Der Glöckner von Notre Dame // Visiting the theatre abroad

I've been 'learning German' for the past 2 years or so. By which I mean occasionally having a little go on Duolingo and trying to translate the German sections of tampon leaflets and shampoo bottles. Armed with this practical experience, I decided I could totally visit the theatre in Germany and watch a musical performed entirely in German. How hard could it be?

Der Glöckner von Notre Dame Stuttgart Review

Obviously I didn't just wake up one day and go 'hey, won't it be fun to watch some German theatre!' There's a bit more backstory to my reasoning. My favourite Disney film is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you ask me, it's woefully under appreciated. It's dark, and has themes of theology and social exclusion, and it has the most atmospheric soundtrack ever (and songs about hell). I loved it at the age of 8 when it was released, which probably explains why I'm so fascinated by eternal damnation and religious iconography these days. But anyway, it makes me really sad that Disney seem to have brushed it under the carpet and, even with all the revival of Disney Renaissance works lately (live action movies, stage musicals, new rides at the parks...), Hunchback has been completely neglected. I was thinking about how amazing a stage show version would be (ideally with Alan Rickman as Frollo but obviously the door has been slammed on that dream) and idly Googled it. I found out that there was a musical in America, but it only ran for three months and never made it to Broadway. However, there had been a very successful German version in Berlin between 1999 and 2002, and it had been revived in 2017. Further research showed it was moving to Stuttgart in February 2018.

At this point, let me make a little digression into my travel plans. Since I love the German language, and Germany as a country so much, I have a little mental list of cities I want to visit. For various reasons, Stuttgart was top of the list. It seemed like fate. I already wanted to visit Stuttgart, and now this stage show that I so desperately wanted to see was moving to the city? Perfect! The only problem, of course, was the language barrier. But this is the theatre, and musical theatre at that. It's exaggerated and over the top, there's dancing and music to set the scene, and props to help with the context. Besides, I know the film off by heart (and have read the book, if that would help), so I'd be fine. People watch the opera all in Italian, and how many people really understand the language in Shakespeare plays? Understanding the language isn't a prerequisite to visiting the theatre. 

I was perfectly happy to go alone, but Rich thought it would be nice to come too, so before I could chicken out, I booked two tickets and waited anxiously for the day to arrive. I wasn't at all worried about the play itself- even if I didn't understand a bloody thing that was happening, nobody in the dark auditorium would know. The bit that really freaked me out was the thought of handing my tickets to the usher, having them say something like 'Dein Platz ist in diesen Schritten und auf der rechten Seite. Möchten Sie ein Programm kaufen?' (Thanks, Google translate), me just standing there like 'Erm... I don't actually know what you just said', and them thinking I'm a right bloomin' weirdo for seeing a show I won't understand. Rich knew about this fear and I'd told him how I just going to wing it. Smile and nod, and walk past like I own the place; that was my plan. I confidently approached the woman, smiling as I handed her the tickets and brightly trilled 'Hallo!' She scanned them, pointed to her right and started saying... something. Then she stopped, shook her head, laughed and said something else, while still pointing. I laughed along sympathetically, took my tickets back with an 'OK, danke!' and walked into the direction she was pointing. At which point Rich sidled up next to me and muttered into my ear 'What did she say?' I don't bloody know! Did you think I suddenly became fluent in German back there? Still, I was pretty impressed that I even managed to fool my husband, who knew I was planning to wing it, that I understood what she was saying. (I think she started to give me the wrong directions and then corrected herself)

Once that part was over, I could relax. We found our seats, settled down and waited for the show to begin. I loved every second! The set is amazing, just like the inside of Notre Dame with the rose window projected at the back, and a 30-piece choir who sit in the 'pews' at the back of the stage throughout the entire duration. When they reached their crescendo, with the music swelling around us and the sound of bells tolling, it absolutely took my breath away. Just magical. I found that at some points, less would have been more. The iconic 'Sanctuary!' scene in the film, for example, was glossed over on stage with lots of characters milling about that took away the focus. Had it just been Quasimodo and Esmeralda, standing in front of the rose window with a spotlight on them, I think it would have been much more powerful. The Hellfire sequence was a brilliant example of how less is more. Just Frollo, the choir behind him and the entire set lit up blood red so that our whole attention was focused on his dark intentions. 

As you'd imagine, the stage show didn't follow the film exactly. Although most of the songs were there, there were some additions and, in the case of The Court of Miracles, the same concept (and, as far as I could make out, many of the same lyrics), but a completely different melody, which I found wasn't as dynamic and disorientating as the original. There was no goat sidekick and, to my immense relief, no stupid comic relief gargoyles disrupting the atmospheric mood. Quasimodo still has imaginary friends in the form of gargoyles and statues, but these are played simply, with grey robes and no stupid jokes. The biggest differences are found in the beginning and the ending. There's a different backstory to Quasimodo's relationship with Frollo, and the ending is very different. I also found it a little darker than the film, with some slightly more adult moments. (Thinking about it now, I only saw one child in the theatre, so I suppose it's marketed as more of an adult production). From what I could interpret of the script, however, a lot of it was very similar to the film, even word-for-word in some areas.

This brings me nicely to the biggest question I had- how much did I understand? Well, like I said, I already know the film pretty well so I was confident of piecing things together, until these two men appeared calling each other 'Bruder' and I realised it wasn't going to be as straightforward as I thought. However, it really was very easy to follow. Of course there's body language, expression and props to help and, although I understood more of the script than I expected, I didn't need to understand a word. Having said that, I was very proud of myself when I easily understood two of the funnier pieces of dialogue and laughed along with the crowd, and again at the most emotional point, where I had no difficulty understanding an entire conversation and started crying from how poignant it was.

I'm incredibly glad I challenged myself to do this. Not only was it a wonderful evening, with a truly beautiful show, but it's boosted my confidence in understanding German too. I'd definitely consider going to the theatre over there again. And if an English-language version The Hunchback of Notre Dame ever makes it to the West End, I'll be there in the front row on opening night! 

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1 comment :

  1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favourite Disney film too, it's so refreshing to hear it's someone else's as well! I've heard of this musical before but didn't realise it was currently running, I've always wondered what it's like and it sounds amazing! It's awesome that you saw it in a different language too, I'd have the same anxieties about the usher.


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