Notre Dame de Paris | 2 hours and 30 mins | David Koch Theater
It took 24 years for Notre Dame de Paris, the acclaimed francophone pop-rock musical based on Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to make its New York debut. An astonishing gap given its international popularity, since its first show in 1998.
Coinciding with Bastille Day, a French revolutionary and national holiday celebrated every 14th of July, Notre Dame de Paris brings the luminous and effulgent spirit of medieval Paris to Lincoln Center and with it, the show’s uncanny modernity.
The show opens in 1482, in the center of Paris, a turbulent time of unfolding changes. A “time of cathedrals” but also one when sea explorations, the words of Luther, and Gutenberg’s technological advances will change the face of the Old Continent.
The sung-through musical tells the story of a doomed love, that of cathedral bell-ringer hunchback Quasimodo towards Esmeralda, a sensual Roma woman (referred to as a gypsy in the traditional story) of the undocumented Bohemian crowd populating the Court of Miracles, a space that disenfranchised and marginalized people—beggars, thieves, sex workers—call home.
Quasimodo isn’t the only one coveting Esmeralda’s heart. Captain Phoebus of the King’s cavalry, though already engaged, can’t stop thinking about her; as does the tormented Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame, who nurtures all kinds of lurking obsessions towards this beautiful girl, and encourages Phoebus to expel the Bohemians.
The plot tragically evolves as the characters’ true colors appear and Esmeralda, yearning for unrestricted freedom, can’t seem to change course from her fate. How can abused children and broken lives ever express and reciprocate genuine love?
Yet for all its medieval resonances, Notre Dame de Paris is a show that speaks to today’s unsettling violence, incarnated in relentless victim-blaming and racism. Esmeralda combines everything that men of power hate; she’s an unapologetic lower-class, foreign-born woman who follows her heart. Of what should she repent?
In the gaze of these men permeates an intense desire for lust, control, and misogyny. The so-called monster Quasimodo is the only one expressing emotions anchored in respect and humanity, alongside Esmeralda’s friend Clopin, who leads the Bohemians and has warned her of the wickedness of men. Integrity disproportionately correlates with status; the “good” people are social outcasts.
Educated men such as Frollo and Phoebus merely fixate on Esmeralda’s flesh and ways to accomplish their carnal instincts. She’s a prey offered to a timeless phallocratic feast. In one evocative scene during the song “Belle,” Esmeralda lies down mimicking a cross as the trio of men take turns singing their voluptuous cravings while walking toward her, reminding us that womxn’s daily experience is one of a never-ending Via Dolorosa.
Phoebus, a 21st-century basic summer one-night stand, ultimately chooses his social rank and boring stability over a woman who could have changed his life. Churchman Frollo is driven to madness, unable to reconcile his two fixations caught between celestial celibate callings and earthly realities.
Frollo has a heart, a predatory “heart to kill” when his wishes aren’t fulfilled. Together with Phoebus, he’s frenziedly torn—an inner strife perfectly rendered in, respectively, “Déchiré” and “Tu vas me détruire.” Esmeralda is too beautiful, too tempting, to escape the toxic masculinity of the sword and the Bible. Her body remains a terrain of appropriation and jealousy.
The show doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test yet “Ave Maria païen” unveils more depth to Esmeralda’s character and intimacy. She, a Roma who doesn’t know how to kneel, addresses a tentative prayer in which she voices her secret reveries that encompass a wish for safety and protection. I wish there had been more of these moments, to explore Esmeralda’s own point of view and dreams, and not just through her relationships with men.
Another layer of meaning is added when Gringoire, poet and narrator, informs a naively smitten Esmeralda that Phoebus means “sun” in Latin. Throughout the show, Esmeralda offers her life for this sun which she cherishes with all her characteristic generosity, a figurative sun that takes us beyond the shallowness of Phoebus to the warm memory of her native Andalusia, to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in symbolic conversation with Albert Camus’ beloved Algerian sun and “eternal summer.”
And the show is steeped in notions of home, otherness, and asylum. “Les Sans-papiers,” the show’s second song, directly confronts these themes. Esmeralda’s story is also inscribed in a conflict between a ruling class and the oppressed, undocumented people wanting shelter and recognition.
In 1996, police forces forcibly evicted a movement of undocumented, illegal migrants (mainly from sub-Saharan Africa) that had peacefully occupied a Parisian church, just two years before Notre Dame de Paris’s French premiere. It’s difficult not to draw connections as Clopin deplores injustices before watching his powerless people get arrested. Plus ça change…
As Esmeralda appears, we briefly but distinctly hear Arab musical notes. When a character mentions keeping the undocumented Bohemians “outside the city walls” it painfully reminds that most people of color—from lands formerly colonized by France—still reside outside the posh arrondissements of Paris’ center, along its outer edges and suburbs.
Esmeralda’s foreignness and rejection feel awfully close to systemic racism and terrible tragedies unraveling across the Mediterranean Sea. For instance, a deadly boat of asylum-seekers sank near the coast of Lebanon last April, in the native country of singer and actress Hiba Tawaji who plays Esmeralda. A significant number of young people in North Africa and Western Asia are considering leaving their country, even as undocumented migrants—such is their lack of opportunities and despair while populist and xenophobic trends are on the rise in Europe. As an immigrant, she’s a scapegoat and a projection of all of society’s erratic insecurities.
Stunning décors transport us to the bubble of Paris’ Île de la Cité. Light works cast the gothic outlines of the stained-glass windows of the cathedral and contribute to a storytelling where the divine order can be both gentle and abominally brutal.
The imposing structure of Notre-Dame looms over the show and one remembers the 2019 fire that broke out beneath its roof and destroyed its spire. While the media frenzy over the fire felt disproportionate at the time given other endangered heritage sites around the world that get close to no attention, the Cathedral’s significance to French culture can’t be overstated—even to secular France. It marks “kilometer zero” to all French roads. Its centrality also carries a legacy of sacredness as the sanctuary of religious relics. Napoleon’s coronation took place there, and Charles de Gaulle attended a Te Deum mass following the liberation of Paris during WWII. It’s the soul of a complicated France.
The musical, written by Luc Plamondon, composed by Richard Cocciante, and directed by Gilles Maheu, simultaneously measures love and grief—two inseparable human ailments—in two acts of fast-paced scenes. The show is surtitled in English, which works well except for a regrettable mistranslation during a scene discussing sailing explorations for a passage to India. “Chercher” was translated to “discover” (instead of “seek” or “look for”) which seemingly re-uses a loaded term perpetuating the tired trope of the “discovery” myth.
The outstanding performances of coarse and gripping Angelo Del Vecchio (Quasimodo), hypnotic Hiba Tawaji (Esmeralda), grandiose Daniel Lavoie (Frollo), mellow Yvan Pedneault (Phoebus), amiable Gian Marco Schiaretti (Gringoire), and righteously grounded Jay (Clopin) form a tableau of endearing characters and flawless cast along with a dynamic suite of acrobats, breakers and dancers.
With so much to unpack, scenes and tunes that vividly stay in mind, Notre Dame de Paris merits to claim an urgent and long-lasting place in the New York art scene.
Esmeralda, chin high and proud, foreshadows an existence well spent as loving so much that one can die from love. Can we ever wish for anything more noble in these fucked up times?