Jim Hill: From the Archives
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Now with Alexander and Wickes on board the gargoyle scenes in Hunchback finally started firing on all four cylinders. Here was the humor and the heart that Wise and Trousdale had been looking for all those months. Finally these early crucial scenes in the film - where Quasi revealed his longing to leave the bell tower and journey Out There into the world - began to play properly.
In fact, the Victor, Hugo and Laverne sequences began working so well that - late in the production, as Hunchback hit a trouble spot - Wise and Trousdale turned to the gargoyles to help bail them out.
Okay. Remember the film? The trouble spot comes up well into the third act of the film. Frollo is burning down Paris in his desperate search for Esmerelda. Phoebus has been shot in the back with an arrow for defying an order from the crazed cleric. Esmerelda ends up rescuing the wounded soldier from a watery grave. Meanwhile, Quasi sit high in his belltower, wringing his hands as he rings his bells, wondering if he'll ever see the beautiful gypsy girl alive again.
Sounds kind of depressing, doesn't it?
If ever a film needed to be lightened up for a while, it was Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame at this particular point in the plot. So Wise and Trousdale turned their gaze back on their comic relief and thought: "Maybe it's time to give these guys a song."
So they asked composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwarz to come up with a comic number for the gargoyles to sing to Quasi as they tried to buck up their pal's spirits as well as distract him - at least for a moment - away from his concerns for Esmerelda's safety. Schwarz then came up with the idea that - in Hugo, Victor and Laverne's eyes - the hunchback was a pretty fine looking fellow.
Out of that notion came the showstopper, A Guy Like You, one of the wildest, funniest numbers ever to be presented in a Disney animated film. Not since Ward Kimball's eye-popping work in the title tune from the studio's 1944 The Three Caballeros has a musical number featured so many gags. That song did just what it was supposed to: diverted Quasi's attention - as well as the audience's - from all the troubles in the film for a few minutes.
This song made the movie all the more heart wrenching when Esmerelda showed up - just moments later - with the injured Phoebus in tow. As the gypsy girl revealed her love for the wounded soldier, our hearts immediately went out to Quasimodo. Just seconds earlier his friends had been assuring the hunchback that Esmerelda had to love him. Now here was the truth - slapping him in the face. It was brutal but still masterful story telling by Wise and Trousdale. You'd have to had a heart of stone to not have been moved by that scene.
Sadly, A Guy Like You would turn out to be the very last thing Mary Wickes worked on. In October 1995, just weeks after recording the song, Wickes passed away quietly in her sleep.
Wickes' death saddened the Hunchback production team, but also left them with a bit of a problem. Prior to her untimely passing, Mary had recorded almost everything that Disney needed to finish the film. But there were still a few additional pick-up lines Wise and Trousdale needed recorded to finish up Laverne's speaking part as well as a couple of lines from A Guy Like You that the directors wanted smoothed over. But, with Wickes gone, how were they ever going to get this additional dialogue recorded?
Since there was obviously no way to replace a talent like Mary Wickes, Disney began searching for a Mary Wickes sound-alike. Happily, the Mouse found one in former child star Jane Withers. Withers - best known these days for her work as Josephine the Plumber, the spokesperson for Comet Cleanser - is a gifted mimic. More to the point, she was a lifelong friend of Mary Wickes, so she could do a killer impression of Wickes' reedy twang without even trying.
Withers was glad to help Disney out of its predicament, both for the opportunity to work as well as sort of pay tribute to her longtime friend. Jane came in quietly and quickly recorded the few little snippets of things Wise and Trousdale needed to finish up Laverne's role in Hunchback. Withers was so good at doing Wickes that it's damn near impossible to tell which actress did which part in the movie.
With that ... the gargoyle portions of Hunchback were completed. The finished film was released in the summer of 1996. While not a huge hit like The Lion King, Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame got respectful reviews and did okay at the box office.
But one guy really fell in love with this movie: Disney chairman Michael Eisner. Hunchback is - hands down - Eisner's favorite film among all the animated cartoons Disney Studio has created in the 15 years he's been running the company. Michael liked this movie so much that he asked Disney Theatrical Production to create a stage version of the show.
Under the direction of noted Broadway playwright / director James Lapine, a stage version of Disney's Hunchback was produced in 1999. But not in New York. Instead, this live stage version of the movie musical had its world premiere last summer in Berlin. (Why Berlin? Because - of all the countries in all the world - the one place where Disney's animated version of Hunchback was a true blockbuster at the box office was Germany. So when it came time to roll out the live stage version of the show, Berlin seemed like the obvious place to go.)
The live stage version of Disney's Der Glockner Von Notre Dame has proven to be pretty popular with German audiences. The show's been playing to mostly sold out houses since its debut in June 1999 at the Musical Theater Berlin.
Lately, there's been some talk that the Mouse might bring this live stage version of Hunchback stateside to try a run on Broadway. If they do, I do hope that Disney Theatrical gives some thought to offering the part of Laverne to Cyndi Lauper. I mean, come on, fair's fair. Given all the heartbreak Lauper went through with the movie version of this show, it only stands to reason that Cyndi deserves a shot at stardom with the live stage version.
I mean, it isn't starring in a Disney animated cartoon, but it's close.
Besides, by the time Hunchback finally turns up on Broadway, Lauper will probably be old enough to play Laverne.