Santa Barbara High School’s longtime theatre teacher Otto Layman’s final show can be summed up in one word: Epic. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the Victor Hugo novel and Disney movie of the same name, tells the tale of Quasimodo, the misfit bellringer of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, as he is raised by the misguided religious zealot Claude Frollo and falls in love with the gypsy Esmaralda. This story, however, extends far beyond the walls of the cathedral, as it tackles some of the deepest questions at the heart of the human experience: What makes a monster and what makes a man? Who is worthy of redemption? And can’t we all love each other just a little bit more?
Hunchback, with its score composed by Disney sweetheart Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame, is far more operatic than many of the shows in the string of contemporary and comedic musicals recently performed at SBHS. With a score that draws from choral and liturgical music as well as musical theater traditions, and the show being almost entirely sung-through, SBHS will take you on an intensely emotional musical journey. Although some of the music is drawn from the famed 1996 Disney film, this is a much more mature, dark, and urgent version of the story. Quasimodo, whose name literally means “half-formed” is the deaf hunchback bell-ringer of Notre-Dame cathedral whose caretaker, the archdeacon Claude Frollo mentally abuses him. His one longing in life is to leave the cathedral where he has been kept and join the people on the streets below who he watches everyday from the heights of the belltower. When he finally does, he finds that Frollo was right about the cruelty of the world, but that Frollo is even crueler. When it comes to telling such a famous story, Layman’s directorial philosophy is to avoid seeing the film or any other version of the production in order to create an uninfluenced, deeply original version of this famous epic.
As this is Layman’s final show at SBHS, he intends to go out with a bang, planning this show on a larger scale than any he has ever done before which is saying a lot. This particular production’s book, written by Peter Parnell, prominently features the ensemble as narrators and Quasimodo’s stone saint and gargoyle “friends,” In addition to the large ensemble of “priests, soldiers, gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” a full choir will be onstage to deliver the powerful Latin chants which are interwoven into the score. Under the lead of music director Jon Nathan, and vocal director Sio Tepper, the full orchestra will create a sound that entirely fills the space of the SBHS theatre and will not soon be forgotten. Additionally, two separate choreographers, Gianna Burright and Christina McCarthy, will contribute to the artistry of the production, collaborating with the students to create the joyous dancing spirit of the gypsies and the intense fight scenes of the show, including the struggle for power between Frollo and his captain of the guard, Phoebus de Martin.
Despite the original novel, Notre-Dame de Paris having been published in 1831, and set in 1492, this production comes at a vital moment. Namely, the real Notre Dame, an 850 year old gothic cathedral in the heart of Paris, lost its famed spire and suffered severe damage in a fire last April, drawing attention to preserving the importance of our shared cultural heritage. Similarly, in Victor Hugo’s time he wrote the novel to call attention to the disrepair of the crumbling cathedral and the potential loss of a French icon. But beyond that, Hunchback’s messages of seeing beyond someone’s outside appearances and combating racism and ableism feel particularly resonant in the America of 2020. For example, in Quasimodo’s famous cry of “Sanctuary, sanctuary!” to protect Esmaralda in Notre-Dame, it is hard not to see reflected the current headlines of undocumented families attempting to evade ICE after crossing the southern border, some claiming sanctuary in American churches. This is a story that will tear at your heartstrings, and Layman describes the tone of the show as “soaring, often dark, with shafts of brilliant sunlight piercing the clouds of despair that hang over the poor misfit Quasimodo.” These are shafts of sunlight we could all use in our lives.
The massive cathedral, spire and all, will be recreated on stage in spectacular fashion by the skilled student builders under Layman’s creative vision and the guidance of technical director Talitha Blackwell. As the story travels from the cathedral itself to the bell towers to the city to the marketplace and to the Gypsy hideout in “the Court of Miracles,” audiences will be immersed in the epic scale of the sets and operatic passion of the story. Additionally, audiences will be transported back in time by Eliana Mullins’ period costume design, and the intense dedication of all the students in Santa Barbara High School’s theatre program.
Hunchback of Notre Dame, which will begin rehearsals next week at Santa Barbara High School, will play May 1st, 2nd, 8th and 9th at 7pm and May 9th and 10th at 2pm in the SBHS Theatre. Tickets will be available for pre-purchase online or at the door. You don’t want to miss this impassioned tale which Otto described as singularly epic and tragic. Whether you have never seen a musical at SBHS before, or are a dedicated superfan of the renowned and award-winning theatre program, all lovers of story will be transfigured by compassion for the hunchback Quasimodo, and brought to a place of hope and love by his selflessness. Come see this sublime and necessary show at SBHS before the bells toll one last time for Otto Layman.