Styx’s Dennis DeYoung Presents ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Skylight
The story of how Skylight Music Theater came to play a musical by the former lead singer of Styx began on a Chicago street in 1994.
“Fate has a lot to do with my connection to Dennis,” Skylight art director Michael Unger said.
At the time, Unger was assisting in the making of a production of “A Clockwork Orange”. Riding his bike to work, he saw a man standing outside the Steppenwolf Theater who was “undoubtedly Dennis DeYoung” from Styx. Unger introduced himself as a fan. During their conversation, gregarious DeYoung told Unger that he was writing a musical based on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
It was a friendly conversation that might not have gone anywhere. But months later, Steppenwolf’s office called Unger. Some guy named Dennis DeYoung wants your phone number. Is it okay to give it to him?
DeYoung invited Unger to his home, where “he single-handedly sang the whole score for me. And I fell in love with it,” Unger said.
If you’re one of Milwaukee’s eleven-nine thousand Styx fans, you might feel the same way Unger felt after hearing the songs DeYoung wrote for the musical.
Skylight brought together 21 actors to direct this show, including Broadway veterans Ben Gulley and Kevin Anderson. Performances begin May 20.
Compose a great romantic musical
After leaving Styx, DeYoung toured in the 1993 revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” performing 268 times as Pontius Pilate. At that time, the musical adaptation of “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo was in full spectacular success on Broadway.
Writing a musical for other people seemed easier than performing eight times a week, DeYoung joked. More seriously, he said, “I thought my music would be better suited to something big, literary and romantic” – an incisive self-analysis by the songwriter of Styx hits “Come Sail Away”, “Babe” and “Mr. Roboto”. “
DeYoung chose another Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” because he had fond memories of the 1939 film version starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. While he disliked the novel itself (too much architecture and printing for him), DeYoung was deeply moved by the scene where Frollo, the cathedral’s archdeacon, saves the abandoned hunchbacked child. This led to him writing what would be the musical’s opening song, “Who Will Love This Child”.
What unlocked the musical for DeYoung was conceiving of Frollo not as a one-dimensional villain, but as a more complex tragic figure, who became a priest more out of obligation than vocation, and who loved Quasimodo like a son. When this emotionally constrained man saw the beautiful Esmeralda dancing in the street, he immediately knew his life as he had known it was over, DeYoung said, paraphrasing the novel.
From Newton to Milwaukee
In 1994, as a young assistant director, Unger lacked the clout to push a production forward. He brought Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise to DeYoung’s house to listen to the songs, but Sinise busied himself with other work after receiving an Oscar nomination for his role in “Forrest Gump.”
DeYoung kept “Hunchback” alive by recording an album version in 1996, singing the male leads himself with his sister-in-law Dawn Marie singing the female leads. (You can listen to it on streaming services.) His “Hunchback” received nude stage productions in Nashville in 1996 and at Chicago’s Bailiwick Theater in 2007.
Unger stayed in touch with DeYoung over the years. They worked together on a musical adaptation of “101 Dalmatians” in 2014 in Newton, Massachusetts, where Unger produces the artistic director of the NewArts children’s theater program. When Unger came to Skylight as artistic director, he put “Hunchback” on the September 2020 schedule, only to be triggered by the long pandemic delay.
Represent the Roma identity of Esmeralda
Directing “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 2022 forces a director to ask himself the question of Esmeralda’s ethnic identity and the comments made about her.
Many Roma believe the novelist Hugo contributed to negative perceptions in their community through his misinformed stereotype of Esmeralda as a gypsy – a word that stems from old mistaken beliefs that his people originated from Egypt. While many Roma reject the G-word altogether, others are now accepting it, Unger said.
Unger and DeYoung decided to change the group’s positive, internal references to people from Esmeralda in “Hunchback” to Romani, while leaving “gypsy” in the mouths of the show’s villains as a pejorative they would have used.
“Hunchback” ensemble member Jackey Boelkow, who has Romani heritage, is also the production’s Romani consultant, helping Unger navigate these issues.
Give DeYoung the final say on this show and he’ll tell you that words aren’t the most important thing.
“It’s music, my friend,” he said. “Music is sound waves. It magically connects us, one way or another, to every fiber of the universe. … How can listening to a human voice give you goosebumps or make your hair stand on end?…The melody…will remain in the human experience long after what was said.”
If you are going to
Skylight Music Theater presents “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” from May 20 to June 12 at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, visit skylightmusictheatre.org or call (414) 291-7800. Skylight recommends this production for ages 12 and up.