'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' at 25: An Oral History of Disney's Darkest Animated Classic - /FILM
Jun 21, 2021 12 mins, 25 secs

Gary Trousdale, director: After Beauty and the Beast, I was exhausted.

Kirk Wise, director: It was this crazy, wonderful roller-coaster ride.

Gary Trousdale: A little later, it was suggested: “If you want to get back into directing, start looking for a project.

Kirk Wise: [Songwriters] Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty had a pitch called Song of the Sea, a loose retelling of the Orpheus myth with humpback whales.

Gary Trousdale: We were a few months in, and there was artwork and a rough draft.

Kirk Wise: The phone rang.

Gary Trousdale: “I’ve already got Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

Kirk Wise: I was pleased that [Jeffrey] was so excited about it.

Gary Trousdale: What [Kirk and I] didn’t know is that Alan and Stephen were being used as bait for us.

And Jeffrey was playing us as bait for Alan and Stephen.

Stephen Schwartz, lyricist: They had two ideas.

One was an adaptation of Hunchback and the other was about whales.

Peter Schneider, president of Disney Feature Animation (1985-99): I think what attracted Stephen was the darkness.

Don Hahn, producer: The goose had laid lots of golden eggs.

Kirk Wise: The idea appealed to me because [of] the setting and main character.

Gary Trousdale: It’s a story I always liked.

Don Hahn: It’s a great piece of literature and it had a lot of elements I liked.

Gary Trousdale: We thought, “What are we going to do to make this dark piece of literature into a Disney cartoon without screwing it up?”.

Stephen Schwartz: [Alan and I] got called into a presentation, and on all these boards [was] laid out “The Bells of Notre Dame.” We musicalized the story they put up there.

Kirk Wise: Early on, we [took] a research trip with the core creative team to Paris.

Don Hahn: To crawl up in the bell towers and imagine Quasimodo there, to see the bells and the timbers, the scale of it all is unbelievable.

Kirk Wise: One morning, I was listening to this pipe organ in this shadowy cathedral, with light filtering through the stained-glass windows.

Kirk Wise: Our secret weapon was James Baxter, who animated the ballroom sequence [in Beauty and the Beast] on his own.

Gary Trousdale: James Baxter is, to my mind, one of the greatest living animators in the world.

Gary Trousdale: In the scene with Quasimodo carrying Esmeralda over his shoulder, climbing up the cathedral, he looks back under his arms, snarling at the crowd below.

As production continued, Roy Conli’s position shifted, as Don Hahn joined the project, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in heated fashion in 1994.

Don Hahn: Roy hadn’t done an animated film before.

Kirk Wise: The [production] pace was more leisurely.

Gary Trousdale: Jeffrey never liked characters to have facial hair.

Kirk Wise: The ballroom sequence [in Beauty] gave us confidence to incorporate more computer graphics into Hunchback.

Stephen Schwartz: Michael Eisner started being more hands-on?

Kirk Wise: [The executives] were distracted.

Don Hahn: Hunchback was in a league of its own, feeling like we [could] step out and take some creative risks.

Gary Trousdale: In the book and several of the movies, Quasimodo talks to the gargoyles?

Kirk Wise: “A Guy Like You” was literally created so we could lighten the mood so the audience wasn’t sitting in this trough of despair for so long.

Stephen Schwartz: Out of context, the number is pretty good.

Gary Trousdale: People have been asking for a long time: are they real.

Kirk Wise: There was a component of the audience that felt the gargoyles were incompatible with Hunchback.

Stephen Schwartz: The story lent itself quite well to musicalization because of the extremity of the characters and the emotions.

Stephen was amazing.

Stephen Schwartz: The fact that we were doing a piece set in a church allowed us to use all those elements of the Catholic mass, and for Alan to do all that wonderful choral music.

Stephen Schwartz: I would come in with a title, maybe a couple of lines for Alan to be inspired by.

Stephen Schwartz: Alan played [the “Out There” theme] for me, and I really liked it.

Gary Trousdale: Talking with these guys about music is always intimidating.

Stephen Schwartz: Disney made it possible for me to get into Notre Dame before it opened to the public.

Kirk Wise: Stephen’s lyrics are really smart and literate.

Stephen just has a natural ability to connect with that?

Will Finn: The directors wanted a funny song for the gargoyles and Stephen was not eager to write it.

Jason Alexander: Singing with an orchestra the likes of which Alan and Stephen and Disney can assemble is nirvana.

Stephen Schwartz: “Topsy Turvy,” it’s one of those numbers of musical theater where you can accomplish an enormous amount of storytelling.

Kirk Wise: “God Help the Outcasts” made Jeffrey restless.

Alan and Stephen wrote “Someday.” Jeffrey said, “This is good, but it needs to be bigger!” Alan was sitting at his piano bench, and Jeffrey was next to him.

Don Hahn: In terms of what told the story better, one song was poetic, but the other was specific.

Kirk Wise: When Don watched the movie, he said, “It’s working pretty well.

Don Hahn: “Someday” was lovely.

Kirk Wise: It was all about what conveys the emotion of the scene and the central theme of the movie best.

Stephen Schwartz: Hunchback is Alan’s best score.

Gary Trousdale: With Hunchback, there were a couple of people that said, “This is why I chose music as a career.” Alan and Stephen’s songs are so amazing, so that’s really something.

Don Hahn: This is Alan’s most brilliant score.

Stephen Schwartz: It’s astonishing that Alan has won about 173 Academy Awards, and the one score he did not win for is his best score.

Gary Trousdale: Somebody asked me recently: “How the hell did you get ‘Hellfire’ past Disney?” It’s a good question.

Stephen Schwartz: I thought the would never let me get away with [“Hellfire”].

Stephen Schwartz: When Alan and I tackled “Hellfire,” I did what I usually did: write what I thought it should be and assume that [Disney would] tell me what I couldn’t get away with.

Don Hahn: Every good song score needs a villain’s moment.

Don Hahn: You use all the tools in your toolkit, and one of the most powerful ones was Alan and Stephen.

Gary Trousdale: The [MPAA] said, “When Frollo says ‘This burning desire is turning me to sin,’ we don’t like the word ‘sin.’” We can’t change the lyrics now.

Stephen Schwartz: It’s one of the most admirable things [laughs] I have ever seen Disney Animation do.

Don Hahn: It’s funny.

Don Hahn: We didn’t literally want to show [Frollo’s lust].

Kirk Wise: We stylized it like “Night on Bald Mountain.” The best of Walt’s films balanced very dark and light elements.

Don Hahn: They brought the storyboarded sequence to life in a way that is exactly what the movie looks like!

Gary Trousdale: It was absolutely gorgeous.

Gary Trousdale: We joked, maybe because they’re French, Esmeralda was in the nude when she was in the fire.

“Hellfire” may be the apex of the maturity of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the entire film is the most complex and adult Disney animated feature of the modern era. .

Gary Trousdale: We went straight for the heart and then pulled back.

Kirk Wise: I was comfortable with moments of broad comedy contrasted with moments that were dark or scary or violent.

Don Hahn: A lot of it is gut level, where [the story group would] sit around and talk to ourselves and pitch it to executives.

Don Hahn: Kathy Zielinski is brilliant?

Stephen Schwartz: I remember there was great controversy over Frollo sniffing Esmeralda’s hair?

Kirk Wise: The scene that caused the most consternation was in the cathedral where Frollo grabs Esmeralda, whispers in her ear and sniffs her hair.

Kirk Wise: We agreed it was going to be a matter of execution and our collective gut would tell us whether we were crossing the line.

Don Hahn: Is it rated G.

Gary Trousdale: I’m sure there was backroom bargaining done that Kirk and I didn’t know about.

Don Hahn: It’s negotiation.

Don Hahn: You make the movies for yourselves, [but] we all have families, and you try to make something that’s appropriate for that audience.

Stephen Schwartz: I [and others] said, “It doesn’t make any sense for him to not be the Archdeacon, because what’s he doing with Quasimodo.

Don Hahn: The things Frollo represents are alive and well in the world.

Stephen Schwartz: Hugo’s novel is not critical of the church the way a lot of French literature is.

Don Hahn: Yeah, that sounds like Peter.

Kirk Wise: We knew it was going to be a challenge to honor the source material while delivering a movie that would fit comfortably on the shelf with the other Disney musicals.

Jason Alexander: Disney, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Victor Hugo – you had me at hello.

Kirk Wise: Everybody auditioned, with the exception of Kevin Kline and Demi Moore.

Kirk Wise: Meat Loaf sat with Alan and rehearsed the song.

Ultimately, I think his record company and Disney couldn’t play nice together, and the deal fell apart.

Gary Trousdale: We all had the drawings of the characters we were currently casting for in front of us.

Kirk Wise: We cast Cyndi Lauper as one of the gargoyles.

Kirk Wise: We decided to reconceive the gargoyles.

Kirk Wise: Our first session with Kevin Kline went OK, but something was missing.

Gary Trousdale: Kevin Kline is naturally funny, so we may have [written] some funnier lines for him.

Kirk Wise: Tom Hulce had a terrific body of work, including Amadeus.

Gary Trousdale: [His voice] had a nice mix of youthful and adult.

Don Hahn: He’s one of those actors who could perform and act while he sang.

Stephen Schwartz: I thought Tom did great.

Kirk Wise: Gary came back with the audiotape of Tom’s first session.

Kirk Wise: We were thinking of Hannibal Lecter in the earliest iterations of Frollo.

Kirk Wise: We had a few people come in for Quasimodo, including Mandy Patinkin.

Stephen Schwartz: That was a difficult day.

Kirk Wise: Mandy informed Alan and Stephen that he brought his own accompanist, which was unexpected because we had one in the room.

Stephen Schwartz: I’ve never worked with Mandy Patinkin.

Kirk Wise: Gary and I stepped outside to work on a dialogue scene with Mandy.

Gary Trousdale: I did a drawing of it afterwards.

Stephen Schwartz: Battleship Patinkin.

Don Hahn: I don’t think Jason was wrong.

I think the marketing ended up, “Join the party.”.

I think audiences were not expecting that, if they didn’t know the original story.

Stephen Schwartz: To this day, they just don’t know how to market “Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I understand what their quandary is.

They have developed a brand that says, “If you see the word Disney on something, it means you can take your 6-year old.” You probably shouldn’t even take your 8-year old, unless he or she is very mature, to Hunchback.

Stephen Schwartz: I did have a sense that some in the critical community didn’t know how to reconcile animation and an adult approach?

Kirk Wise: We were a little disappointed in its initial weekend.

Don Hahn: We had really good previews, but we also knew it was out of the box creatively.

Kirk Wise: All of us were proud of the movie on an artistic level.

Gary Trousdale: I didn’t think people were going to have such a negative reaction to the gargoyles.

Kirk Wise: The 2D animated movies used to be released before Christmas [or] Thanksgiving.

Kirk Wise: By most measures, it was a hit.

I think The Lion King spoiled everybody, because [it] was such a phenomenon, a bolt from the blue, not-to-be-repeated kind of event.

Gary Trousdale: We were getting mixed reviews.

Don Hahn: I was in Argentina doing South American press.

Peter Schneider: I think it was a hit, right.

Don Hahn: If you’re the New York Yankees, and you’ve had a winning season where you could not lose, and then people hit standup singles instead of home runs…that’s OK.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame usually doesn’t engender connotations like, “Oh, that’s going to be a Disney classic.” I was very happy that it did as well as it did.

Alan Menken: I think it’s a project that with every passing year will more and more become recognized as a really important part of my career.

Stephen Schwartz: This will be immodest, but I think it’s a really fine adaptation.

I think it’s the best musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, and there have been a lot.

I think the music is just unbelievably good?

I think, as a lyricist, I was working at pretty much the top of my form.

Paul Kandel: I think people were more sensitive.

For critics, it pushed a little too hard and I don’t think they would think that now.

We have tons of animated movies, but I think they all look alike because of the computer technique.

Jason Alexander: I think it’s an undersung hero.

I think more people haven’t seen this one than any of the others.

I think that was probably a mistake on some level, but the animators were bored with it.

Don Hahn: You know people reacted to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King.

Kirk Wise: I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “This is my absolute favorite movie

Alan Menken: Now there’s a discussion about a live-action film with Hunchback

Kirk Wise: I imagine if there were a live-action adaptation, it would skew more towards the stage version

Stephen Schwartz:  I think it would lend itself extremely well to a live-action movie, particularly if they use the stage show as the basis

I think the stage show is fantastic

Kirk Wise: It’s gratifying to be involved in movies like Beauty and the Beast and Hunchback that have created so much affection

It might be different, but I don’t think it’s better

Gary Trousdale: There were enough versions before

Don Hahn: It’s very visual

I think we will someday

Kirk Wise: Hunchback is the movie where the final product turned out closest to the original vision

/Featured Stories Sidebar, Animation, Disney/Pixar, Features, Aladdin, Alan Menken, Animation, Anniversary, Beauty and the Beast, Demi-Moore, Disney, Jason Alexander, Kevin-Kline, Oral History, Stephen Schwartz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The-Lion-King, tom hulce

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