Notre-Dame De Paris Special
From Friday 26/05
Sydney Morning Herald:
The French have a word that describes this witless Gallic musical, but it's too rude to use here. Suffice to say that this is a complete crock, monsieur. Writer Luc Plamondon and composer Richard Cocciante have taken one of the world's best-known stories and turned it into a nonsensical, through-sung procession of Europop ditties, re-upholstered with buttock-clenchingly clumsy English lyrics by Will Jennings.
Director Gilles Maheu's staging is reminiscent of a TV summer special, favouring an endless parade of flick-flacking dancers over content or coherence. Anyone who pays £37.50 to watch this has every right to get the hump. By comparison, Disney's animated film is a masterpiece of slavish literary faithfulness.
The curtain rises on a vast stone wall, adorned with the odd gargoyle. The poet Gringoire (Bruno Pelletier) tells us that it is 1482, but the precise date seems unclear. For one thing, Notre Dame is surrounded by asylum-seeking New Age travellers, and soldiers in riot gear. The hunchback Quasimodo (played by the mono-named Garou) is a gravel-voiced, gurning punk with a pillow stuffed up the back of his jumper. He, like most of the men on stage, falls for Esmeralda, played by Australian singing star Tina Arena, and then the story really falls apart.
One minute Esmeralda is shimmying her gipsy hips against Steve Balsamo's anguished Captain Phoebus; the next she's with Quasimodo on the roof of his "home so high, (where) the weather is always nice". She marries Gringoire, flirts with her refugee protector, and inflames the loins of Daniel Lavoie's hypocritical Frollo, who's marked out as a villain by his heavy eye make-up and the bat-wings on his priestly garb. Now, Ms Arena sings very nicely, thank you. But she doesn't have the sexual charisma that warrants the abandonment of most of Victor Hugo's story.
The singing of the leads is the show's only redeeming feature. Like Arena, Lavoie, Balsamo and the throaty Garou have voices well suited to a score soaked in melodramatic anguish. Even so, they strain to hit the high and low notes. And the quality of the songs is another matter.
Most of the (recorded) music disappears under a slurring bass thump. The most distinctive ditties are also the most derivative. And Jennings has come up with some truly awful lyrics. Esmeralda sings of Phoebus: "He is shining like the sun, but he's as tough as anyone". The original pronunciation of all the names has been preserved to fit the cadences of Cocciante's songs, which makes them sound even more absurd.
Director Maheu and choreographer Martino Müller seem to think they can redeem this sprawling, maudlin mess with stage business and zesty dance routines. They send acrobats scampering up the boring facade of Christian Ratz's set, and fling break-dancers under crash-barriers in a riot scene. Sometimes, as music thumps and bodies fly, their approach works through sheer bombast. More often, it results in unintentionally hilarious vignettes. Dancers writhe in their underpants during Balsamo's rendition of I'm Torn. Frollo is molested by the very stones of Notre Dame. In the final scene, as Garou's Quasimodo launches into yet another verse of his throat-wrenching laments for the executed Esmeralda, various blokes come on with their dead girlfriends, and watch wistfully as the twirling corpses are winched up to Heaven.
This chronologically confused, misguided musical is so insultingly bad it's almost good. The large French-speaking contingent of the first-night audience received it with delirious enthusiasm, but I have a hunch it won't last.
The after-show party was one of the best ever seen in the West End. If first night hospitality could guarantee success then Michael White, the producer of Notre Dame de Paris, has ensured a very long run indeed.
He took over the nearest open space to the theatre, Bedford Square, and filled it with an enormous marquee. Inside, he created a fantasy marketplace full of stalls providing a gastronomic journey through French culture.
Two enormous ice sculptures of cathedral bells greeted guests who stood among ornamental trees tasting pâté de foie gras, lobster bouillabaisse and fillet steakunder a canopy of artificial stars.
There was never any danger of the supplies of Grande Cru Chablis drying up for the 1,200 guests, some of whom could not resist speculating on the money being lavished on them - one educated guess put it at £300,000 - while others made the most of it, perhaps in the belief that they would never see its like again.
Sophia Loren, a friend of the musical's composer Richard Cocciante, stayed long after some younger guests fell by the wayside. When asked what she thought of the party she could only repeat: "Fabulous, fabulous".
Hairdresser-to-the-stars Nicky Clark said: "The only other party I can remember that came close was a Donna Karan one, and even that did not have the same ambition".
Danni Minogue was there with her Formula One racing driver boyfriend Jacques Villeneuve to support her fellow Australian Tina Arena, the show's leading lady who plays Esmeralda, the object of the hunchback's devotion.
At midnight the music was turned up and whereas at the average after-show party this would be ignored, here an army of towering catwalk models led the charge onto the dance floor. One woman poked in the eye by an overhanging branch still made it onto the dance floor. On a night like this nothing was going to spoil the party.
In one of the oddest compromises in the history of West End musicals, the only live musicians playing for the spectacular new French show Notre-Dame de Paris are not in the pit but in the foyer.
At the Dominion Theatre, where the show is now having its previews, the 50-strong cast led by Australian pop star Tina Arena sing to the taped backing track recorded for the original French version of the show.
As the dedicated guardian of live music, which has fought and won many battles in the past with those who would replace the real thing with electronic substitutes, the Musicians' Union was not likely to let that pass unchallenged.
Hence audiences will be greeted in the foyer before the show and during the interval with six fully paid-up members of the union determined to prove the validity of their case.
As a consequence, the producer of the £4 million show, Michael White, finds himself not only paying royalties to the French band which recorded the original score but £528 a week to each member of his live foyer ensemble as well.
Not that he is complaining. "I like musicians and employ lots of them," he said. "I did it before with Pirates Of Penzance. I had musicians in the foyer then. It's quite nice." He maintains there is no question of setting a precedent with the use of a taped score for Notre-Dame de Paris. "We are not trying to change anything. This is just a one-off," he said.
His assurance is accepted by the union. "I have no reason to believe this is the start of an alarming new trend," said the union's Horace Trowbridge.
"The technology to do a Notre-Dame has been around for 20 years and the big players have not said, 'Let's stop using live musicians'.
"In this case our feeling was that the score for the show could have been done with four or five musicians so we asked for six to be employed on full Society of London Theatre rates.
"I shall be quite interested to see the audience's reaction, comparing the the taped music in the auditorium to the live music in the foyer."
Notre-Dame is based on Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and has the kind of music by Italian Richard Cocciante that, once heard, is difficult to dislodge.
The show arrives in London after enjoying phenomenal success in Canada and Europe, particularly in Paris where it played to packed, singalong audiences in the 4,000-seat Palais des Sports.
Initially produced as an album, it stayed at No1 in the French charts for 17 weeks. All told , some 3.5 million copies of the original cast studio album have now been sold in Europe and Canada.
Several of the original cast, including French-Canadians Garou as Quasimodo and Daniel Lavoie as Frollo, are in the British version of the show, along with Steve Balsamo as Esmeralda's lover, Phoebus. Like Balsamo, the bulk are British and among them are seven alternate principals.
Thus Hazel Fernandez will play Esmeralda and Ian Pirie Quasimodo at some performances.
"For anyone to do the lead roles eight times a week would be too much," said Michael White.
Not all heads turn when Australian superstar Tina Arena arrives at the Groucho Club for our interview, and that suits Ms Filippina Lydia Arena just fine. Down Under, thanks to multi-platinum blockbusters like Don't Ask and In Deep, the 33-year-old from the genteel Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds is the biggest selling home-grown female artist ever. So eat your hearts out Kylie, Olivia and Dame Edna. By contrast, in England she's a peripheral figure whose biggest chart success, Chains, occurred back in 1995. "It's great here," she muses. "I can leave my rented house (near Chelsea's Australia-on-the-Green), do the deli, grab a paper and a coffee and walk home looking horrible."
The aptly named Arena (no, she didn't make it up) is rehearsing for her West-End debut in Notre-Dame de Paris, the musical version of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, often filmed as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. With her extravagant chestnut mane and Sicilian bloodline, she's a natural for the role of Esmerelda, the gipsy beauty who befriends the lonely Quasimodo and rings his bell with tragic consequences.
Arena got the role without even having to audition. "I spent most of 1999 in France 'cos In Deep had done nearly a million units there," she says over lightly puffed Marlboro Lights and cold coffee. "I'm on this TV show called Red Carpet and they're doing a tribute to Notre-Dame with the French writers of the show, Luc Plamondon and Richard Cocciante. Afterwards they asked me to contribute to the soundtrack album. I've dabbled in musical theatre so I said yeah, then they asked me to play Esmerelda. Tell the truth mate, I was shocked and bewildered."
After hesitating for all of two minutes, Arena accepted the offer. And so here she is tugging her hair extensions and rehearsing like crazy for a £4-million English-language production which aims to repeat the staggering success of Notre-Dame in French-speaking Europe, where ticket sales exceeded a million and the 3.5-million-selling soundtrack topped the charts for 17 weeks.
These are facts and figures that Arena understands. A child star at seven, she rose to fame in Australia on the Saturday night TV show Young Talent Time, a gruesome kiddy romp which also spawned Dannii Minogue. Having been retired at 16, Tina cut jingles and temped for the Melbourne Insurance Company before starting her phenomenally successful recording career at 18, when most others would have burned themselves out. "I've had 24 years in this business and I've learned not to put up with bullshit. Failure isn't on my wish list. I wasn't ever going to resort to mediocrity," she emphasises, while thanking her Italian family for keeping her grounded.
Despite her star status Arena is more mainstream than cutting edge. She's never been keen on becoming Australia's answer to Madonna. "I wouldn't mind her bank balance, but I'm not a fan of people who surround themselves with a lot of drama to make themselves feel better. It makes me laugh. I never hung out with the cool crowd. Never ever. I mean, I know Kylie and I knew Michael Hutchence, always got on well, always kept my distance. I'm not seduced by the fantasy because the reality of this business f***s you up pretty hard ..."
Our lady of Melbourne says that the character of Esmerelda resonates in her own life. "This role came along for me at the right time, to educate and teach me some life lessons, especially after coming off a bad personal situation."
Tina is referring to recent divorce proceedings and a messy settlement with former husband and manager Ralph Carr. The split has been a jolly tabloid staple in Australia - especially since her supposed comment to Carr: "I'm Australia's f***ing National Living Treasure ... not you!" While the dust settles Tina says she feels a lot calmer again. "You can't clip my wings. I felt hemmed in for a while and then I realised it wasn't my destiny. If someone else comes along and accepts me unconditionally that's fantastic but relationships aren't about your partner saying this is right or wrong for you. I'm not a big fan of ownership." Arena is now "dating in the plural and enjoying being a single woman".
Notre-Dame de Paris is one of several lavish musicals opening in London this summer (see also The King And I, The Witches of Eastwick and Andrew Lloyd Webber's football vehicle, The Beautiful Game) but it's doubtful that Arena will commit for more than six months, unless Broadway beckons. "I'm glad there's a renaissance for the musical. They've always been considered so daggy but I'm attracted to eclectic stuff that's a little bit kitsch."
Movies would be a natural progression for Arena, still kicking herself after turning down a lead role in Baz Lurhmann's Strictly Ballroom. Meanwhile, her recording career isn't on hold since she's recording her next album in Miami and London. "It will be incredibly brutal and personal; transparently so. It may make uncomfortable listening for somebody. I want it to be naked ... I'm all for putting my balls on the line."
With that Tina bounds off her lunch break, tossing her hair back and complaining that she looks "terrible", when really she knows she looks a million dollars. Australian.