SINGAPORE — When it comes to the Hunchback of Notre Dame story, most people are familiar with the 1996 Disney movie with that title.
But for the upcoming Quasimodo: A Musical Story from local company Sing’Theatre, director Nathalie Ribette wanted to stay true to the source novel written by French author Victor Hugo in 1831.
The story follows Quasimodo, a deformed bell-ringer at Notre-Dame Cathedral who falls in love unrequitedly with Esmeralda, a Roma dancer.
Esmeralda also attracts the attention of other men, including Captain Phoebus and Archdeacon Claude Frollo, who is torn between his attraction to her and his obligation to the church.
The original story is much darker and more complex than the Disney version, says Ribette, 58. “Most French people were shocked when the Disney version came out. It’s an insult to Victor Hugo.”
Quasimodo: A Musical Story will run from April 15-24. It is staged to mark the third anniversary of the fire at 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 address issues of prejudice, sexism and discrimination.
Actor Joash Zheng, 31, plays the title character. The Lasalle College of the Arts graduate’s audition moved Ribette a lot, as he clearly felt a lot for the hunchback. It was only after that he revealed he had autism spectrum disorder.
Zheng says he tapped into his life experiences to get into character. “Growing up here, spending time in the education system, the difference isn’t exactly the easiest thing to go through.”
He remembers being ostracized in school for his monotonous speech and his difficulty in interpreting jokes, which he had to practice over time to be better.
He also remembers a teacher’s comment that his neurodivergence made him “useless”. The teacher, he adds, got off “with a slap on the wrist”.
Using special effects, Zheng seeks to portray Quasimodo as a multidimensional character who is blind in one eye and half deaf from the ringing of the bells of Notre Dame, traits missing from the Disney adaptation.
The cast also features established local actors such as Hossan Leong and Vanessa Kee, who is best known for playing Aida in Aida: The Musical (2019).