There is a broad, multi-faceted movement in the entertainment industry to be thoughtful, inclusive and intentional in the way that we produce art. One of the facets of this movement is the growing effort to invite under-represented communities to tell their own stories. Yes, acting requires a person to step outside themselves and inhabit the world of another human being. But imagine the wealth of depth that an actor who has a shared unique life experience with their character brings to their performance.
That’s why, when we learned that Glenn Casale (who directed our holiday hit Disney’s The Little Mermaid) had staged a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Music Circus Sacramento starring a Deaf actor as Quasimodo, we were excited to ask him to recreate his vision for Seattle audiences. In the Victor Hugo novel, Quasimodo is deaf as a result of spending his life in such close proximity to the giant bells of Notre Dame. Not only is he an outsider due to his physical deformities, he is isolated by a fundamental inability to communicate with the outside world. We knew that it was invaluable to have a performer who could bring some depth and authenticity to Quasimodo and were thrilled when Joshua Castille (Broadway’s Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening) accepted the role.
We recently chatted with Glenn and Josh about what it means to cast a Deaf actor in a musical theater production like this, and why The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains such an endlessly fascinating tale.
The 5th: Glenn, how did you decide to cast a Deaf actor in Hunchback? Had you worked with Deaf actors before?
Glenn Casale: I’ve worked with Disney a lot and they’ve allowed me to have a little flexibility with these musicals. I had done a workshop of a new musical in New York and half the cast were non-hearing actors. John McGinty was in that cast. Later that summer, I was auditioning actors for Hunchback at Music Circus Sacramento and John contacted me and asked to audition. He came in with a boom box and he signed “Out There.” And we… we couldn’t move. We were blown away. So I called Disney and pitched it to them because John was terrific. I had read that the church had banned signing, and I thought, when he’s alone, his private thoughts and communications are with the gargoyles, so why not have a gargoyle do his voice?
The 5th: Josh, what insight into the world of Quasimodo do you think you bring to the show that maybe a hearing actor would not?
Josh Castille: I think casting a Deaf actor brings a whole new layer of perspective that enhances conflict and deepens emotions. I am really looking at how language does affect the brain. Being someone who grew up in the Deaf community, I’ve seen so many people who have overbearing parents or parents who don’t believe in their children because they are deaf. These children are outsiders in their own families. I’m looking at bringing that experience into the character—showing Quasimodo’s journey of finding his inner confidence and strength despite what his father makes him feel.
The 5th: Glenn, you’ve staged this production a couple of times already. What is your goal with this production?
GC: The wonderful reason I love coming back to this show is that it’s about the whole idea of this character, Quasimodo. I don’t think there’s ever been a musical about a Deaf character. When the show starts, you feel the audience pull back a little during the first song but then they suddenly find themselves into it. It’s incredible. Because it’s an entirely new cast, I’m hoping to discover how this cast connects with each other in new and exciting ways. I’m also excited to delve into the characters a little deeper and learn more about their under life. For instance, Frollo isn’t just driven by evil – he thinks he’s doing the right thing. And Allen Fitzpatrick is such a talented actor that we can really dig into who Frollo is.
The 5th: Josh, you were in the cast of Spring Awakening on Broadway, so musical theater is not new to you. What are the challenges for you performing in a musical?
JC: I do have some hearing but when my hearing aids are out, I am deaf. I identify as a Deaf person. Musical theater is dominated in practice by auditory cues, so one of my biggest challenges is developing systems with the creative team, the crew and the actors around me who are used to working off of auditory cues. And I think it will also be really important to collaborate with the cast so that the ensemble is helping Quasimodo to tell his story, rather than telling it for him. One of the things this means is working closely with the gargoyles to help me feel the music in my heart. I have no doubt that this cast will support Quasimodo and each other in telling this beautiful story—especially under Glenn’s direction.
The 5th: For both of you, what do you think makes the story of Hunchback so timeless and enduring, and why do you think people need to see this show today?
GC: I think there are so many issues at play in Hunchback that continue to be relevant today. Bullying is number one—the ridicule and torment in all its forms of those who are different from you. I think we can all relate in some way to being an outsider, or feeling or appearing different from other people. Quasimodo is shunned, he is mocked, he is taunted. Esmeralda sees past his physical deformities and sees inside of him because she’s as much of an outsider as he is. I think there are also huge messages about refugees searching for their place in the world—they are searching for a land and keep being pushed away. And that’s so current. It’s also easy to compare the relationship between the guards and the gypsies in this show and law enforcement and communities of color today. We need theater to help us bridge those gaps, to help us build empathy for each other. And that’s why this show is necessary.
JC: I think the show just touches on so many things. I think the biggest thing is finding your inner confidence, finding your inner strength and using it to achieve the goals you want. I think right now we are starting to see the shift in our society. People are not okay with those who are different and don’t want those who are different to be accepted. That can be as remote as Frollo versus the gypsies, or as intimate as Frollo versus Quasimodo. This is a show about those issues, and how to overcome those closest to you that stop you from achieving your dreams.