When Americans are asked to name French musicals, their go-to is “Les Misérables,” which opened in Paris in 1980 before a vastly revamped English version took the world by storm a few years later.
That, or some of the films that Jacques Demy made in the 1960s, such as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”.
The very popular local musicals that appeared in France in the late 1990s are usually not mentioned on our shores. But now the most famous of them, “Notre Dame de Paris”, is having its premiere in New York at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on Wednesday and will run there through July 24.
However, one of its creators has issues with the terminology used to describe its work.
“I don’t consider ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ to be musical theatre,” composer Richard Cocciante said via video from Rome, where he was preparing for a concert tour of Italy. “For me, it’s a popular opera. This is because it is entirely sung. However, we don’t call numbers from tunes: ‘Belle’ or ‘Le temps des Cathédrales’ are songs in their own right,” he added, mentioning two of the show’s many catchy ballads and greatest hits. .
Based, like “Les Miserables”, on an epic 19th century novel by Victor Hugo (which also inspired the Disney animated film “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, to name just one of many adaptations),” Notre Dame de Paris” succeeded in exploiting a typically French approach to modern musicals.
Lyricist Luc Plamondon already had a fine career as a writer for artists both in his native Quebec (a certain Belter released an album of his songs, “Dion chante Plamondon”, in 1992) and in France, where he wrote the lyrics to the musical “Starmania” in the late 1970s. (This perennial favorite returns to the Paris stage in November.)
Looking for another long-running project two decades later, Plamondon thought “Notre Dame de Paris” would be a suitable source and called Cocciante, who happened to have a slew of odds and ends melodies.
“The first song started with him singing ‘Time…da-da-da,'” Plamondon, 80, hummed over the phone. He had thought of the scene from the 1956 film adaptation in which Anthony Quinn, as the hunchback, Quasimodo, begs Gina Lollobrigida’s Esmeralda, the object of all men’s attention, for water. “He’s chained to the wheel and he’s saying ‘Belle…beautiful…'” Plamondon continued, citing the French word for beautiful. “It gave me the idea to replace ‘time’ with ‘beautiful’ in the song.”
And they were gone. “From that moment it just sprung from both of us,” said Cocciante, 76. “We wrote ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ in a sort of trance.”
In the French response to a backers audition, he played the piano score and sang all parts for producer Charles Talar, who signed and booked a tour at the Palais des Sports in Paris for the fall of 1998.
It suited Talar to get this venue, which is not a traditional theater but a cavernous concert hall, because he came from the music industry: he wanted to release an album first, then build on it. to sell the show on stage. It’s an approach that Andrew Lloyd Webber used successfully for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” but on the whole it’s not common in the United States and Britain, where a show precedes its registration.
“He figured he could activate the networks he had built and use some of the same strategies he used to sell records,” Nicolas Talar said on Zoom, recalling his father’s game plan. (Charles Talar died in 2020.) “The idea was to familiarize the audience with the music before the show started. The specificity of French musicals is that they are promoted as one would promote a pop record. If one or two songs become popular, you’re the star of the moment, you’re on TV and people want to see you,” he added. “The only way to hear ‘Belle’ live was to see the musical.”
This song, a trio for the three men in love with Esmeralda, was released in the spring of 1998, a few months before the show opened, and became the best-selling single of the year in France.
“There was this miracle – I don’t know how else to describe it – of ‘Belle’,” said Daniel Lavoie, 73, who played Archdeacon Frollo in the original production and is back in his cassock for the New York race. “It was almost 5 minutes, which was inconceivable on the radio at the time because they didn’t play anything more than 3 minutes. I remember when we first appeared on TV, we were asked to do the song again. We knew then that we were on to something.
Another number, “The Time of the Cathedrals”, was almost as popular – many Americans might have discovered it on Josh Groban’s 2015 album “Stages” – cementing “Notre Dame”‘s status as a It show that year. And unlike in the US, where scene personalities don’t tend to make a dent in the Billboard Hot 100, it turned cast members Garou, Patrick Fiori and Hélène Ségara into pop stars. (Lavoie already had an established career as a singer by this time.)
‘Notre Dame’ was so huge that other producers followed in Talar’s footsteps, including Dove Attia, who was behind the popular ‘The Ten Commandments’ (2000), ‘The Sun King’ (2005) and ‘ Mozart, the rock opera”. (2009). The latter was among the few to actually, uh, rock, which may partly help explain why those shows haven’t had much of an impact in English-speaking countries, where the tolerance for a high ratio of power ballads seems to be lower than in France, Russia or South Korea.
A landmark decision by the ‘Notre Dame’ team was to have the actors sing live to recorded tracks, which are still used in productions around the world, although the New York engagement complements them with a full orchestra. . “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Lavoie said in English, before switching back to French. “‘Notre Dame de Paris’ was conceived as a timeless spectacle.”
“Notre Dame” has been translated into eight languages and performed in 23 countries, although its producers now prefer to present it in the original French version, which is how its 30 actors will perform it in New York (with English surtitles). Still, this musical and others like it have faced an uphill battle to win over critics at home.
“Musical theater doesn’t get a lot of critical support in France,” said Laurent Valière, producer and host of the weekly “42e Rue” show on French public radio and author of a book on musicals. “The press talks about it, sometimes rightly and sometimes not.” (Full disclosure: I was a guest commentator on the show.)
The French hit factory seems to have run into a problem in recent years as it struggles to find successors to 2000s blockbusters. There are oddities like the biomusical “Bernadette de Lourdes”, which is based on the he true story of a young girl who claimed to see the Virgin Mary and plays in Lourdes, the city where it all happened.
In a different vein, ‘Résiste’, a musical jukebox based on France Gall’s pop songbook that benefited from a live band playing original arrangements and contributions from rising choreographer Marion Motin.
However, “Notre Dame de Paris” continues. “Another distinguishing feature is that no matter where it plays, it’s staged the same,” said Nicolas Talar, who now produces the show and co-presents it in New York. (He also produced credits on Broadway’s “Funny Girl” and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”)
“Sometimes we wonder if the show has become stale, but the themes are persistent and the music was intentionally arranged to sound timeless, so we keep postponing the changes,” he added. “So far the audience hasn’t complained and the show is doing well, so we’re staying the course.”