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Over that last few weeks, a number of stories have popped up about Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame. ABC is developing a live- action musical version for the Wonderful World of Disney. The script will be based on both the animated feature and the musical that is currently running in Berlin. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are slated to work on the project, which will be neither as lighthearted as the movie (does this mean the Gargoyles will get the axe?), nor as dark in tone as the musical.
What does this have to do with Disneyland? Well, plenty, Dear Readers, but we're all going to have to climb into the Wayback Machine and travel back to the Disneyland of 1996 to find out.
Entertainment at Disneyland was a little different then. It was, well, entertaining. There were so many choices it was hard to decide what to see. Disneyland Today for August 9th through the 15th, lists two performances of The Lion King Celebration Parade, two performances of The Main Street Electrical Parade, two performances of Fantasmic!, six performances of The Spirit Of Pocahontas Stage Show, and four performances of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame "Festival Of Fools."
Of all these, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame "Festival Of Fools" was, and remains, unique to Disneyland's history and is certainly among my list of personal favorites. It was a theatre- in- the- round show with a heavy dose of audience participation, based on the concepts of the medieval morality play and the "everyman."
Morality plays were widely performed during the late 15th and early 16th centuries and, for the most part, they were designed to instruct the audience in the Christian way of life and attitude toward death. The basic theme of these plays was the battle between good and evil for the human soul, the outcome being that the soul always ended up saved. The plays usually went on for days and involved the participation of the audience cheering on the soul's ascent to heaven.
The most famous morality play was Everyman. Summoned by Death, Everyman finds that he cannot get any of his friends to accompany him on his journey. Deserted by Beauty, Worldly Goods, and Kindred, the allegorical tale finally proceeds with Everyman seeking the fate of his soul accompanied only by Good Deeds. Victor Hugo's novel, upon which, Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame was based, begins with a morality play.
Festival of Fools made its debut on June 21, 1996. The preparations for that day began long before, however. Disneyland Today of February 1995 describes the area on Big Thunder Trail as "an Old West homestead featuring a log cabin, horses and burros, stables, petting barnyard, and harness maker." For some folks, it was probably little more than a petting zoo, but for my two daughters and me it was a cozy and quaint area, once home to the cow, Mickey Moo. I used to take my daughters there to visit the goats and chickens. We'd marvel at the scarecrows that would materialize in the fall. I loved the old house for the antiques it held and the wonderful old photos of Walt Disney that hung on the walls.
One day, the ranch closed down, the animals went to live in other homes, and Disneyland started to tear up the place. My daughters and I were incensed. How could Disneyland do that? What could they possibly put in that would warrant destroying the farm? The answer was Festival of Fools. The log cabin moved to the spot it now sits upon and was transformed into Esmeralda's cottage. It no longer resembled a farmhouse, but was a quaint Gypsy cottage complete with thatched roof and a small old-fashioned flower garden.
Then, Festival Arena sprung up. How do I describe this for you, Dear Readers? What was once a plot of dirt, heavily scented with that rich, earthy, animal- farm smell, teaming with goats trying to nibble at your sleeve, suddenly was a glorious medieval theatre- in- the- round with a central stage, dripping with colorful flags and banners and a gigantic bronze- colored church bell. My interest was piqued and the farm's demise lost its importance. I couldn't wait to see what this Festival of Fools was all about.
I remember hearing a rumor that the cast would be rehearsing in the new theatre. Eager to catch a glimpse of what this show could be, I rode the train around hoping to be able to see something. What would be taking place in this large and colorful theater was unimaginable. Where would the cast perform? There was a central stage half surrounded by a much larger stage with cement in between the two. Would the audience sit on the cement? There was a small section of flat bleacher-type seats. Was that where the audience would sit? I soon found out.
Here's where we climb inside the Wayback Machine, so get comfortable while I set the dials. August 9th, 9 PM, that should do it nicely. Hold on, keep your legs and arms inside please, and in just a few minutes, ah yes. Here we are Dear Readers. Let's take our seats inside Festival Arena and see what all the fuss is about, shall we? The show is about to begin. We'll forgo the bleacher seats for a place in what is referred to as Deck Three, on the cement ground, in front of the central circular stage. This is the best seat in the house.
A few instructions first, you need to get the full enjoyment of this show. When the bad guy comes out, you will know him because he looks rather sour and dresses in black. You must boo, loudly and to your heart's content. He secretly loves this. When we first see Quasimodo you must sigh, ahhhhh. When our director, you will learn his name presently but you can spot him by the big purple hat and pink mask, asks you to cheer, "hip hip hooray" is what you must loudly proclaim. We're prepared now, I believe.
Four colorfully dressed fellows start to talk as trumpets sound a loud greeting, "Bon soir."
"Welcome, to the Festival of Fools." The word fools, is drawn out so that it sounds more like fooooooools!
"Introducing the finest band of Gypsy performers in the world," The four keep interrupting each other, "they can sing, they can dance, after all folks they're from France."
"Allow us to introduce ourselves."
Ah, now we are getting somewhere. We will find out who these four flag- waving fellows are.
"We are the Vexilators!"
"To vexilate is to bear flags. Ladies and gentlemen, notice our flags."
They continue to wave about long flags attached to long staffs and instruct us that these flags will direct our attention to the pertinent moments in the show.
"In other words, follow the bouncing flag."
One Vexilator explains we are about to see a show that needs to be cast.
"Let's see, we've cast the soldiers."
"Oui, oui, sir!" Comes the cry from the soldiers standing on Hell Stage.
"The peasants," the Vexilator continues.
"That's us!" A motley group from the left exclaims.
"The scurvy knaves."
"At your service!"
"Oh! OH! What about Esmeralda," one of the lovely scurvy knaves assembled on the Cathedral Stage under the large bell cries this out. I fear there are a few players about to fight over who will win the part of Esmeralda.
The Vexilators decide to hold an audition, "Ladies repeat this line, Get your filthy hands off me you pig."
The first girl steps up, "Get ... your ... filthy ... hands ... off ... me ... you ... pig."
Evidently, her somewhat, um, halting style of delivering her line was inadequate, "NEXT!" The Vexilator shouts.
Another girl steps up, "Getyourhandsoffmyfilthypig," she rattles the line off like bullets flying from a machine gun, and then as fast as she spat it out, realizes she has completely bungled the line. In that moment of recognition, the spot light is taken away.
"Get your hands off me! You, filthy pig!" The dark-haired, girl standing with the peasants has just been accosted by a masked man, who turns and runs as all eyes in the theater focus on the scene. She is left, consoled in the arms of a strong- looking, blond-haired member of the troupe.
The Vexilators are intrigued, "You! You, the new girl."
They explain that the part of Esmeralda must be played with spirit and fire. She is asked to show some spirit. The dark-haired girl bends forward, shakes her shoulders from side to side and flings her arms in the air in a triumphant pose.
"Works for me," exclaims the nearest Vexilator.
"Spirit to spare," someone else cries out.
"What do you say, folks," the Vexilators seek the audience's approval, which is quickly and resoundingly given, "Let's have a show of hands for Esmeralda." Everyone's hands fly into the air, waving madly.
"But who will play Phoebus?" It's asked. "Who has the strength, the bravery, the good looks, to play Phoebus, Captain of the Guard?" While this question is addressed, every male player of the troupe flexes his muscles, trying to display the manly qualities necessary for the part of the Captain of the Guard. But before the part can be awarded to any of the players, the blond stranger who consoled the accosted girl seizes the part, "Sounds like a part for me," thoroughly deflating the ego of everyone else who had hoped to play Phoebus.
"Perfect casting," a deep bass voice booms out from Hell Stage. The dastardly fellow who had tried to accost our Esmeralda stands alone, "all brawn, very little brain."
"That brings us to our villain," the Vexilators take command again, "who could possibly play the Minister of Justice, Claude Frollo?"
"He should play him," someone in the crowd yells, "him, Him, HIM!" We all join in the cry.
"Yes," the man on Hell Stage hisses with an evil glee, "I'll play Frollo." He quickly disappears behind a banner. As quickly as he vanished, the banner falls and reveals the villain of the piece, dressed in the heavy black velvet robes of the Minister of Justice, Frollo. He presses his slender fingers together and spits out with clear deliberation, "I hate the Gypsy vermin with every bone in my body." That's our cue. The audience hisses and boos. Frollo steps back with disdain.
All the major parts have now been cast and the Vexilators turn to us, "Our last bit of casting includes you, the audience. At various times in the show, you'll be asked by our director…"
"Where is our director?" Another Vexilator interjects.
"Gentlemen, GENTLEMEN!" A strange person, dressed in a raggedy, patched- together coat with the coat's hood drawn tightly over his head, pushes his way through the players toward the central stage where the Vexilators stand, "Haven't you forgotten someone?"
As he passes through the crowd, the players try to grab him. He's spun around as a Vexilator makes a grab for him. "Get your hands off me you filthy pig," the raggedy man mimics the Vexilator's earlier instructions to the Esmeralda want- to- be's. Finally, he makes it up the stairs to the central stage and as he does so, another Vexilator makes one last grab at him snagging the raggedy coat from his shoulders.
"Clopin!" The Vexilator exclaims, "Introducing our director, the King of the Gypsies, himself, Clopin."
"Are we ready to begin?" Clopin asks. "YES!" Players and audience yell in unison.
"And what of the Bellringer, " Clopin inquires of his troupe.
"He awaits ..." the Vexilator hands Clopin a conductor's baton, "...your cue."
"PLACES!" Clopin looks about to all his players as a Vexilator gently puts a large book on the podium before Clopin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The lights dim as the music swells and Clopin and The Troupe du Fools begin The Bells of Notre Dame.
"Ladies and gentlemen, The Troupe du Fools" Clopin applauds his actors. Frollo interrupts and threatens to make an end to the "frivolity".
"But what of the riddle?" Asks Clopin in defiance of Frollo. "To find the answer," he pauses and looks around, "one must attend the festival."
"What festival?" Phoebus inquires.
"Of fooools" The entire troupe chants as though Phoebus is completely stupid for posing such a question. Frollo carries on some more, but he is largely ignored by the Gypsy players as they launch into another song.
"Ha haaaaa" Clopin laughs as he reaches into a box and grabs a little puppet that looks exactly like him. A gate near Hell Stage is thrown open and from it issues forth the wildest and most colorful assortment of characters you could ever hope to see in one place.
There is a large fish chasing a man in a boat, a dancing platter of fruit, stilt walkers, fortune tellers, a mystical man in purple robes with a large green lizard on his head, dancers who can take off their heads, there is no end to the craziness.
All around, Gypsy dancers swirl wildly to the music. The entire arena is a riot of glittering jewel-toned colors dancing madly. It's almost like living within a kaleidoscope.
Mid- way through the song, the tone changes a bit and slows down. A cart near Cathedral Stage magically produces the dark- haired Gypsy dancer, Esmeralda.
"She is beautiful, no?" Clopin asks to no one in particular as she makes her way toward him. The girl swirls around and escapes the Gypsy King's grasp. As he follows in her wake, she makes her way down from the central stage, through the audience, and up to Hell Stage where Frollo sits ensconced in his heavy chair surveying the peasant festival. The Minister of Justice tries to ignore the Gypsy girl, but she leaves one of her scarves behind as she moves on toward Cathedral stage, slipping through the hands of Phoebus, Captain of the Guard.
When Esmeralda reaches the center of Cathedral Stage, she is joined by more Gypsy dancers. The music reaches a feverish pitch, tambourines are flung in the air, beating their ting- ting rhythm to the Gypsies swirling dance. It's almost indescribably beautiful. The scarlet, purple, and ochre colors of the dancers' skirts fling in the air as they twirl round, and round with the music. "Dance! My Gypsy of fire," Clopin commands seductively.
The music abruptly ends, the Gypsies stop twirling, and Clopin requests, "The Troupe du Fools! Take a bow."
Clopin turns to the address the audience, commenting that the festival is fun and asks, "You are all happy to be here, no?" We all applaud our approval. "Everyone wishes to be a part of the festival. Especially," he pauses and quietly whispers, "Quasimodo," as he gestures up to Heaven Stage where the timid bell-ringer stands in his tower. The lights dim in the arena to cast a halo-like aura around the bell-ringer. "So pure of heart is Quasimodo, so pure of spirit, that only the voices of angels," three angelic sounding bells ring in succession, "can speak for the longing he feels for the world ... out there."
The Vexilators have been transformed into Quasimodo's angels to speak for him. Each is wearing a pure white tunic. The first Angel begins,
Safe behind these windows and these parapets of stone
Quasimodo swings on a rope from his tower to where the second Angel is standing near Cathedral Stage. Angel number two sings,
And out there living in the sun
As the Angel sings, Quasimodo climbs to the upper portions of the stage, grabs a rope and swings over to the third Angel, who stands to the right of Cathedral Stage.
Out there among the millers and the weavers and their wives
Quasimodo continues over to the fourth Angel who is standing in between Cathedral stage and Hell Stage. As he reaches the Angel, he again begins an ascent to the upper levels of the stage.
Out there strolling by the Seine
All four Angels come together at Cathedral Stage, standing under the great bell as the bell-ringer climbs upon it.
As the Angels end the song, the bell- ringer has set the enormous bell to ringing and rides it back and forth as it swings high above Cathedral Stage. "What better day for Quasimodo to join the throng than the Festival of Fools?" Vexilators queries.
The director of this fete takes charge, "And now, Mesdames and Messieurs ... here it is, your favorite part, the piece de resistance, the crowning of the King of Fools."
Last year's king is ousted and the search begins. Several contestants are rejected until ... Quasimodo is thrust upon the stage and Esmeralda cannot remove his mask. It is then that the crowd realizes the pathetic creature quaking before them is the bell- ringer.
"Mesdames and Messieurs do not panic," Clopin pleads, "We asked for the ugliest face in all of Paris and here he is: Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame."
The frivolity continues with the crowning of the king. He is hoisted to his throne, given a crown and scepter, and carted about the crowd as confetti is launched into the crisp air sending millions of tiny scraps of brightly colored bits of paper wafting gently to the ground. It's a lovely sight. To be completely surrounded by bits of pinks, blues, yellows, reds, and bright greens hanging in the cool summer air for just that brief moment in time. I think it's glorious and I watch as the children around me scramble to collect squares of the paper as though it was a precious commodity. I pick up one tiny piece and secretly stuff it in my pocket.
Abruptly, the celebration is stopped. Frollo's anger has awakened. He orders his men to make an example of the hapless Quasimodo and shortly, the bell- ringer is tethered to Hell Stage. Quasimodo looks scared and alone and the crowd ridicules him.
"STOP!" Cries a voice from the crowd. "Leave him alone!" Esmeralda emerges from the crowd to release the bell-ringer from his bonds and set him free. As the bell-ringer flees to the bells in his tower, Clopin gently says, "It was the first act of kindness the bell-ringer had ever known."
Frollo is incensed to suffer such defiance. He orders his men to capture the Gypsy girl, Esmeralda. It suddenly becomes a madhouse as the Gypsy girl attempts to escape capture, followed at every turn by Frollo's men. "Phoebus," Frollo shouts to the captain of the guard, "find the Gypsy witch! And if you have to burn down all of Paris, so be it!"
It doesn't look good for the Gypsies or for Paris. The guards swarm everywhere, smoke starts to seep up from the flames that burn the city and despite attempts to conceal her, Esmeralda is captured and tied to a cart. Frollo clearly enjoys the citizens of Paris' dismay. He begins to sing,
Hellfire, dark fire
In the midst of Frollo's tirade, Quasimodo swings from his tower near Heaven Stage, swoops down, and manages to free Esmeralda just as she had once freed him. The two escape to the sanctity of Cathedral Stage.
Phoebus, who has been surveying the proceedings from the tower of Heaven Stage, makes a personal discovery and begins a speech to the people below him, "Citizens of Paris! For years, Frollo has been persecuting the Gypsies. And now, he's destroying our city. Will we allow it?"
Rallying behind him, we all shout, "NO!" A battle ensues as the Gypsies try to stave off Frollo's men and Frollo follows Esmeralda and Quasimodo up into the highest reaches of the towers. Clopin, who has followed the trio up into the towers cries, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" We join him in his pleas.
As the Vexilators wildly wave their flags to direct our attention, Frollo and Quasimodo struggle against each other in a battle for their very lives. We all boo and hiss at Frollo, hoping Quasimodo will prevail. As Frollo inches backward, he begins to spout catechism, "And he shall smite the wicked and plunge him into the fiery pit." Suddenly, the words he just spoke come true, as Frollo loses his footing and falls from the tower to his death.
Everyone takes a deep breath. The villain has lost the battle and we can all breathe a little easier. "Three cheers for Quasimodo!" Clopin shouts. "Hip-hip," he begins as we all join in unison, "Hooray! Hip-hip hooray! Hip-hip hooray!" Slowly, the players take their places on Cathedral Stage as Clopin reprises Bells of Notre Dame,
What makes a monster
"Mesdames and Messieurs, the Troupe du Fools."
Clopin calls his players round for a bow as the audience shows their appreciation with wild applause.
"Mesdames and Messieurs, the Troupe du Fools and the Ensemble de Paris. The Vexilators. And the stars of our show, Frollo," We all boo and hiss, "Phoebus, Esmeralda, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo. On behalf of the Troupe du Fools, this is your humble servant, Clopin, bidding you a fond ... adieu." With that a final burst of confetti fills the air and the show is over.
It's time now to climb back into the Wayback Machine and travel home again. As always, keep your arms and legs inside at all times.
There you are, Dear Readers. I hope you enjoyed our little excursion back to 1996. I lament the fact that in 2001, we are devoid of the quality of entertainment we used to enjoy and the glorious arena where we once watched Festival of Fools is now used for corporate parties or lays completely dormant.
What a waste.
I hope you will agree when I say about Festival of Fools, that was entertainment!
* Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Music by Alan Menken © Wonderland Music Company, Inc. (BMI) / Walt Disney Music Company (ASCAP)
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