase, so it was very freeing. Suddenly, the musical palette was unlimited. Although I avoided the chip and burnt sienna.

While many people are familiar with the classic movie and the Disney movie as well as the book, is there anything different/changed about this musical adaptation? If so, what exactly?

I rewrote the story using Hugo’s compelling characters and backdrop to tell a slightly different story while staying true to Hugo’s novel. Priest Frollo has become my central character as we follow his journey from a well-meaning young priest to his descent into obsession, murder and madness.

I changed the text and introduced characters that weren’t in the novel to inform the story I wanted to tell. I’m still waiting to hear from Vic’s legal team. The specific changes are Quasimodo playing football in South Bend and Frollo moonlit as a Parisian mime. Fake news. Come see the show and if you don’t like the changes I made, Michael Unger will buy you a new Tesla…no more fake news. Ok, this is starting to get silly now. Keep reading if you dare

What, if anything, surprised you about creating a musical score for theatre? Was it what you thought it would be once you started the process?

The song is queen and always will be. It’s a musical, not a play. Write a good song and people will come to your party because music is magic. Too many modern musical compositions have forgotten this simple formula. It’s the song, silly. And don’t forget to cast some great singers and this Hunchback production certainly has it in spades.

Once you’ve finished the score and reflected on the process, what do you think you’ve learned working in musical theatre??

Creating a musical is the most difficult and challenging business in all of entertainment. He brings together the music, story, choreography, lighting, sound, costumes, sets, etc., all in real time and must somehow convince the audience that he there’s a good reason these actors sing. This is why so few succeed at all levels; they are really tough. Add the cost element and the myriad of people who need to come together, most for the first time, and then all working in collaborative harmony is daunting. I think I just talked myself out of doing that. Seriously, it’s an exhilarating challenge that I’ve taken on more than once. I also wrote the score for Jerry Zaks’ production of 101 Dalmatians.

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When I first did Hunchback in 1997, I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t. I have learned many valuable lessons from others I have worked with over the past three decades. I owe them all a debt of gratitude. Which is much cheaper than cash. One lesson in particular is to never leave your wallet in the locker room. Thanks to George Burns for this. I told you it was getting silly

Is it something you would like to try again? If so, are you currently working on anything? Are you planning anything in the future?

To start another musical at my age would be too optimistic considering the time involved in their development. Honestly, I believe this show is the greatest musical work of my life and I don’t just say that, I mean it. I know exactly how I wrote Come sail, baby, lady, best of times, Mr. Roboto and others, but when I started writing this score, it felt like someone smarter and more talented than me was doing it. Its corny, it’s true. This show is a very moving experience for me and I hope for the audience as well.

Am I planning anything in the future? Well, I still have a good job pretending to be a rock star, so that’s good. But the last two years have taught me this… less pride and more humility for all of us would be a good thing. And be careful with your plans…the universe awaits

Do you have anything else to add?

Beginnings are easy, endings are difficult in art as in life. And that

show has what I believe to be a real humdinger.

Thanks to Uncle Vic [Victor Hugo] for creating the text that I could paraphrase to bring down the curtain. So tragic and yet so hopeful.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame May 20-June 12 at the Cabot Theater at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. For more information, call the box office at: 414-291-7800, or visit: skylightmusictheatre.org

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