Theatre Thursdays: Notre-Dame de Paris in English

All right, I know I’ve been writing about this show for a while, but I figured since I’ve done two character studies I may as well go all out and just discuss the show as a whole and how it has been received in different parts of the world. Since the production was such a success in France, it was quickly translated into English for productions to be mounted in Las Vegas and London’s West End. Neither production came close to replicating the success of the original, and there are various possible reasons for this. I’m going to look at what I feel to be the most likely of these reasons

Reason #1: Presentation

To start with, the show has a rather unconventional aesthetic. Despite being set at the end of the Medieval period, the costumes, choreography, and lighting have a stark modern edge to them, almost punk in their appearance. The unchanging set, meant to represent the intricate cathedral, is a flat wall of concrete, while three rectangular concrete pillars topped by gargoyles roam the stage to add depth to the space.

The sheer size of the set is rather impressive, but at the end of the day it is a gray wall. Imagine sitting in a crowded theater with this being the only thing you can look at for nigh-on three hours, and you can start to see why this minimal set is problematic. In my opinion, the show simply doesn’t belong in a conventional theater, at least not in this form. When I first watched the French recording, I got the impression that this was a musical spectacular, the likes of which would tour arenas and amphitheaters. I was shocked when I learned that the English production played in the West End because it doesn’t have that kind of appearance. In fact, the most successful version of the musical (apart from the French) is probably the Italian version, which did primarily play in outdoor theaters.

Reason #2: Carbon Copy

Because the show was so incredibly popular in France, the creative team wanted to bring it to other countries without making any changes. Doug Storm, who played Quasimodo in the Las Vegas version, shared in an interview how difficult it was to make even small changes when their production was being put together:

Here’s the delicate balance again. Dance of the Vampires was changed too much from its European incarnation while Notre Dame de Paris wasn’t changed enough. I pulled teeth with the French director to get them to let me actually ride the bell as “Quasimodo’. If it wasn’t done in Paris, they didn’t want it. Our American producers’ hands were tied. The French felt that it was such an enormous hit in Paris that it shouldn’t have to be changed for American audiences. I respect their feelings of artistic integrity, and I adore eccentric personalities, but things always have to be tweaked and fixed.


I’m a big proponent of translated works having the same spirit or impact of the original rather than being word-for-word copies of the original. The notion that what was effective in one culture will touch audiences the same way in another culture without adaptation is silly to me. (Side note: it’s one of the reasons I defend many of the changes the English dub of Sailor Moon made to the series.) One of the biggest issues I have with this musical is its poor narrative. Very frequently I had no idea what was going on in the plot and the text of the musical didn’t help much at all. For example, in Act II Esmeralda is in jail. We never see her get arrested, she’s just there. Then she’s set free and takes refuge in Notre-Dame, then the gypsies attack the cathedral for some reason and everyone gets arrested again. Between Esmeralda’s release and the attack on the cathedral, three different characters have solos which do nothing to advance the plot.

Very little in this musical ties one event to another; there is almost no narrative thread to follow. Now, in France this probably wasn’t a big deal since Victor Hugo is one of their most beloved authors and his works are common knowledge. When this show is going to be performed in countries without that knowledge of the story, however, those gaps need to be filled in. Take, for instance, Les Misérables, another Hugo novel which has received the musical treatment. The original version presented in France was re-worked heavily before opening in London to make it meaningful to English-speaking audiences. Much like Notre-Dame de Paris, the original Les Misérables featured a pop/synth score, played out primarily in recognizable but apparently unrelated scenes, and had songs which expanded on moments more than they advanced the plot. Upon translating the piece, however, whole scenes were re-worked and more narration was added into the lyrics.

The original 1980 production of Les Misérables in rehearsal

The original 1980 production of Les Misérables in rehearsal

Had a similar revamping taken place for Notre-Dame, it may not have landed with such a thud on American and English shores.

Reason #3: Lyrics

Tied in closely with the issue of carbon-copying the original production is the problem with Will Jennings’s lyrics. Perhaps because the English version was produced so hastily, the lyrics are very clunky and awkward in many places. While there are a few good songs and even a handful of truly excellent lyrics, the overall work feels wordy. The only way I can describe the problem I have with the translation is that it seems almost as if each individual line of text from the original French lyrics was translated on its own, with no concern for the piece as a whole. As a consequence, the resulting songs fit the rhyme and meter of the originals, but they lack character and coherence. Take for instance the original line from Phoebus’s song “Déchiré” (Torn) about his conflicting feelings for Fleur-de-Lys and Esmeralda:

“One to whom I swore every oath/The other with whom I undo them”

Now compare to the English version “Torn Apart”

“To the one, I swear my love is true/And with the other one I break the rules”

Line to line, the translation fits, but as a whole there’s no relation between the two statements Phoebus makes. In the original, the second verse implies deceit and betrayal of the promises made in the first, the English version technically maintains the same ideas but doesn’t relate one to the other. It’s a small example of the larger problem which affects the whole translation.

If only Mr. Jennings hadn’t been so preoccupied with replicating the text as closely as possible, we could have gotten something great. The Russian production (another one of the most successful versions) took great liberties with their translations and came up with some beautiful lyrics. Just compare the original “Belle” to the Russian version:

As you can see, no individual lyric resembles the original text, but the emotions conveyed are spot-on.

This is not to say that the English production had no merits. For instance, it was the English production which first made Fleur-de-Lys into the character I love from my post on her a couple days ago. By changing the original song “La Monture” from a soliloquy into a diatribe, the production gave her a much more dynamic character arc and that change has been applied to all subsequent productions. There are also some really excellent songs, such as “The Birds they put in Cages”, which I feel is more powerful in English than any other translation I know of.

Overall I don’t think that the English version was terrible, but it was certainly far from the best it could be, and many of the problems it had were already present in the source. That said, even with a different artistic vision for the presentation, if the text fails to tell a worthwhile story, the musical will struggle. It doesn’t seem very likely that the translations will be reworked any time soon though, since the Will Jennings English version was recently revived to tour Asian cities in 2011-2012. As such, a full-scale West End revival or Broadway production is unlikely, but perhaps it will generate enough interest to at least become an arena tour. If so, maybe in that presentation Notre-Dame de Paris can achieve the success that it never reached in English.

2 thoughts on “Theatre Thursdays: Notre-Dame de Paris in English

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