In 2018, Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondonit is Notre Dame of Paris celebrated its 20th anniversary. The show (billed as “A Musical Show”), based on the novel by Victor-Hugowas born at the Palais des Congress of Paris and has since toured extensively – including several different translations – and has returned home frequently on various occasions for limited runs.
He was last seen in London in 2000, and he returns in a few weeks for a short stay at the Coliseum; this time the show will be performed in the original French, with English surtitles, rather than using the previous English translation.
Last week, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go behind the scenes of the current end of the Paris race, on the very stage where it saw its very first performance.
The Palais des Congrès in Paris is not, at first glance, the most obvious of theatres. Not only does the venue host events such as conventions and award ceremonies, but the building also houses a huge shopping mall. As you exit the stage, you can buy a discount carpet or pop into one of the many designer stores while waiting to enter the auditorium!
Not all theaters in Paris are housed in this particular way, of course, but I can’t help but think we’re missing something by not having something similar here in the UK; the potential for passing trade is surely greater, especially considering that there is a 4,000-seat auditorium to fill.
Standing on stage and gazing into the seating area, it’s impossible not to feel a bit impressed. The space is vast and the huge lights more than a little intimidating – performers certainly have a long way to go during a show. In this regard, the London Coliseum is a pretty perfect fit, as this stage is a very similar size, so relatively little will need to be changed.
Surprisingly enough about the Palais Congrès auditorium, the wings are so far from the public that the actors can content themselves with singing at the top of their voices without being heard by the public! They can get so used to this freedom that they have to be reminded not to do it in different places, where the sound will travel much more easily.
Behind the scenes, there are quick-change areas for men and women on either side, allowing the large ensemble to quickly change costumes between scenes, as well as a table full of very colorful “Feast of Fools” wigs ready to go. be donned – these are made of rugby scrum caps, allowing the acrobats to move with ease throughout the act.
The backdrop to the stage is a large wall, with sections moving in and out at various points in the show; everything is done manually, to allow the movement to stay in tune with the music. It’s also one of the few things that adds height to the whole thing, as Quasimodo and Frollo can be seen scaling the walls and up and down the steps, respectively, occasionally stopping to perform at different levels.
After becoming familiar with the theater and the inner workings of the show, all that remained was to see it. Despite some problems finding our seats – the doors are not numbered and the blocks of seats are separated into odd and even rather than being fully sequential – the theater itself was pleasant enough, and the “no food” rule “definitely helped the audience.
A big difference in musical performances in France is that the music is not played live, but instead they use a backing track. Learning this quite early in the trip made me a bit wary, but it actually worked out much better than expected – for the London run, however, conductor Matthew Brind orchestrated the score so that the ENO can provide live music, which I’m sure will bring something different and exciting to the show.
The scale of the stage overwhelms some of the more intimate scenes, as there’s very little decor to fill the void, but elsewhere there’s dynamic choreography and fantastic acrobatic sequences, like Quasimodo singing to his beloved. Notre Dame bells.
It can get a bit repetitive, but the performers fill the space with such ease – which is no small feat on a stage of this size.
If you have a basic knowledge of French, it’s quite simple to follow; otherwise, a rough familiarity with the story may come in handy as some sections aren’t as easy to stick to. There will be English subtitles, but depending on where they are positioned, you might not want to rely on them entirely. It’s easy to get carried away by the music, and Richard Charest is particularly charismatic and endearing in the role of the poet Gringoire.
For the French, it’s an experience as much as a spectacle, which was demonstrated at the end, as the theater gave an instant standing ovation and sang along with Charest in a reprise of the opening number, “Les Temps of Cathedrals”.
This moving moment showed what spectacle and history mean to Parisians, even after all this time. It will be interesting to see what London makes of it the second time around.
Photo credit: Alessandro Dobici