SINGAPORE – When it comes to the tale of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, most people are familiar with the 1996 Disney movie of that title.
But for the upcoming Quasimodo: A Musical Story by home-grown company Sing’Theatre, director Nathalie Ribette wanted to stay faithful to the original source novel written by French author Victor Hugo in 1831.
The story follows Quasimodo, a deformed bell ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral who falls in unrequited love with Esmeralda, a Romani dancer.
Esmeralda also catches the eye of other men, including archdeacon Claude Frollo, who becomes torn between his attraction to her and his obligation to the church, and Captain Phoebus.
The original story is far darker and more complex than the Disney version, says Ribette, 58. “Most of the French people were shocked when Disney’s version came out. It is an insult to Victor Hugo.”
Quasimodo: A Musical Story will run between April 14 and 24. It is being staged to mark the third anniversary of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, as well as the 220th anniversary of Hugo’s birth.
The production, which borrows some songs from the French musical Notre Dame De Paris, will delve into issues of prejudice, sexism and discrimination.
Actor Joash Zheng, 31, plays the titular character. The Lasalle College of the Arts graduate’s audition moved Ribette greatly, as he clearly felt a lot for the hunchback. It was only afterwards that he revealed he had autism spectrum disorder.
Zheng says he tapped his life experiences to get into character. “Growing up here, spending any amount of time in the education system, difference isn’t exactly the easiest thing to get through.”
He recalls being ostracised in school for his monotonous speech and difficulty interpreting jokes, something which he had to train himself over time to be better at.
He also remembers a teacher’s comment that his neurodivergence made him “useless”. The teacher, he adds, got away “with a slap on the wrist”.
With the help of special effects, Zheng seeks to portray Quasimodo as a multidimensional character who is blind in one eye and half-deaf from ringing the bells of Notre Dame, traits missing in Disney’s adaptation.
The cast also stars established local actors such as Hossan Leong and Venessa Kee, who is best known for playing Aida in Aida: The Musical (2019).