Q&A: Michael Arden on Bringing Disney's “Hunchback” to the Stage

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is not your average Disney musical. And Michael Arden, who plays the titular character, knows the experience of seeing the 1996 animated classic on stage may be startling for some.

"It has matured with you," he tells NBC New York. "In many ways, Disney Theatrical productions have been nostalgic, but this takes a different tone."

Boy, does it ever. Now playing at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse (through April 5), the musical, which features music by Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast"), lyrics by Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked") and a book by Peter Parnell ("The Cider House Rules"), is more than just a recreation of the film on stage.

While the score remains close to the film, the stage show pulls deeply from Victor Hugo’s original 1831 novel -- down to the unhappy ending and all. Think more “Les Misérables” and less “Aladdin.”

Arden, who previously starred on Broadway in "Big River" and assistant directed "A Tale of Two Cities,” spoke to NBC New York about his extraordinary transformation into this unlikely hero.

NBC4NY: What drew you to Hunchback”?
MICHAEL ARDEN: I love Disney. And these writers -- it’s a dream team. But it was really this character. Growing up as a gay boy in West Texas, I definitely felt like a bit of an outcast sometimes -- that there was a world that I would never be a part of.

NBC4NY: You really transform into this character, without using any prosthetics. How did you find that movement?
ARDEN: I spent some time in front of a mirror, trying to find a way to translate what I read in the book about his affliction. I first tied a belt around my knees to keep them together, turned my feet in, and then focused on how his legs maneuvered with his hips turned to the back. There’s also this hunch. What would that do to the neck? What would that do to the voice? Having really only one human eye, how would he contort his face to see? Having been a student at Juilliard -- that’s the reason we took stage movement classes!

NBC4NY: Is it challenging taking an iconic character and bringing him to life on the stage?
ARDEN: Yes, because everyone has their notion of either their favorite they’ve seen -- whether it’s Charles Laughton or the animated version -- and what they could be. My portrayal, I’m sure, is starkly different than what most people would imagine. But I am trying to find a way to approach him as realistically as possible. How the world would have seen him if they actually would have encountered him.

NBC4NY: What’s the biggest difference?
ARDEN: Well, the character is deaf. And since I’ve worked a lot with the deaf community in the past, I’ve incorporated sign language into the role. Because even though it wouldn’t be ASL, he would have had to have a way to communicate with his master. On the flip side of that, he still has to sing these beautiful songs. Luckily, he mostly only signs when he’s alone. In our own mind, we don’t sound afflicted. So I’m trying to balance the purity of his spirit with the deformity of his visage.

NBC4NY: Let’s talk about those songs. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s score is so beautiful.
ARDEN: I love singing these songs. I get to sing “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light” and then a new song in Act II called “Made of Stone.” You know it’s good when you’re terrified of your material, and you do service to the lyric and melody. And there’s not a single performance that I’m not absolutely terrified that this could fall off. The melodies are beautiful and the lyrics are an actor’s dream. I feel like I’m discovering new thoughts each time I go on stage within these songs. That’s all you can ask for.

NBC4NY: What surprised me about the show is how different it is from the animated film.
ARDEN: It’s shifted a lot through the years. I think Alan [Menken] and Stephen [Schwartz] have really listened to what people have to say, and have respected and honored the audience. We don’t dumb it down. We don’t pander to what people think a Disney show would be. They’re really trying to honor Hugo’s work in this version. It’s definitely taken a more adult tone. Even when it’s more difficult and more complicated, and sometimes scary and coarse, they haven’t shied away from it.

NBC4NY: How have audiences been reacting?
ARDEN: I’ve never been in a show where I felt more love from the audience. Almost every show, people are on their feet before the last note is sung. I think people are incredibly touched to this. That’s a testament to these writers and to the actual story from Hugo. It’s something that resonates deep -- that hopefully has something you can take away. I feel like I’m a better person for speaking these lines and singing these notes every night.

NBC4NY: Any word on the future of the show after Paper Mill?
ARDEN: I have no idea. I hope we get to tell the story to more people because I think it’s an important one. But if not, I’m sure my knees and neck will probably be better for it! Either way, I’m really proud of the bold and fearless work that we have done. I would love to know what is coming next!

NBC4NY: It’s funny -- you have a career of not knowing what’s coming next!
ARDEN: Yeah, that’s the gig. And then sometimes you do know. I did a sitcom -- FX’s “Anger Management” -- for four years before this. And there’s a certain restlessness involved in that as well. So you’re either restless or you’re uncertain and terrified. Luckily, I have a beautiful man [fiancé Andy Mientus, of NBC’s “Smash” fame] to come home to at night, who understands that just as much as I do. We just have to cherish what little stabilities we have in our life.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” through April 5 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J. Tickets: $28-$99. Visit PaperMill.org, or call 973-376-4343. 

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