Musicals Can Change Your Life

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By Anna Goodman, Staff Writer

Don’t you love that feeling when the lights go down and the show begins? Whether it’s a show or a movie or a concert, the sense of anticipation is almost unparalleled.

Never have I felt this way more than seeing one specific show on a trip to Quebec. Notre Dame de Paris (in English, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is the most popular French-language musical in history. Its message is as relevant now as when it was set 500 years ago, written 150 years ago, or made into a musical 25 years ago. It tells the story of a free-spirited “sans-papiers” (“without papers”; illegal immigrant) woman named Esmerelda, the men who love her (the Hunchback Quasimodo, poet Gringoire, and leader of the sans-papiers Clopin), and the men who turn on her (guardsman Phoebus and priest Frollo). You may think this would make for an agonizingly boring show where you’d struggle to keep your eyes open. And you would be completely wrong.

I thought I had made a terrible mistake, because… I don’t speak French. And yet, by the end, I was crying. Why?

Notre Dame de Paris is a three hour long wildly dramatic expression of feelings in the form of pop-rock opera, in which every emotion is amplified ten fold and every song is an over the top power ballad to the stars, all set against the stunning backdrop of a millennium-old cathedral. Some of the most talented dancers to ever grace a stage pilot enormous moving bells, climb the set’s very walls, and do cartwheels in midair. But when the curtain first rose and the narrator welcomed us to Le temps de cathedral (the age of the cathedrals, 1490’s Paris), I thought I had made a terrible mistake, because… I don’t speak French. And yet, by the end, I was crying. Why?

Well, every musical has a refrain, a phrase that repeats throughout the show and has an important meaning attached to it. In Notre Dame de Paris, it is repeated by the “sans-papiers” : “Nous sommes de etrangers. Des sans-papiers, des hommes et des femmes, sans domicile. Oh Notre-Dame, et nous te demandons! Asile! Asile!” During the intermission, I asked the older woman next to me what the sentence meant. I’ll never forget the sad smile on her face as she told me, “It means: ‘We are strangers. Those without papers, aliens, men and women without a home. Oh, Notre Dame, all we ask of you! Asylum! Asylum!’”

The refrain is echoed in the third and final song , L’Attaque de Notre Dame (The attack on Notre Dame), when Clopin, Esmerelda’s only real family, says, “My girl, in the name of your brothers and sisters, hear me. This is where you grew up. This is your country. Shout for them at the top of your lungs!” As he falls down in front of her, Esmerelda, full of righteous fury, steps in front of the “sans-papiers” and leads them in this chant, at first with her voice shaking but seconds later with her fist in the air, staring the audience down. Meanwhile, the “peacekeepers” sing back, loudly: “Down with the “sans-papiers”! They have no place in our city. Exile them!” And, the second she screams out her last note, the authorities capture the “sans-papiers” and manhandle her to the gallows. Her last words, as the stage goes black and the Hunchback is left to mourn her, while those in charge pat themselves on the back for supposedly getting a criminal off the streets. Asile. Asile. 

Phoebus, Frollo, Esmerelda, Quasimodo, Fleur, Gringoire, and Clopin taking final bows in the David H. Koch Theater.

There is a tradition at the end of French musicals: during the bows, the cast sings the most popular song from the show, and gets the audience to all stand up and sing along. As I stood clapping for the performers, I turned around to see an entire theater full of people from who knows where, speaking who knows what with their fists in the air, singing a song of power for the disenfranchised and a song of gratitude for those who let down our walls and let them in. Everyone has seen a news report about a country—possibly one we never thought about before—where people must flee in order to live.

When the musical was written in 1996, the so-named “sans-papiers” movement (a political struggle in France to achieve rights for illegal immigrants through protest) reached new heights of notoriety after the government ordered special police to break down the doors of a Parisian church to throw out the “sans-papiers” who were staging a hunger strike in protest of the laws. It isn’t hard to see how this moment changed what was originally planned to be a simple staged version of the novel into an important rallying cry at the time, but even now, the movement still exists and still fights for legislation. As Esmeralda’s appeals to the cathedrals fall on deaf ears, we must remember that she is not alone. All over the world (and right here in New Paltz), there are  “sans-papiers,” although they may not use that name. All over the world, there are those who we deem “strangers,” and “aliens.” All over the world, there are people crying out for freedom and the right to be treated with basic human decency. Le Temps De Cathedral is over, but the time for justice is now, so, is it not our duty, as people just the same, to cry out with them, Asile, Asile