Interview: In conversation/s with Nottingham Operatic Society’s Simon Theobold who offers fascinating insights in their recent production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Earlier in July this year I caught up with local actor and singer Simon Theobold. Simon is also Chairman of the prestigious Nottingham Operatic Society who were then looking at presenting a very challenging full-scale production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Theatre Royal Nottingham in late October 2022. Their annual production has already been cancelled three times due to Covid. Simon will be playing the major role of Archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo. Over plenteous coffee and much theatre chat it is revealed that the Nottingham Operatic Society has been in operation since 1893. I jokingly ask Simon if there are any original members left alive. Simon laughs and says “No, some may feel like it, but no.” The coffee is hot and our chat turns out to be illuminating and full of surprises. It seems that we both know a lot of the same people who live and breathe amateur theatre and amateur musical theatre.  Regarding their production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame…

Simon Theobold

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. It’s partly a Disney product. Disney 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 one day,  but it 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 while 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. The Sound of Music was a big success but ended up being our last show due to the pandemic. Suddenly I get 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 2022 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, 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 he’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. Like me. With Frollo you have got a love-hate triangle. 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 nice gallant 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. These deep passions and jealousies work well within the musical and of course it has 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. It  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 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 strictly brought up 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. You know though that he goes out. He deliberately escapes on to the streets of Paris to a place of wild excess and dancing to the Festival of Fools.

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.

Theater Des Westerns Berlin

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 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 was 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 on to the cast. Talk about dropping a clanger!

Our company went out to Southwell Minster last Sunday to do some great promotional photos in costume. Happily, we had some of the costumes. There’s an extraordinary one of Zack Charlesworth who is playing Quasimodo. Here he is framed against the same historic 12th Century style of window as in Notre Dame. Our Hunchback will have some 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 extraordinary. Exceptionally dramatic and moving. What else? The way we are handling the gargoyles is interesting. Because Quasimodo doesn’t know anybody 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 very 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 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 sell out!

I gave Nottingham Operatic Society’s fantastic production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame a glowing 5* review on the opening night and returned to chat to Simon in his dressing room after the last Saturday matinée to see how the production had gone down with the cast and audiences. He begins by talking about the Covid outbreak within Nottingham Operatic very close to their opening night.

Simon: It was terrifying. We lost a full week of rehearsals the week before the show! We had to put a Covid break in. Three weeks before the show we had a Friday night rehearsal and eight of us got it – me included. I got it quite badly but it did weird things. It dropped my voice deeper by four notes. I am a bass baritone and the day my voice went darker I thought I’d better test. We had seven off the following week and when we got to the final week we had a Sunday double run and we stopped. We didn’t come back to it for a whole week. It was scary. All we did was very carefully pick costumes up in groups and kept away from each other. The worry was in protecting Zack our Quasimodo.

Phil: So how does it all work for your cast and musicians prior to the show opening? What are the procedures?

Simon: We’ve been very lucky this year Phil. Because we were originally going to build our own set because our set building/designing friends at Scenic had not made a decision. They thought it was going to be a bit of a niche show therefore they weren’t ready to get into action. Our director then designed a fantastic set. We then got it costed and we hit post Brexit, post Covid and the price of materials were just going to be impossible and we had to make a really difficult decision and say that we can’t afford to build it. There were ideas floating around about a double technical rehearsal that would take us all day to get a set up and this meant that the actual tech wouldn’t happen until the Monday, dress on the Tuesday and sound calls during the day even though many of the cast are holding down day jobs. We decided this wasn’t practical either and we returned to talk to Scenic Projects and they came up with an idea of them refurbing a set from Jesus Christ Superstar. We had a really great day with them discussing what they could do and five weeks later we went back and we were blown away! They hadn’t refurbed. They’d pretty much rebuilt. Bar three little pieces it’s a brand-new set. There were some bits that we didn’t use and the bells caused us some concern, even after spending a wonderful day at the Loughborough bell foundry and Zack discovering what it would be like for Quasimodo to feel the actual bells. We took the sad decision that it would be better not to use them and just have a single thick rope hanging down suggesting the bells on high.

When it came into the Theatre Royal Nottingham we had one guy from Scenic and a team of volunteers who put all the set together. It has to be organised and everyone gets a job sheet outlining precisely what they are being asked to do. You report to your team leader and I was sorting wigs out and then we were helping move the band. We have our first rehearsal (at the theatre) with the band at 10am and in the afternoon we have a proper Sitzprobe. In the meantime we have teams who disappear from the Sitzprobe to go and work on the set. What we hadn’t anticipated was what the rake on stage would do. As you are slotting pieces of the construction in like a big Meccano set it can be a struggle to get everything aligned. It’s a magnificent set and it works very well and you have to work quite carefully on sightlines. That Sunday was tiring for all of us. Prior to the set being built on stage all the lighting rigs were angled and placed by Tom and his lighting team at 8am! With Hunchback that was some mammoth task. On this show the lighting wasn’t properly finished until Wednesday morning just in time for our opening show which is the matinée which begins with a live audience at 2.30pm.

As you will have seen we have got real flame in the show. Real flame is always fun to work with! We had a long part of the rehearsals where we were working through the safety aspects of manipulating flaming torches when you’ve got costumes and wigs which are not flame proofed. We have a crazy amount of people backstage watching and ready for action on any glimpse of an accident with flammables and actors. The costumes from Charades are fantastic and if you have ever been to the actual Notre Dame and stared at the forty kings and queens of Judah then our costumery and the actors really represent them well. Plus our actors sing and the statues don’t. I take my hat off to Andrew our director but also to Morven our musical director particularly because chorally their input is switching all the time: the cast have to sing in Latin, Romany, French, Broadway, Disney. I applaud them. They sound brilliant and initially some of the cast had doubts that they could do it but, as you saw and heard, they did and they do it all superbly. Phenomenal. It’s notational characteristics are difficult. It’s high and low and now they can do it – just like that. Hats off to them.

We have a great discipline from our directing team before the show goes up where Andrew does the warm up like proper theatre games. Morven does a vocal warm up which is challenging. Those things last about twenty minutes with the whole company on stage or out there in the backstage corridors. Everybody else is zipping around because we have thirty-eight mics being used in the show. For a show that doesn’t have that many moving parts on stage it’s a really busy and well-oiled team. It’s got to be. There’s a lot riding on our Hunchback being as near perfection as possible especially after all the tribulations we have been through.

I have to say too that the costumes on this one are really hot and weighty. You pick that gown up there (Simon points to a rail of costumes behind us) and it’s incredibly heavy. You find all sorts of stuff around in my dressing room and you’ll find little fans and a make up fixing spray. The other thing about this Nottingham Operatic company, more than any other company I have been involved with is that it is an extra-ordinarily friendly family affair. People are just … they really get on. There’s no difficulty. There’s no irritations. We all support each other. If somebody needs the curtain paging to get on we’ll do it without question. They are brilliantly disciplined. That’s the other thing we have had to learn this this year. Because there are thirty-eight mics in operation throughout the show – it’s a silent run. And that’s unusual. Quite often you sit there and you chunter in the wings and you whisper ‘Bollocks. What did I do there?’ We learnt from Morven NOT to do that. She was happy to name and shame and she said “The ‘person’ who said ‘Oh f*ck!’ we heard you! The sound guys have over forty different channels to control each night. What a responsibility. The narrators alone have twelve different channels that have to be activated at the correct time so that the story unfolds seamlessly. We are amateurs and in a pro chow they would have had the time and technical ability to incorporate that aspect weeks ago.

I seem to have one of the most professional dressers I have ever had and we have devised between us a signed language that helps us operate silently. I have three black outfits and they have all got names now so we use hand signals to help us differentiate one from the other.

Phil: So finally Simon, how have for you, as a performer, has it been this week so far, with one more performance to go?

Simon: You know what. It’s a tremendously big show and I come back to the dressing room for a few minutes before I come roaring back on, even more demonic than the last time, and willing to burn half of Paris to the ground to get rid of the gypsies and salve my conscience so I will confess something now as an actor playing Frollo. I got to the Wednesday evening (press night I suppose) not quite riddled with nerves but jittery. Even though I felt like that I was told that my performance was not showing the nerves but yeah, I did feel unusually jittery. I felt un-settled. When we got to Thursday I just completely relaxed almost with a big relaxing cartoonish sigh. I’ve really enjoyed this week Phil. I’ve enjoyed finding new things whilst performing. It’s a great shame that we haven’t yet another week to play with it but then all actors say that don’t they? The dress rehearsal was terrifying for the cast. All that time spent on our tech and suddenly new costumes arrived and everything was centred on that single rehearsal, Our cast were trying to cope with stuff they had never seen before, finding the sound they had never heard before. We had a three-hour sound call and suddenly the whole world was different. Suddenly, when we finally got to play The Hunchback of Notre Dame live to an enthusiastic and gripped audience everything clicked into place and our cast, crew and band gelled and our company became this incredible supportive unit. It has been a properly remarkable week that we will all remember in our hearts and minds forever. It is a big thing especially for Zack and his performance is central to an audience loving or being indifferent to our show and his Quasimodo has made us all very proud. It is a monstrous role and we are all very proud to have worked with him and he helped terrifically to make the Nottingham Operatic Society production it is.

Phil: Last question: For any other musical theatre group planning to do this show what would be your two bits of advice in terms of doing this show?

Simon: Get a really good bond between your narrators and between those five principals. We are a really close group and that helps because I can look at Zack or Sarah as Esmeralda and can see if there’s an issue or a new inspiration coming and we can go with it. If you can have that luxury of just putting the five of them together and go ‘let’s play tonight’ do it. I think, as well, the fact that we have had a production team that’s allowed us to play, break rules, find different things in this piece… I think that would be the thing that I would recommend because Patrick Page, a professional Frollo who created the role in the US in 2014, talks about this show and about going back to the novel. The novel is like Les mis is – sprawling and massive and full of life and full of tragedy. This show is like that. You will think it isn’t. Occasionally the dialogue feels very clunky. It isn’t – it just isn’t. We’d never had any audience before Wednesday afternoon. You don’t know on that first show and ongoing, what they are going to do and they are absolutely following every single word. So, good sound, good ambiance and real close connections and trust your audience because they are going to ‘find’ this piece. We’ve had people this week come back and say ‘I was absolutely, genuinely in tears right from the beginning. It is that moving.’

I thank Simon profusely for his time and knowledge and leave the theatre and the magnificent Hunchback set, knowing that this evening’s last performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is going to be an emotional knockout for the cast, the band and their lucky near capacity audience.

Show photographs by Gavin Mawditt

Next year Nottingham Operatic Society are going to be presenting the family favourite – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I already know it is going to one Truly Scrumptious show! Book now!

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