Composer Richard Cocciante and lyricist Luc Plamondon's musical Notre-Dame de Paris, based on the 1831 Victor Hugo novel (usually translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), was an enormous French hit, both onstage in Paris and in record stores, where the cast album topped the charts. American lyricist Will Jennings was brought in to create an English-language version, and this is the result. The original backing tracks have been retained, as has much of the French cast -- Garou as Quasimodo, Daniel Lavoie as Frollo, Luck Mervil as Clopin, and Bruno Pelletier as Gringoire -- though Australian pop star Tina Arena has been brought in as Esmeralda, Steve Balsamo sings the role of Phoebus, and Natasha St-Pierre is Fleur-de-Lys. The album begins with a pop recording of Esmeralda's final ballad, "Live for the One I Love," rendered by "guest star" Celine Dion.
Hugo is a popular author for French musical theater writers, also having written Les Misérables, which was successfully adapted into a musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. And Notre-Dame de Paris, though an early work (he published it before he was 30), has had a long life, having been adapted into several films, including a Disney-produced animated musical version in 1996. Set in the 15th century, it tells the tragic tale of the love several men feel for a gypsy (Esmeralda), a captain (Phoebus), the hunchbacked bell ringer of the Notre-Dame Cathedral (Quasimodo), and the cathedral's priest (Frollo). There is a temptation when adapting it to emphasize its "beauty and the beast" aspect by focusing on Esmeralda and Quasimodo. This allows for cutting and simplification, but also tends to give the story more of a gothic-horror element than the author originally intended. But Cocciante and Plamondon restore the complicated romantic quartet, which means that many of the songs find these characters agonizing over their thwarted love.
On a single disc, with a running time of just over an hour (as opposed to the two-disc original cast version), this recording of Notre-Dame de Paris makes it sound like a ballad-heavy show. Song after song is taken at a slow pace, with brief melodic motifs repeated over and over. The French cast members adapt to the change in language without much trouble, perhaps in part because Jennings' translations are so spare and simple. Most notable among those repeating their roles is Garou, who has a gravelly, Joe Cocker-like voice appropriate for the long-suffering Quasimodo. Arena is fine and, in fact, handles "Live for the One I Love" better than the characteristically overexcited Dion. But based only on this recording, one is left wondering what all the fuss in Paris was about, since the show seems to drag along for most of its length. It may take a staging of the musical in an English-speaking country to explain what the French found so compelling.