The production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ referred to in this article is playing at Skyridge High School in Lehi, Utah each night through July 28. To find out how to get tickets and see it for yourself, click here

All images in the article are concept art for the 1996 Disney film of the same name or production photos from the Lehi Arts Council’s current production. 

In the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the newly minted Archdeacon of the cathedral, Claude Frollo is unexpectedly given charge of a baby, which, upon seeing its face, he deems ‘a monster’. Pressured by the all-seeing eyes of the saints of Notre Dame and the God of judgment they represent, he agrees to care for the child. He gives it a name, “a cruel name that means ‘half-formed’. Quasimodo.”

I am currently playing one of those saints made of stone in the Lehi Arts Council’s production of this compelling and heart-wrenching tale and so, though I am rarely moving, I am always listening. We saints come to life only when Quasimodo, our ‘half-formed’ friend is in his solitude in the towers of Notre Dame. In my stillness in the scenes when Quasi is not alone, I am left to meditate intently on the stunning music and poignant messages of this story and I have learned much from the hunchback and his life.

The Moment We Learn Life Won’t Always Be Kind

This week I met a family who seem to have recently faced much more than their share of difficult and tragic challenges. In a single year, they have experienced terminal illness, miscarriage, assault, a major car accident, underemployment and eviction. The evening after I met them, I watched from backstage as Quasimodo ventured out into the streets of Paris to join in the ‘topsy turvy’ reveling surrounding the ‘Feast of Fools’. It is the one day for the gypsies to sing and dance and Quasi’s first time leaving his tower and interacting with people in the real world.

The joy and excitement on his face are obvious. For a while he is able to laugh and enjoy unobserved and be among the people he has only ever been able to watch from far above. But then, in a moment of confusion, he is pulled on the stage as the raucous crowd searches for “the ugliest face in Paris”. They are shocked to find that his misshapen visage is not a mask. Initially they begin to celebrate him and his wide, childlike, uninhibited smile returns. For the briefest moment, he finds the belonging that he has always longed for from his tower.

It breaks my heart every single performance night to watch that happy, innocent, vulnerable smile of his fade as from the crowd, a piece of rotten produce is pelted at him. He doesn’t understand right away, doesn’t see the order or the fairness in suddenly being so ridiculed and rejected after his moment in the sun.

I watched him and thought about that family with numberless struggles and thought how poignant it is that we all enter this world as children, truly and fundamentally vulnerable and innocent. Hopefully, we learn to smile right away and how to laugh not long after. But no matter how warm and safe our surroundings, someone will throw the first tomato. No matter how carefully we tread and who and what we avoid, we will stumble upon life’s sorrows and difficulties.

It is so poignantly painful—both in real life and in this play—to feel that moment of cruel reversal; that disappointing discovery that life will not be simply singing and dancing and laughter. Your moment of belonging will not last forever.

There Can Be No ‘Heaven’s Light’ Without ‘Hellfire’

Why is this aching so central to the mortal experience? We are told there must be opposition in all things and seldom is that more vividly expressed than in the pairing of Quasimodo’s serenade, ‘Heaven’s Light’, expressing the burgeoning excitement he feels at having met Esmeralda and Frollo’s struggling strain, ‘Hellfire’ capturing his disgust at what he too is beginning to feel for her. One is the hope of love and goodness and light and the other is the hopelessness of wanting something you can never have.

Perhaps if we as mortals were not so blind we could recognize heaven’s light without having to taste of hell’s misery and fire, but usually we fail to value joy until we’ve experienced its opposite. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world” and too often in my own life I have found myself growing spiritually deaf when life is most comfortable and easy.

What would our lives actually be like if we were allowed to waltz through mortality without obstacles? I think in the final sum-up, we would be disappointed in who we had become if we’d never been given that chance to grow. The raw, sometimes rough experiences we get are paramount is developing the muscles we want to have and shaping us into the people we would want to be.

A few years ago, on a camping trip of all of my parents’ grandchildren, I watched one of my nieces start to have the symptoms of a panic attack. Without her parents to turn to for support, I was surprised and impressed to see one of my older nieces step in and begin to comfort the anxious, younger girl. “It’s ok,” she said as she draped an arm around her, “This happens to me sometimes too. Just breathe with me, ok? Breathe.”

The older girl was probably 15 at the time, but her unique struggles in life had already equipped her with that specialized empathy to do something for my younger niece that I couldn’t really have done. Our specific brand of ‘hellfire’ can make us exactly who we need to be, to be the ‘heaven’s light’ for someone else one day.

“Though I made a choice I didn’t know would bring…I wouldn’t change a thing”

One of my favorite songs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is called ‘Flight into Egypt’. It is sung by St. Aphrodius, a man whose sainthood, like so many other saints, came at the cost of his life. He was an Egyptian who was thought to have sheltered the holy family when they fled into Egypt to escape the tyranny and bloodlust of Herod when Jesus was still only a child.

His ultimate beheading came much later, but in the song he declares, “Though I made a choice I did not know would bring my grisly martyring, I wouldn’t change a thing.” I love the line each time I hear it. Who of us ever really knows the consequences of the things we choose before we choose them? All we can really do is the best we can with the understanding we have and sometimes it doesn’t come together perfectly.

But knowing that what we did was right even if what it brought wasn’t perfect ease and comfort requires being so in tune with the mind and will of God. It requires trusting in things we cannot see and often won’t understand in the short term. It requires a hero’s courage and faith. “A hero, or a saint.”

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

Quasimodo’s life and all of our lives are full of such longing; longing for something we may never have known on this earth, but something that nonetheless, a part of us seems to remember and yearn for. If we truly believe in that other place, that heavenly home, suddenly it becomes worthwhile to make even very great sacrifices for the things that are good and true.

At its cruelest, it’s still the only world we’ve got”

Impressive too though is that St. Aphrodius refuses to wish for a different life than the one he had. Sometimes it’s hard to wake up and accept that the life you have, the age you’re at, the things you haven’t managed to do yet—that’s reality. No matter how much you wish things to have gone differently, they didn’t. The sooner you square with the idea that even at its lowest points, this is the only life you’ve got, the sooner you can stand up and make the next bit better. 

As Captain Phoebus, the cathedral guard that sacrifices much to stand up for and protect Esmeralda, rallies the people to take a stand he says something that gives me surprisingly good guidance on how to do just that:

“How much oppression will you allow? Someday, your patience will finally break. Why not make someday come right now?”

Even when we acknowledge that we are unhappy, we often to continue to put up with a lot of misery until life forces us to finally make a change. It seems revolutionary to me to think that there are areas in which I know that someday my patience will run out so why not just call that day today and make a change.

Obviously this is all much more easily said than done, but I suspect we could all do more to solve our own problems and make things easier on ourselves than we currently do. My mother once told me that she used to live in a house where some city workers had left a pile of mud on her front sidewalk. She waited and waited for them to clean it up and even after she began to suspect they never would, she put off doing something about it because solving the problem seemed time-consuming and difficult. Meanwhile though, everyone that came over walked through the pile and couldn’t help, but track mud into her home.

So, avoiding solving the problem only created a different problem for her to deal with that ultimately was taking up her time on an almost daily basis rather than just taking one muddy afternoon to solve. I suspect there are many areas in each of lives like that. There are piles of mud that we avoid facing because it seems like too unpleasant a problem to solve, but meanwhile we are dealing with low-grade misery each day in exchange.

Someday your patience with finally break. Why not make someday come right now?

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience

Should you come and see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you should not expect a happy conclusion. If you are waiting for it to be tied up with a neat little bow in the end, you will wait a long time. Quasimodo’s life is one of deep sorrow. At times we may feel that our lives fit that description as well. But the reason I find this show not just deeply moving but even uplifting is that ultimately, as we sing in the finale; “Someday the world will be kinder, love will be blinder, some new afternoon,” I know that it’s true.

‘The triumph of hope over experience’ may be a phrase that was first coined in some sarcasm, but I believe in it. Regardless of how much experience we’ve had with sorrow in the world, hope reigns triumphant. Someday the world will be kinder because it’s in our power to make it so. If the audience of this show walks away and does even a single kind thing because of Quasimodo’s story, the world will already be a little kinder. Fictional though he may be, his tragic life will have new significance and impact for inspiring some growing light in the world.

The truth is, we are all “half-formed” and the darkness and tumult of mortality is what it takes to form us the rest of the way. Life can and does cut deeply, but it is ultimately carving us into something we want to be. It is only as the lines grow deeper and the shadows grow darker that our true features shine through.

The production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ referred to in this article is playing at Skyridge High School in Lehi, Utah each night through July 28. To find out how to get tickets and see it for yourself, click here