When Americans are asked to call French musicals, their go-to is “Les Misérables,” which opened in Paris in 1980 before an extensively retooled English version went on to beat the world a couple of years later.
That, or a few of the movies that Jacques Demy directed within the Nineteen Sixties, like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort.”
Normally not mentioned on our shores are the wildly popular homegrown stage musicals that appeared in France within the late Nineties. But now essentially the most famous of them, “Notre Dame de Paris,” is having its Recent York premiere on the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, and can run there through July 24.
Considered one of its creators has issues with the terminology used to explain his work, though.
“I don’t consider ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ as musical theater,” the composer Richard Cocciante said by video from Rome, where he was preparing for a concert tour in Italy. “For me it’s a people’s opera. That’s since it’s entirely sung-through. We don’t call the numbers arias, though: ‘Belle’ or ‘Le temps des cathédrales’ stand alone as songs,” he added, mentioning two of the show’s many sweeping ballads and its biggest hits.
Based, like “Les Misérables,” on an epic Nineteenth-century novel by Victor Hugo (which also inspired the Disney animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” to call just certainly one of many adaptations), “Notre Dame de Paris” successfully exploited a distinctively French approach to modern stage musicals.
The lyricist Luc Plamondon already had a successful profession writing for artists each 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 for the musical “Starmania” within the late Nineteen Seventies. (That perennial favorite is returning to the Paris stage in November.)
On the lookout for one other long-form project twenty years later, Plamondon thought that “Notre Dame de Paris” could be a fitting source and called up Cocciante, who happened to have a tape of odds-and-ends melodies laying around.
“The primary song began with him singing ‘Time … da-da-da,’” Plamondon, 80, hummed on the phone. He had been considering of the scene within the 1956 film adaptation by which Anthony Quinn, because the hunchback, Quasimodo, begs Gina Lollobrigida’s Esmeralda, the thing of all the lads’s attentions, for water. “He’s chained to the wheel and he goes ‘Belle … belle …’” Plamondon continued, quoting the French word for beautiful. “That gave me the concept to interchange ‘time’ with ‘belle’ within the song.”
And so they were off. “From then on it gushed out of each us,” Cocciante, 76, said. “We wrote ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ in a sort of trance.”
Within the French answer to a backers’ audition, he played the rating on the piano and sang all of the parts for the producer Charles Talar, who signed on and booked a run on the Palais des Sports in Paris for the autumn of 1998.
It was fitting for Talar to get that venue, which is just not a standard theater but a cavernous concert hall, because he got here from the music industry: He desired to release an album first, then construct on it to sell the stage show. It’s an approach Andrew Lloyd Webber successfully used for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” but overall it’s not common in the US and Britain, where a show precedes its recording.
“He assumed he could activate the networks he had built and use a few 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 concept was to familiarize audiences with the music before the show began. The specificity of French musicals is that we promote them the way in which we’d promote a pop record. If one or two songs develop into popular, you’re the star of the moment, you get on television and folks need to see you,” he added. “The one approach to hear ‘Belle’ live was to see the musical.”
That song, a trio for the three men in love with Esmeralda, was released within the spring of 1998, months before the show’s opening, and went on to develop into the biggest-selling single of the 12 months in France.
“There was this miracle — I don’t understand how else to explain it — of ‘Belle,’” said Daniel Lavoie, 73, who played the archdeacon Frollo in the unique production and is back within the cassock for the Recent York run. “It was almost 5 minutes, which was inconceivable on the radio on the time because they didn’t play anything longer than 3 minutes. I do not forget that at our first TV appearance we were asked to do the song again. We knew then we were onto something.”
One other number, “Le temps des cathédrales,” was almost as popular — many Americans might need discovered it on the 2015 Josh Groban album “Stages” — cementing the status of “Notre Dame” because the It show that 12 months. And in contrast to in the US, where stage personalities don’t are likely to make a dent on the Billboard Hot 100, it turned the forged members Garou, Patrick Fiori and Hélène Ségara into pop stars. (Lavoie already had a longtime profession as a singer by then.)
“Notre Dame” was so huge that other producers followed in Talar’s footsteps, most prominently Dove Attia, who was behind the favored “Les Dix Commandements” (2000), “Le Roi Soleil” (2005) and “Mozart, l’opéra rock” (2009). That last was among the many few to truly, er, rock, which can 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 appears to be lower than in France, Russia or South Korea.
A decisive move by the “Notre Dame” team was to have the forged sing live to recorded tracks, that are still utilized in productions worldwide, though the Recent York engagement will complement them with a full orchestra. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Lavoie said in English, before reverting back to French. “‘Notre Dame de Paris’ was conceived as a show outside of time.”
“Notre Dame” has been translated into eight languages and performed in 23 countries, though its producers now prefer presenting it in the unique French, which is how its forged of 30 will perform it in Recent York (with English supertitles). Still, this and similar musicals have faced an uphill battle to win over reviewers at home.
“Musical theater doesn’t get much critical support in France,” said Laurent Valière, the producer and host of the weekly program “42e Rue” on French public radio in addition to the writer of a book about musicals. “The press pans it — sometimes with good reason and sometimes not.” (Full disclosure: I even have been a guest commentator on the show.)
The French hit factory seems to have hit a snag lately because it strains to seek out successors to the blockbusters of the 2000s. There are oddities just like the biomusical “Bernadette de Lourdes,” which is predicated on the true story of a young girl who claimed to see the Virgin Mary and plays in Lourdes, the town where all of it happened.
In a distinct vein is “Résiste,” a jukebox musical based on France Gall’s pop songbook that benefited from a live band playing the unique arrangements and contributions from the rising choreographer Marion Motin.
Still, “Notre Dame de Paris” endures. “One other distinctive trait is that irrespective of where it’s playing, it’s staged the identical way,” said Nicolas Talar, who’s now producing the show and copresenting it in Recent York. (He also has producing credits on Broadway’s “Funny Girl” and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”)
“Sometimes we wonder if the show has develop into outdated, however the themes are evergreen and the music was intentionally arranged to sound timeless, so we keep postponing making changes,” he added. “To this point audiences haven’t complained and the show is doing well, so we’re staying the course.”