On Wednesday, March 4, Disney's latest musical adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" gets a step nearer to Broadway — at least geographically speaking.
I'm hoping it has also moved closer to Broadway artistically speaking.
Disney turned Victor Hugo's classic novel of deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo into an animated movie in 1996, with songs by Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast") and Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Pippin.")
A German-language stage adaptation, directed by James Lapine ("Into the Woods"), ran for three years in Berlin. A new English version debuted at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in October. Now, that production is moving across the country to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.
Disney has had good luck with Paper Mill productions — that's where "Newsies" ran before moving the 25 miles or so to Broadway and scooping up two Tony awards during a two-year run.
But Disney has a mixed record with tweaking shows between their out-of-town tryout and Broadway debut. When "The Little Mermaid" premiered in Denver, other critics and I pointed out flaws in its storytelling and staging. Little was changed and the show — based on one of Disney's most beloved characters — didn't even make two years on Broadway.
On the other hand, after "Aladdin" debuted in Seattle, Disney fixed nearly every criticism I had of the production. Songs were substituted, special effects were improved and the sense of magic was amped up everywhere, while conveying the movie's nudge-wink spirit.
The Broadway version is a sell-out smash and deserves to be.
I hope the Disney Theatrical team takes the same care with "Hunchback." As seen in San Diego, it was a mess of a show. It was childlike, yet wouldn't hold children's attention. It tried to be symbolic — a large chorus replaces the gargoyles of the film — and yet also wanted to be realistic. It's a production that took itself so seriously that when jokey dialogue from the movie was inserted, it felt out of place.
Menken and Schwartz's beautiful music was still moving, but some new songs were oddly misplaced; soldiers sang of killing the leading lady, Esmeralda, to such an inappropriately jaunty tune it was laughable. The actors gave strong performances, especially Ciara Renée's fiery Esmeralda, but the material too often let them down.
Time will tell if Quasimodo makes it to the bright lights of Broadway.