Interview with Simon Theobald
Phil: So, I’m chatting today with Simon Theobald who is going to be playing the Archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo in the forthcoming Nottingham Operatic Society production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame coming to the Theatre Royal Nottingham 26th October to 29th October. The society has been in operation since 1893 and I jokingly ask if there are any original members left alive. Simon laughs and says “No, some may feel like it, but no.”
Their production, currently in rehearsal, has, frustratingly, been postponed three times due to various lockdowns. Simon explains further.
Simon: Hunchback came as a project we started probably about six years ago. We knew about this piece of musical theatre that had been resurrected in 2013/14 in the USA. It had never made Broadway and it certainly had never made the West End and there are economic reasons for that because of the large number of people involved in the casting. Shortly after it closed in America and started being produced. We got in touch with the licencing people and they said it was not available. So, we waited. And waited.
Phil: It’s a Disney product isn’t it?
Simon: Yes partly. It is partly that they like to control when it is going to be released. It was very successful as a community piece in the States, and still is. Hugely successful. You heard people say ‘Well there may be a West End production but it just didn’t happen. There was a production at the Royal Welsh College and that was a one off. So, for Nottingham Operatic I started to bombard Disney. I went behind the scenes and I actually wrote to Stephen Schwartz. He was really helpful and he gave me the name of the person I needed to speak to. I told him that Hunchback was a piece of theatre about community and we at Nottingham Operatic are a community theatre group that is 130 years old. Curiously enough we were born at the same time that Victor Hugo was around. Stephen Schwartz was very kind and put us in touch with Disney and it took a while to get things going. Around fourteen months. They asked us to come back in the Fall. At the end of 2018 we got close and the following year we were doing The Sound of Music at the Theatre Royal. With the pandemic that we’ve all been through The Sound of Music was a big success but ended up being our last show. Suddenly I got an email from the head of Disney Theatrical saying to go ahead with Hunchback adding, just get in touch with your local licencing people. It’s all approved. Our proposals to do it in 2020 and 2021 were stalled further because of Covid but, at last, we are now in rehearsals and very excited about our October production. We can’t wait for you to come and experience it.
Phil: Looking back now on what you have done Simon, and what we at East Midlands Theatre have favourably reviewed, I see you were in the family concert Villains, Thieves and Gangsters. What would you say would be a performer’s appeal in playing the bad guy or bad girl?
Simon: Particularly in Disney, the bad guys and girls, they have the most amazing time and sometimes they get the greatest numbers. In Hunchback the number is ‘Hellfire’. It’s an extraordinary piece to sing. Just as it is with Ursula with ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’. The great thing about Frollo in Hunchback is that it’s not so much what you saw in the original cartoon but it’s a complex character and much closer to Victor Hugo’s book. That’s a real challenge for somebody who wants to get their teeth into something dramatic. Like me.
Phil: With Frollo you have got a love-hate triangle haven’t you? You have Frollo who doesn’t appear to have many redeeming qualities. He lusts after Esmeralda but hates her at the same time. He hates all the gypsies and doesn’t like her liberal sexuality (yet he secretly does) and she brings all this into the Notre Dame cathedral when seeking sanctuary. Then of course you have the gallant nice guy, Captain Phoebus de Martin who falls for Esmeralda and puts a huge romantic spanner in the works. And you’ve got poor old maligned Quasimodo who also develops strong feelings for her. How would you say all these deep passions and jealousies work within the musical?
Simon: You are absolutely right. There are some extraordinary songs that bring all the stories together that everybody will know from the 1996 Disney animation. You got songs like ‘Out There’, ‘Place of Miracles’, ‘Heaven’s Light’. There’s a new play that they have written for this, written in about 2014 with a show book by Peter Parnell, that starts to explore why these characters are in this really complex relationship. In the Hugo book itself the story becomes really distorted because Frollo becomes obsessed by science and alchemy. None of that is in the musical. In this one, Frollo’s downfall is his flawed attraction to the gypsy. We spent quite a lot of time looking at the back story. You find out in the early part of the musical that Frollo and his brother are both orphaned when really young. We put that down to maybe it was the plague and plague was stupidly thought to have been introduced into French society by the gypsies. That explains Frollo’s hatred and it runs all the way through the show. He has taught his nephew, Quasimodo, to believe that too. I have a view that he deeply cares for his deformed nephew because he sees that as a religious task that he has got to undertake. He is massively over-protective of him. It is almost like a case study about the wrong way to bring somebody up. Frollo is controlling and constricting because he doesn’t know what to do. He has no parents himself and was brought up very strictly by the church. His opinions with Quasimodo are that the church building and bell tower are his sanctuary and he is not allowed to go outside for his own safety. We learn though that he does go out. He deliberately escapes on to the streets of Paris to a place of wild excess and dancing.
Phil: To the Festival of Fools.
Simon: Yes. It’s there that he meets Esmeralda and discovers what it is like to be treated properly. Treated with kindness and affection. And that starts this really complex triangle that ends in a form of tragedy. I think that’s where this musical has really moved on from the animation. I remember when Disney used an actual train to promote the new Hunchback of Notre Dame animation film to the British public. The train came to Nottingham, to platform 7, and I took my daughter who was then about three years-old. Disney were trying to promote this, frankly, quite dark animation, one of the darkest things they’d done at the time. They painted three or four carriages and they set them up as mini-Disney shops with all the Hunchback merchandise and showed clips of the film inside. My daughter Lucy became really obsessed by this film as a three year-old. Then came a premiere staged version in the Theater Des Westerns in Berlin in 1999. The German title was Der Glöckner von Notre Dame and it ran very successfully for three years. You can find clips of this show on Youtube and the original show was much closer to the animation. You had the three gargoyles and the staging was vast. There were massive moving blocks rising and falling at the end of the show and it felt like you were in this huge cathedral. But interestingly the show didn’t have much of an afterlife from the German production and it stopped being shown for years. Then in around 2010 Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz talked about re-doing it. They redeveloped the stage book and took it back to the original story – or as close to as possible. What I hadn’t realised was that at the time of Victor Hugo writing the original novel that the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was in a real bad structural state. Lots of it had been trashed at the end of the French Revolution. So those beautiful statues you see at the front in The Gallery of Kings were wrecked and the gargoyles had been ripped off as well as much of the interior was destroyed by rioting. Hugo’s book Notre Dame de Paris, was an appeal to his fellow Parisians not to disregard this glorious place. And it worked. They ended up with a twenty-year investment into rebuilding the cathedral. Then of course we have had the awful fire there recently and there is a new renewal currently happening. The French ministry have promised that it will be completed in 2024.
Phil: Fascinating stuff. So back to the Nottingham Opera Society The Hunchback of Notre Dame production beginning on Wednesday October 26th. Without spoilers, do you think there are any surprises in your forthcoming show?
Simon: Yes, I think so. We would have been one of the first amateur musical theatre groups in the UK to do this show but lockdown setbacks and getting hold of set and costumes has been difficult. However, we have now found some amazing suppliers who’ve created really extra-ordinary stuff and it will definitely look and feel very handsome. We even had a bell foundry in Loughborough offer to loan us some massive real bells. We were grateful but felt they would be too much of a health and safety risk if one of them should fall down on to the cast.
Phil: I love the quality of your promotional pictures (seen throughout this piece).
Simon: Yes, we went out to Southwell Minster last Sunday to do those. Happily, we had some of the costumes. There’s this extraordinary one of Zak Charlesworth who is playing Quasimodo. Here he is (above) framed against the same historic 12th Century style of window as in Notre Dame. So, yeah, surprises – there are people cast in the show as twelve narrators which is unusual. They will be switching in and out of character and they will be fit by the end of each show after switching out of costume after costume. (laughs). I think the music will surprise audiences. It is absolutely extraordinary. Exceptionally dramatic and moving. What else? The way we are handling the gargoyles is interesting because Quasimodo doesn’t know anybody and he talks to the stone gargoyles and the way we are doing that is very different. We have worked with a Nottingham lady called Liz Johnson who runs a proper puppetry company in Nottingham. She does a lot of stuff for Nottingham Playhouse and theatres all over the country. She and our director have come up with a really interesting ways of featuring the gargoyles. It’s not just somebody putting a costume on their head. It’s much more interactive and thrilling. The staging will be multi-level and of course we have big bells and the most beautiful rose window in central place. Seven metres of rose window actually. It’s gonna be a real spectacle. We have about sixty people in the cast including the choir. Now we have all got back together and doing what the new and old members love to do, the singing is proving very very strong. It’s going to be a dynamic show on all levels and we urge people to come and support it. We hope and imagine and you could even say, have a hunch, it is going to be a sell out!
Phil: Thanks very much for your time Simon and we at East Midlands Theatre are really looking forward to reviewing it.