By Maddie Orton
Remember the first time you heard “A Whole New World?” How about “Defying Gravity?” Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, respectively, are the men behind the music. And working with them is a dream come true for singers from Westfield’s Continuo Arts Foundation choir. They’re joining forces with Paper Mill Playhouse and Disney, in Menken and Schwartz’s stage adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“I’ve been in Pippin three times; I played the plant in Little Shop last year,” says choir member Matt Lafargue. “I never dreamed I’d be singing their music to them, so it’s an honor.”
By day, Lafargue is a state prosecutor. His fellow choir members are web designers, students and aspiring professional performers. What brings them together? A love of music. Over 80 choir members have rehearsed for weeks and weeks to provide the musical a special sound.
“The score for the Disney movie has a big choir singing away in Latin, and that’s so much a part of, I think, Alan’s score — that wonderful, big, rich liturgical sound,” says Stephen Schwartz.
“It gives it an emotional depth and a context,” says Alan Menken.
“I got to use my high school Latin, finally!” jokes Schwartz.
The choir may be a holdover from the 1996 animated film, but many elements of the movie didn’t make the leap from screen to stage. Director Scott Schwartz, Stephen’s son and a long-established director in his own right, wanted to bring the show closer to Victor Hugo’s text.
“It’s not these sort of three cute gargoyles with adorable names,” says Stephen Schwartz.
A previous version of this production ran at La Jolla Playhouse this season, and an even earlier draft of the show played in Berlin more than 15 years ago. As of Paper Mill’s preview performances earlier this week, Hunchback was getting its final tweaks from the creative team.
“I actually love being in previews and just changing things,” Schwartz says, “and you do one little thing and you think, ‘OK, that’s better.’”
“Just small clarifications. Underlining of things, editing out of some things,” explains Menken.
“It’s the problem-solving and seeing little pieces of the show get better. It’s like playing,” says Schwartz.
It’s like playing for choir member Samantha Ferrara, too. The recent Westminster Choir College grad, like so many others involved, is happy to be along for the ride.
“It’s just been an absolute blast,” she says, “especially when they throw new music at us and we have to learn it in about 20 minutes before the show goes on.”
Ferrara says, for her, the whole experience has been “an event of a lifetime.”
Here’s more from Alan Menken’s interview: