Recently, I went to see the musical, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” performed by CWU’s Central Theatre Ensemble. I found it to be a thought-provoking performance that posed questions on the idea of faith that I believe are relevant today.
The production crew—from the main cast and the ensemble to the creative team and backstage staff—showcased extraordinary talent and left a lasting impression.
The beautiful music and comedic scenes were entertaining, but unlike the family-friendly Disney animation, the theatre version shed light on darker themes. The musical, which is based on Victor Hugo’s novel, “Notre-Dame de Paris,” presents the Romantic era and ideas of the early 19th century. Among them, the one that stood out to me was the duality of human nature and the clashes between the good and the evil.
Director Terri Brown’s message in the playbill reads, “Romantics believed that human existence is complicated by dualities and is often divided against itself with humanity longing for an ideal existence or society…” In other words, the Romantics believed in the contrasting idea that humans have both the capacity to do greater “good,” like altruism, and do greater “evil,” like violence.
The story takes place in a Catholic cathedral, but I found the themes relatable to the Christian faith as well.
Personally, I grew up attending a Protestant church and learning about Biblical stories, but when I entered college and encountered different world views, I questioned my faith many times and continued seeking answers.
The production made me ask how the idealistic view of faith would look like and how living out my faith wrongly could harm myself and others around me.
“The Hunchback” tells the story of the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo—played by Steven Macias—who lives behind the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral. Quasimodo’s guardian, Archdeacon Claude Frollo—played by Jackson Bouchard—reluctantly raises him when Frollo’s brother Jehan dies and leaves his deformed son in his hands.
Frollo directs Quasimodo to stay hidden inside the cathedral for his own sake because he is “deformed and ugly”, and believes his behavior towards Quasimodo is charitable.
Frollo also justifies his goal to rid French society of the Romani people because of the sinful acts he claims that they commit. I believe that when you’re quick to look at the speck of sawdust in other people’s eyes and not the plank in your own eye—as said in the Bible—it’s very easy to resort to blaming and pointing at others’ faults.
When Quasimodo pursues his wish to live “one day out there” and ventures outside Notre Dame, the townspeople are at first fascinated by him, but then they taunt and attack him because of his deformities. A kind Romani woman named Esmeralda—played by Kara Blackwell—stops the mob and shows compassion towards Quasimodo.
A touching moment unfolds when a group of children joins her, hands Quasimodo water and embraces him.
Esmeralda is more concerned for others than her own welfare and even when her life is on the line, she prays earnestly for God to help her people from poverty and marginalization. Frollo’s adamant obedience to religious law and self-righteousness contrasts with Esmeralda’s selflessness and generosity and with Quasimodo’s childlike innocence.
In my understanding, the three characters represent two different types of believers in the church, one who adheres to a strict set of rules with little room for forgiveness, and the other who follows love and mercy as Christ did.
On the other hand, Frollo is a complex character, who has his own reasons for hunting down the “gypsies.” He denounced his brother Jehan’s weakness, chasing after pleasure and a Romani woman. Frollo vowed not to follow his footsteps. However, Frollo does struggle to suppress his lustful thoughts toward Esmeralda and struggles to follow the laws of Notre Dame.
During an intense scene on stage under a blazing red light, Frollo attempts self-flagellation—the act of flogging oneself—to whip his impure thoughts away. Although this depiction of a church authority can be offensive to some Catholic and other Christian faiths, I believe that Victor Hugo’s message is not simply to religious people, but to all people. Everyone faces moral choices in their lives and there is much gray area between the two extremes.
Hugo’s novel was an effort to preserve the Notre Dame Cathedral, but his narrative was also a social commentary giving insight on prejudice and giving a voice to the downtrodden and social outcasts in society. The lyrics of the final song in the musical longs for the day “when we are wiser, when the world’s older, when we have learned…”
ending on a hopeful note.