By Abby Chovan and Hannah Tarr
Photo by Shelby Pennington
The faint ringing of bells echo off a darkened set, only starting to light as a collection of voices begin to sing out from their places on the stage. As more lighting and layers of song are added, an eruption of emotion and music paints the scene for FC’s third and final musical for the year, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Ensemble members and leading actors work together with the A Capella choir and technical students to tell a story unlike one they have ever told. This tale shows contrast against the previous musical, the upbeat Newsies, by taking a turn down a darker-yet-still-as-captivating path.
Audiences who attended any of the performances, which premiered Feb. 9, witnessed months of hard work that started immediately after the close of the show beforehand. Actors, new and seasoned alike, spent the better part of winter break focused on the show, due to the quick turnaround that would follow coming back to school.
“We tried to knock out the basics before break and keep everyone on task with memorization so when we came back, we’d be ready to jump into rehearsals,” said theatre director Robbie Steiner.
For actors, it was a neck-breaking whip around from the relaxing atmosphere of the holidays to having rehearsals almost every day and spending countless hours on character development.
“Oh, it was the hardest thing ever. Being in a show like Newsies that was so happy and energetic is so different, and when you think of my previous character, Romeo, you don’t think of Frollo,” said junior Noah Hankins, who plays Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame. Frollo is the most powerful cleric in Paris, as well as the uncle and caretaker of the Hunchback, Quasimodo. “Getting out of the New York accent and cocky attitude and into the demented and older character was odd. Romeo had huge stage presence very easily and I had to learn how to give Frollo that presence.”
Starting the process early was especially important due to the sudden shift in technical directors. For the spring semester, college senior and new teacher Sophia Bierman stepped up to tackle the role. Senior Mitchell Lewis, in addition to playing the titular hunchback Quasimodo, took on some director roles of his own in hopes to help improve the show and learn how to be a director. As co-director, Lewis helped Steiner block scenes and call the shots on design decisions. He also ran rehearsals when Steiner was absent for any reason.
Lewis said that his time as co-director taught him time management and how to lead an ensemble, as well as how difficult it is to create and work through blocking complex scenes. He is thankful for the opportunity to co direct Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is his final show at FC.
“The process has been rewarding because it’s enlightened me on how to lead a group,” said Lewis. “It’s been rewarding because this story is just really good, and this is the last show of my high school career. So it’s kind of like my swan song.”
Actors faced not only the pressure of the time crunch and the technical transition, but also had to confront their own feelings. With such an emotional show at task, a lot of draining and taxing work went into perfecting the performance.
“Acting wise, this show is really challenging emotionally. I’ve always been accepting of others and judged others not by how they look but by their personality. Frollo is the opposite of me, so it’s hard to put myself in his shoes,” said Hankins.
Junior Jesse Johnson said that he faced similar difficulties in his role of Phoebus de Martin, hotshot knight who falls for the gypsy Esmeralda.
“Phoebus is, like, in most ways polar opposite of me, because he’s like big huge strong knight guy, and I’m, like, not the tallest and I’m pretty skinny, I’m not super buff or anything. But I’m trying to just relate to certain things that I can connect to myself. And then work on the harder stuff by trying to connect it afterwards.”
While the show tests actors emotions and capability to perform difficult and problematic characters, it also tests singing abilities. Even though the actors are experienced in telling a story with their words, it is a new challenge for much of the A Capella choir.
“A Capella has to actually get into a story for once, like usually whenever we sing we only have to worry about one song, but now we have to worry about all these other songs and how they fit into a story. And now we have to be able to convey a message using them,” said junior Charlotte McFerran.
A certain strength is needed to push through all aspects of the show because, as most actors know, being vulnerable is not easy.
“The show has challenged me to be vulnerable onstage because the content of it is so real, and so you don’t get to be campy, you don’t get to joke around, you have to be honest and be yourself onstage- even though you’re playing somebody else you have to show your own emotions,” said junior Elizabeth Hallal, who plays Esmeralda.
Though the show is more gruesome than previous productions, it has brought a sense of community to its cast and taught the members to think more openly.
“I have learned a lot about community. Because even though, you know, I’m not in the ensemble for this show, the show is an ensemble show. So even the leads are as much of the ensemble as everyone else. And you just have to rely on each other for everything you do and work together and figure out things on your own and that’s just been a good experience,” said Hallal.
In the past, the bond that exists in this cast has not always been there. In a group of so many students, it is easy to fall into a routine of cliques. Towards the beginning of this process, the cast made a promise to stick together and grow instead of break each other down. Lewis wrote down on a sheet of poster paper that he hung on Steiner’s office door the mission statement that the cast invented: “We are doing this show because we want to become united in our acceptance of ourselves and those around us.” The cast has taken living out that mission statement to heart.
“Since this show is smaller, about 24 people, we’ve become a family unit. There has been a lot of cooperation on stage. I found myself working with a lot of actors on stage to find the best way to work together on stage. I’ve seen a lot of friendships building. Our goal was overall to unite and accept, and that’s what we’ve done as a cast. At the end of the show, there is a moment where everyone accepts Quasimodo, and I think it’s a beautiful moment because it’s what a perfect world would look like. We get to live in that perfect world for a moment, and it’s beautiful,” said Hankins.
Many of the cast members find that, despite the novel it is based off of was written in 1831, a lot of the topics discussed can be related to modern day events.
“I think that this story is just so relevant to times today because people are made monsters because of one thing or another,” said Lewis.
But this show teaches the audience that we are headed in the right direction. Even the past 100 years has shown that acceptance is on the rise and that the world is changing.
“The song ‘Someday’ is about, you know, one day, all of this will be different, there will be acceptance and love in the world. And I think it’s just the perfect time to tell it, because of what’s going on right now and [because] these are problems that we still deal with. We’re the future, our generation is the future of this country and this world, and it’s our job to make these changes,” said Hallal.
Despite this show being put on by only high schoolers, it can incite real change in the world. That change can start on a small scale, as little as one person.
”What I’ve taken away is just like accept people for what they are because you might not even know what they’re going through before you judge them. Like give somebody a chance,” said Johnson.
Hallal and Lewis’ characters draw inspiration from hope that Lewis thinks everyone can learn from.
“The neverending, tenacious hope, that no matter how awful things are, and even if you know things are going to turn out not good, like there’s still hope,” said Lewis.
Hankins is thankful to be able to learn from this show and share its lesson with the world, in the hopes of making change and approaching that “Someday.”
“In a world that’s filled with hatred, we get to a show that reflects that but also turns into acceptance and unification and as students living in that world, it’s good to be in that world for a moment and apply it to our lives,” said Hankins.