Notre-Dame De Paris is appalling. On its Parisian opening in 1998 it had the most successful first year of any musical in history, but it is appalling. One of its songs topped the French charts for a record 33 weeks, but it is appalling. According to the programme notes, everyone involved with the production in any way is a legendary figure of unprecedented talent, whose every merest utterance will live for ever, but... you've guessed it. Forgive the repetition, but there is no room for ambiguity here.
Victor Hugo's story is well known around the world, which perhaps lured Luc Plamondon into the mistaken belief that he did not actually have to tell it (or even his frequently diverging version of it) in his lyrics for this sung-through musical; the songs form a series of snapshots of various points in the tale rather than melding together to suggest any kind of narrative. Esmeralda (Australian Tina Arena, with that semi-nasal, mid-Atlantic, post-Streisand stage-musical singing voice) flits around from imprisonment to Quasimodo's eyrie on the gargoyled pinnacles of the cathedral without any explanation that I could see, but this is still less mystifying than the apparent resurrection of the murdered captain of guards Phoebus so that he can repel the climactic attack of the refugees (this show is set in the Time of Musicals, that strange era in which mediaeval folk can sing of "The Age of the Cathedrals" and yet be heavied by riot police with nightsticks and crash barriers).
But a musical stands or falls – let's be honest: in this case, plummets – on its songs. Richard Cocciante has an easy way with an anthemic tune. He has quite an easy way with other people's, as well: here a snatch of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas", there a bar of Neil Diamond's "I Am... I Said". But he seems able to do nothing else. Every single number, whether intended as a ballad or a belter, settles into overblown stadium-sized AOR. (It is hardly surprising that Celine Dion has recorded a version of "Live For The One I Love".) As for Will Jennings' English lyrics, it would be charitable not simply to draw a veil over them but to weight them down and throw them into a swamp. Charitable, but not as much fun as recounting couplets like "Arrest that man/He's the Hunchback of Notre Dame!" and "In Florence they have found/That the world's really round". Cocciante's score (which is pre-recorded; the only live orchestra is in the foyer at the interval) unintentionally warps English lyrics by forcing them to give every syllable equal emphasis; the first couple of times this seems novel, but it soon settles into irritation.
Fundamentally, this is not a piece of music theatre at all; it is essentially a spectacle with lots of songs and an occasional vague nod to a story somewhere in its distant ancestry. Gilles Maheu certainly directs it as such, with synchronised abseiling, a trio of extras hanging upside down inside huge bells (when they were told at the auditions that they'd have to work like the clappers, little did they suspect...), and even – I kid you not – a finale in which a clutch of female corpses fly up in unison to the heavens.
The principals all do their work solidly enough (although, whilst everyone else is falling for Esmeralda, Bruno Pelletier's troubadour Gringoire remains firmly in love with himself), but the whole affair is still a farrago. Plamondon, Maheu, lighting director Alain Lortie (who evidently once bought a huge job lot of blue and purple gels) and most of the principals are Québecois rather than French; consequently, I did emerge from the Dominion Theatre with a song in my heart, but that song was the South Park number "Blame Canada!"
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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