Hunchback of Notre Dame Oral History

In the mid-1990s, the possibilities were endless for Walt Disney Feature Animation. After the studio hit creative highs with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, Disney was powerful enough to take risks that were impossible a decade earlier. An adaptation of an iconic Victor Hugo novel was such a risk.

25 years later, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most remarkable films Disney’s ever released, and one that hasn’t been topped for sheer boldness. As it celebrates its 25th birthday, 15 of the production’s key players – from directors to songwriters to animators and actors – took part in this oral history recounting how the film was made…and how they got away with it.

“This Is Going to Change Your Life”

The future directors of The Hunchback of Notre Dame were riding high from the success of Beauty and the Beast. Or, at least, they were happy to be finished.

Gary Trousdale, director: After Beauty and the Beast, I was exhausted. Plus, Kirk and I were not entirely trusted at first, because we were novices. I was looking forward to going back to drawing.

Kirk Wise, director: It was this crazy, wonderful roller-coaster ride. I had all this vacation time and I took a couple months off.

Gary Trousdale: A little later, it was suggested: “If you want to get back into directing, start looking for a project. You can’t sit around doing nothing.”

Kirk Wise: [Songwriters] Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty had a pitch called Song of the Sea, a loose retelling of the Orpheus myth with humpback whales. I thought it was very strong.

Gary Trousdale: We were a few months in, and there was artwork and a rough draft. There were a couple tentative songs, and we were getting a head of steam.

Kirk Wise: The phone rang. It was Jeffrey [Katzenberg, then-chairman of Walt Disney Studios], saying, “Drop everything. I got your next picture: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Gary Trousdale: “I’ve already got Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. You’re going to do this.” It wasn’t like we were given a choice. It was, “Here’s the project. You’re on.”

Kirk Wise: I was pleased that [Jeffrey] was so excited about it. I think the success of Beauty and the Beast had a lot to do with him pushing it our way. It would’ve been crazy to say no.

Gary Trousdale: What [Kirk and I] didn’t know is that Alan and Stephen were being used as bait for us. And Jeffrey was playing us as bait for Alan and Stephen.

Alan Menken, composer: Jeffrey made reference to it being Michael Eisner’s passion project, which implied he was less enthused about it as a story source for an animated picture.

Stephen Schwartz, lyricist: They had two ideas. One was an adaptation of Hunchback and the other was about whales. We chose Hunchback. I’d seen the [Charles Laughton] movie. Then I read the novel and really liked it.

Peter Schneider, president of Disney Feature Animation (1985-99): I think what attracted Stephen was the darkness. One’s lust for something and one’s power and vengeance, and this poor, helpless fellow, Quasimodo.

Roy Conli, co-producer: I was working at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, doing new play development. I was asked if I’d thought about producing animation. I said, “Yeah, sure.”

Don Hahn, producer: The goose had laid lots of golden eggs. The studio was trying to create two units so they could have multiple films come out. Roy was tasked with something hard, to build a crew out of whole cloth.

Kirk Wise: The idea appealed to me because [of] the setting and main character. I worked with an elder story man, Joe Grant, [who] goes back to Snow White. He said, “Some of the best animation ideas are about a little guy with a big problem.” Hunchback fit that bill.

Gary Trousdale: It’s a story I always liked. When Jeffrey said, “This is going to change your life,” Kirk and I said, “Cool.” When I was a kid, I [had an] Aurora Monster Model of Quasimodo lashed to the wheel. I thought, “He’s not a monster.”

Don Hahn: It’s a great piece of literature and it had a lot of elements I liked. The underdog hero. [He] was not a handsome prince. I loved the potential.

Gary Trousdale: We thought, “What are we going to do to make this dark piece of literature into a Disney cartoon without screwing it up?”

Peter Schneider: The subject matter is very difficult. The conflict was how far to go with it or not go with it. This is basically [about] a pederast who says “Fuck me or you’ll die.” Right?

Greatest Shots in Disney Animation

“We Were Able to Take More Chances”

Wise and Trousdale recruited a group of disparate artists from the States and beyond to bring the story of Quasimodo the bell-ringer to animated life. 

Paul Brizzi, sequence director: We were freshly arrived from Paris.

Gaëtan Brizzi, sequence director: [The filmmakers] were looking for a great dramatic prologue, and they couldn’t figure [it] out. Paul and I spent the better part of the night conceiving this prologue. They said, “You have to storyboard it. We love it.”

Roy Conli: We had two amazing artists in Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi who became spiritual leaders in the production. They were so incredible.

Gaëtan Brizzi: [“The Bells of Notre Dame”] was not supposed to be a song first.

Paul Brizzi: The prologue was traditional in the Disney way. Gaëtan and I were thinking of German expressionism to emphasize the drama. I’m not sure we could do that today.

Paul Kandel, voice of Clopin: They were toying with Clopin being the narrator. So they wrote “The Bells of Notre Dame” to open the movie.

Stephen Schwartz: [Alan and I] got called into a presentation, and on all these boards [was] laid out “The Bells of Notre Dame.” We musicalized the story they put up there. We used the pieces of dialogue they invented for Frollo and the other characters. I wrote lyrics that described the narrative. It was very exciting. I had never written a song like that.

Kirk Wise: Early on, we [took] a research trip with the core creative team to Paris. We spent two weeks all over Notre Dame. They gave us unrestricted access, going down into the catacombs. That was a huge inspiration.

Don Hahn: To crawl up in the bell towers and imagine Quasimodo there, to see the bells and the timbers, the scale of it all is unbelievable.

Kirk Wise: One morning, I was listening to this pipe organ in this shadowy cathedral, with light filtering through the stained-glass windows. The sound was so powerful, I could feel it thudding in my chest. I thought, “This is what the movie needs to feel like.”

Brenda Chapman, story: It was fun to sit in a room and draw and think up stuff. I liked the idea of this lonely character up in a bell tower and how we could portray his imagination.

Kathy Zielinski, supervising animator, Frollo: It was the earliest I’ve ever started on a production. I was doing character designs for months. I did a lot of design work for the gargoyles, as a springboard for the other supervisors.

James Baxter, supervising animator, Quasimodo: Kirk and Gary said, “We’d like you to do Quasimodo.” [I thought] that would be such a cool, amazing thing to do. They wanted this innocent vibe to him. Part of the design process was getting that part of his character to read.

Will Finn, head of story/supervising animator, Laverne: Kirk and Gary wanted me on the project. Kirk, Gary, and Don Hahn gave me opportunities no one else would have, and I am forever grateful.

Kathy Zielinski: I spent several months doing 50 or 60 designs [for Frollo]. I looked at villainous actors. Actually, one was Peter Schneider. [laughing] Not to say he’s a villain, but a lot of the mannerisms and poses. “Oh, that looks a little like Peter.”

James Baxter: I was doing design work on the characters with Tony Fucile, the animator on Esmerelda. I think Kirk and Gary felt Beauty and the Beast had been disparate and the characters weren’t as unified as they wanted.

Kathy Zielinski: Frollo stemmed from Hans Conried [the voice of Disney’s Captain Hook]. He had a longish nose and a very stern-looking face. Frollo was modeled a little bit after him.

Will Finn: The team they put together was a powerhouse group – Brenda Chapman, Kevin Harkey, Ed Gombert, and veterans like Burny Mattinson and Vance Gerry. I felt funny being their “supervisor.”

Kathy Zielinski: Half my crew was in France, eight hours ahead. We were able to do phone calls. But because of the time difference, our end of the day was their beginning of the morning. I was working a lot of late hours, because [Frollo] was challenging to draw.

Kirk Wise: Our secret weapon was James Baxter, who animated the ballroom sequence [in Beauty and the Beast] on his own. He had a unique gift of rotating characters in three-dimensional space perfectly.

Gary Trousdale: James Baxter is, to my mind, one of the greatest living animators in the world.

James Baxter: I’ve always enjoyed doing things that were quite elaborate in terms of camera movement and three-dimensional space. I’m a glutton for punishment, because those shots are very hard to do.

Gary Trousdale: In the scene with Quasimodo carrying Esmeralda over his shoulder, climbing up the cathedral, he looks back under his arms, snarling at the crowd below. James called that his King Kong moment.

As production continued, Roy Conli’s position shifted, as Don Hahn joined the project, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in heated fashion in 1994.

Roy Conli: Jeffrey was going to create his own animation studio. Peter Schneider was interested in maintaining a relationship with Don Hahn. We were into animation, ahead of schedule. They asked Don if he would produce and if I would run the studio in Paris.

Don Hahn: Roy hadn’t done an animated film before. I was able to be a more senior presence. I’d worked with Kirk and Gary before, which I enjoy. They’re unsung heroes of these movies.

Kirk Wise: The [production] pace was more leisurely. As leisurely as these things can be. We had more breathing room to develop the storyboards and the script and the songs.

Gary Trousdale: Jeffrey never liked characters to have facial hair. No beards, no mustaches, nothing. There’s original designs of Gaston [with] a little Errol Flynn mustache. Jeffrey hated it. “I don’t want any facial hair.” Once he left, we were like, “We could give [Phoebus] a beard now.”

Kirk Wise: The ballroom sequence [in Beauty] gave us confidence to incorporate more computer graphics into Hunchback. We [had] to create the illusion of a throng of thousands of cheering people. To do it by hand would have been prohibitive, and look cheap.

Stephen Schwartz: Michael Eisner started being more hands-on. Michael was annoyed at me for a while, because when Jeffrey left, I accepted the job of doing the score for Prince of Egypt. I got fired from Mulan because of it. But once he fired me, Michael couldn’t have been a more supportive, positive colleague on Hunchback.

Kirk Wise: [The executives] were distracted. We were able to take more chances than we would have under the circumstances that we made Beauty and the Beast.

Don Hahn: Hunchback was in a league of its own, feeling like we [could] step out and take some creative risks. We could have done princess movies forever, and been reasonably successful. Our long-term survival relied on trying those risks.

One sticking point revolved around Notre Dame’s gargoyles, three of whom interact with Quasimodo, but feel more lighthearted than the rest of the dark story.

Gary Trousdale: In the book and several of the movies, Quasimodo talks to the gargoyles. We thought, “This is Disney, we’re doing a cartoon. The gargoyles can talk back.” One thing led to another and we’ve got “A Guy Like You.”

Kirk Wise: “A Guy Like You” was literally created so we could lighten the mood so the audience wasn’t sitting in this trough of despair for so long.

Stephen Schwartz: Out of context, the number is pretty good. I think I wrote some funny lyrics. But ultimately it was a step too far tonally for the movie and it has been dropped from the stage version.

Gary Trousdale: People have been asking for a long time: are they real? Are they part of Quasimodo’s personality? There were discussions that maybe Quasimodo is schizophrenic. We never definitively answered it, and can argue convincingly both ways.

Jason Alexander, voice of Hugo: I wouldn’t dream of interfering with anyone’s choice on that. It’s ambiguous for a reason and part of that reason is the viewers’ participation in the answer. Whatever you believe about it, I’m going to say you’re right.

Brenda Chapman: I left before they landed on how [to play] the gargoyles. My concern was, what are the rules? Are they real? Are they in his imagination? What can they do? Can they do stuff or is it all Quasi? I looked at it a little askance in the finished film. I wasn’t sure if I liked how it ended up…[Laverne] with the boa on the piano.

Kirk Wise: There was a component of the audience that felt the gargoyles were incompatible with Hunchback. But all of Disney’s movies, including the darkest ones, have comic-relief characters. And Disney was the last person to treat the written word as gospel.

“A Fantastic Opportunity”

After a successful collaboration on Pocahontas, Menken and Schwartz worked on turning Victor Hugo’s tragic story into a musical.

Alan Menken: The world of the story was very appealing, and it had so much social relevance and cultural nuance.

Stephen Schwartz: The story lent itself quite well to musicalization because of the extremity of the characters and the emotions. There was a lot to sing about. There was a great milieu.

Alan Menken: To embed the liturgy of the Catholic Church into a piece of music that’s operatic and also classical and pop-oriented enriches it in a very original way. Stephen was amazing. He would take the theme from the story and specifically set it in Latin to that music.

Stephen Schwartz: The fact that we were doing a piece set in a church allowed us to use all those elements of the Catholic mass, and for Alan to do all that wonderful choral music.

Alan Menken: The first creative impulse was “Out There.” I’m a craftsman. I’m working towards a specific assignment, but that was a rare instance where that piece of music existed.

Stephen Schwartz: I would come in with a title, maybe a couple of lines for Alan to be inspired by. We would talk about the whole unit, its job from a storytelling point of view. He would write some music. I could say, “I liked that. Let’s follow that.” He’d push a button and there would be a sloppy printout, enough that I could play it as I was starting the lyrics.

Roy Conli: Stephen’s lyrics are absolutely phenomenal. With that as a guiding light, we were in really good shape.

Stephen Schwartz: Alan played [the “Out There” theme] for me, and I really liked it. I asked for one change in the original chorus. Other than that, the music was exactly as he gave it to me.

Gary Trousdale: Talking with these guys about music is always intimidating. There was one [lyric] Don and I both questioned in “Out There,” when Frollo is singing, “Why invite their calumny and consternation?” Don and I went, “Calumny?” Kirk said, “Nope, it’s OK, I saw it in an X-Men comic book.” I went, “All right! It’s in a comic book! It’s good.”

Stephen Schwartz: Disney made it possible for me to get into Notre Dame before it opened to the public. I’d climb up the steps to the bell tower. I’d sit there with my yellow pad and pencil. I’d have the tune for “Out There” in my head, and I would look out at Paris, and be Quasimodo. By the time we left Paris, the song was written.

Kirk Wise: Stephen’s lyrics are really smart and literate. I don’t think the comical stuff was necessarily [his] strongest area. But this movie was a perfect fit, because the power of the emotions were so strong. Stephen just has a natural ability to connect with that.

Will Finn: The directors wanted a funny song for the gargoyles and Stephen was not eager to write it. He came to me and Irene Mecchi and asked us to help him think of comedy ideas for “A Guy Like You,” and we pitched a bunch of gags.

Jason Alexander: Singing with an orchestra the likes of which Alan and Stephen and Disney can assemble is nirvana. It’s electrifying and gives you the boost to sing over and over. Fortunately, everyone was open to discovery. I love nuance and intention in interpretation. I was given wonderful freedom to find both.

Stephen Schwartz: “Topsy Turvy,” it’s one of those numbers of musical theater where you can accomplish an enormous amount of storytelling. If you didn’t have that, you’d feel you were drowning in exposition. When you put it in the context of the celebration of the Feast of Fools, you could get a lot of work done.

Paul Kandel: The first time I sang [“Topsy Turvy”] through, I got a little applause from the orchestra. That was a very nice thing to happen and calm me down a little bit.

Brenda Chapman: Poor Kevin Harkey must’ve worked on “Topsy Turvy” for over a year. Just hearing [singing] “Topsy turvy!” I thought, “I would shoot myself.” It’s a fun song, but to listen to that, that many times. I don’t know if he ever got to work on anything else.

Paul Kandel: There were places where I thought the music was squarer than it needed to be. I wanted to round it out because Clopin is unpredictable. Is he good? Is he bad? That’s what I was trying to edge in there.

Kirk Wise: “God Help the Outcasts” made Jeffrey restless. I think he wanted “Memory” from Cats. Alan and Stephen wrote “Someday.” Jeffrey said, “This is good, but it needs to be bigger!” Alan was sitting at his piano bench, and Jeffrey was next to him. Jeffrey said, “When I want it bigger, I’ll nudge you.” Alan started playing and Jeffrey was jabbing him in the ribs. “Bigger, bigger!”

Don Hahn: In terms of what told the story better, one song was poetic, but the other was specific. “Outcasts” was very specific about Quasimodo. “Someday” was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Kirk Wise: When Don watched the movie, he said, “It’s working pretty well. But ‘Someday,’ I don’t know. It feels like she’s yelling at God.” We played “God Help the Outcasts” for him and Don said, “Oh, this is perfect.” That song is the signature of the entire movie.

Don Hahn: “Someday” was lovely. But I had come off of working with Howard Ashman, and I felt, “This doesn’t move the plot forward much, does it?” We ended up with “Someday” as an end-credits song, which was fortunate. ‘Cause they’re both good songs.

Kirk Wise: It was all about what conveys the emotion of the scene and the central theme of the movie best. “God Help the Outcasts” did that.

Everyone agrees on one point.

Stephen Schwartz: Hunchback is Alan’s best score. And that’s saying a lot, because he’s written a whole bunch of really good ones.

Gary Trousdale: With Hunchback, there were a couple of people that said, “This is why I chose music as a career.” Alan and Stephen’s songs are so amazing, so that’s really something.

Paul Kandel: It has a beautiful score.

Jason Alexander:  It has the singularly most sophisticated score of most of the animated films of that era.

Roy Conli:  The score of Hunchback is one of the greatest we’ve done.

Don Hahn: This is Alan’s most brilliant score. The amount of gravitas Alan put in the score is amazing.

Alan Menken: It’s the most ambitious score I’ve ever written. It has emotional depth. It’s a different assignment. And it was the project where awards stopped happening. It’s almost like, “OK, now you’ve gone too far.”

Stephen Schwartz: It’s astonishing that Alan has won about 173 Academy Awards, and the one score he did not win for is his best score.

The film featured marquee performers singing covers of “God Help the Outcasts” and “Someday”. But one of the most famous performers ever nearly brought those songs to life. 

Alan Menken: I met Michael Jackson when we were looking for someone to sing “A Whole New World” for Aladdin. Michael wanted to co-write the song. I could get a sense of who Michael was. He was a very unique, interesting individual…in his own world.

I get a call out of nowhere from Michael’s assistant, when Michael was at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He had to [deal with] allegations about inappropriate behavior with underage kids, and the breakup with Lisa Marie Presley. He’s looking to change the subject. And he obviously loves Disney so much. So I mentioned Hunchback. He said he’d love to come to my studio, watch the movie and talk about it. So we got in touch with Disney Animation. They said, “Meet with him! If he likes it…well, see what he says.” [laughing]

There’s three songs. One was “Out There,” one was “God Help the Outcasts,” one was “Someday.” Michael said, “I would like to produce the songs and record some of them.” Wow. Okay. What do we do now? Michael left. We got in touch with Disney. It was like somebody dropped a hot poker into a fragile bowl with explosives. “Uh, we’ll get back to you about that.”

Finally, predictably, the word came back, “Disney doesn’t want to do this with Michael Jackson.” I go, “OK, could someone tell him this?” You can hear a pin drop, no response, and nobody did [tell him]. It fell to my late manager, Scott Shukat, to tell Michael or Michael’s attorney.

In retrospect, it was the right decision. [But] Quasimodo is a character…if you look at his relationships with his family and his father, I would think there’s a lot of identification there.

“They’re Never Going to Do This Kind of Character Again”

The film is known for the way it grapples with the hypocrisy and lust typified by the villainous Judge Frollo, whose terrifying song “Hellfire” remains a high point of Disney animation.

Gary Trousdale: Somebody asked me recently: “How the hell did you get ‘Hellfire’ past Disney?” It’s a good question.

Alan Menken: When Stephen and I wrote “Hellfire,” I was so excited by what we accomplished. It really raised the bar for Disney animation. It raised the bar for Stephen’s and my collaboration.

Stephen Schwartz: I thought the would never let me get away with [“Hellfire”]. And they never asked for a single change.

Alan Menken: Lust and religious conflict. Now more than ever, these are very thorny issues to put in front of the Disney audience. We wanted to go at it as truthfully as possible.

Stephen Schwartz: When Alan and I tackled “Hellfire,” I did what I usually did: write what I thought it should be and assume that [Disney would] tell me what I couldn’t get away with. But they accepted exactly what we wrote.

Don Hahn: Every good song score needs a villain’s moment. Stephen and Alan approached it with “Hellfire.”

Alan Menken: It was very clear, we’d thrown the gauntlet pretty far. It was also clear within our creative team that everybody was excited about going there.

Don Hahn: You use all the tools in your toolkit, and one of the most powerful ones was Alan and Stephen. Stephen can be dark, but he’s also very funny. He’s brilliant.

Gary Trousdale: The [MPAA] said, “When Frollo says ‘This burning desire is turning me to sin,’ we don’t like the word ‘sin.’” We can’t change the lyrics now. It’s all recorded. Kinda tough. “What if we just dip the volume of the word ‘sin’ and increase the sound effects?” They said, “Good.”

Stephen Schwartz: It’s one of the most admirable things [laughs] I have ever seen Disney Animation do. It was very supportive and adventurous, which is a spirit that…let’s just say, I don’t think [the company would] make this movie today.

Don Hahn: It’s funny. Violence is far more accepted than sex in a family movie. You can go see a Star Wars movie and the body count’s pretty huge, but there’s rarely any sexual innuendo.

Kathy Zielinski: I got to watch [Tony Jay] record “Hellfire” with another actor. I was sweating watching him record, because it was unbelievably intense. Afterwards, he asked me, “Did you learn anything from my performance?” I said, “Yeah, I never want to be a singer.” [laughing]

Paul Kandel: Tony Jay knocked that out of the park. He [was] an incredible guy. Very sweet. He was terrified to record “Hellfire.” He was at a couple of my sessions. He went, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen when it’s my turn? I don’t sing. I’m not a singer. I never pretended to be a singer.” I said, “Look, I’m not a singer. I’m an actor who figured out that they could hold a tune.”

Kathy Zielinski: I listened to Tony sing “Hellfire” tons. I knew I had gone too far when, one morning, we were sitting at the breakfast table and my daughter, who was two or three at the time, started singing the song and doing the mannerisms. [laughs]

Don Hahn: We didn’t literally want to show [Frollo’s lust]. It turns into a Fantasia sequence, almost. A lot of the imagery is something you could see coming out of Frollo’s imagination. It’s very impressionistic. It does stretch the boundaries of what had been done before at Disney.

Kirk Wise: We stylized it like “Night on Bald Mountain.” The best of Walt’s films balanced very dark and light elements. Instead of making it explicit, we tried to make it more visual and use symbolic imagery.

Gaëtan Brizzi: We were totally free. We could show symbolically how sick Frollo is between his hate and his carnal desire.

Kathy Zielinski: The storyboards had a tremendous influence. Everybody was incredibly admiring of the work that [Paul and Gaëtan] had done.

Don Hahn: They brought the storyboarded sequence to life in a way that is exactly what the movie looks like. The strength of it is that we didn’t have to show anything as much as we did suggest things to the audience. Give the audience credit for filling in the blanks.

Gary Trousdale: It was absolutely gorgeous. Their draftsmanship and their cinematography. They are the top. They pitched it with a cassette recording of Stephen singing “Hellfire”, and we were all in the story room watching it, going “Oh shit!”

Paul Brizzi: When Frollo is at the fireplace with Esmeralda’s scarf, his face is hypnotized. From the smoke, there’s the silhouette of Esmeralda coming to him. She’s naked in our drawings.

Gary Trousdale: We joked, maybe because they’re French, Esmeralda was in the nude when she was in the fire. Roy Disney put his foot down and said, “That’s not going to happen.” Chris Jenkins, the head of effects, and I went over every drawing to make sure she was appropriately attired. That was the one concession we made to the studio.

Gaëtan Brizzi: It’s the role of storyboard artists to go far, and then you scale it down. Her body was meant to be suggestive. It was more poetic than provocative.

Brenda Chapman: I thought what the Brizzis did with “Hellfire” was just stunning.

Roy Conli: We make films for people from four to 104, and we’re trying to ensure that the thematic material engages adults and engages children. We had a lot of conversations on “Hellfire,” [which] was groundbreaking. You saw the torment, but you didn’t necessarily, if you were a kid, read it as sexual. And if you were an adult, you picked it up pretty well.

Will Finn: “Hellfire” was uncomfortable to watch with a family audience. I’m not a prude, but what are small kids to make of such a scene?

Kathy Zielinski: When I was working on “Hellfire,” I thought, “Wow. They’re never going to do this kind of character again.” And I’m pretty much right.

“Straight for the Heart”

“Hellfire” may be the apex of the maturity of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the entire film is the most complex and adult Disney animated feature of the modern era. 

Gary Trousdale: We went straight for the heart and then pulled back.

Kirk Wise: I was comfortable with moments of broad comedy contrasted with moments that were dark or scary or violent. All of the Disney movies did that, particularly in Walt’s time.

Don Hahn: A lot of it is gut level, where [the story group would] sit around and talk to ourselves and pitch it to executives. But Walt Disney’s original animated films were really dark. We wanted to create something that had the impact of what animation can do.

Will Finn: Eisner insisted we follow the book to the letter, but he said the villain could not be a priest, and we had to have a happy ending. The book is an epic tragedy – everybody dies!

Kathy Zielinski: It’s a little scary that I felt comfortable with [Frollo]. [laughing] I don’t know what that means. Maybe I need to go to therapy. I’ve always had a desire to do villains. I just love evil.

Don Hahn: Kathy Zielinski is brilliant. She works on The Simpsons now, which is hilarious. She’s very intense, very aware of what [Frollo] had to do.

One specific choice in the relationship between Frollo and Esmeralda caused problems.

Stephen Schwartz: I remember there was great controversy over Frollo sniffing Esmeralda’s hair.

Kirk Wise: The scene that caused the most consternation was in the cathedral where Frollo grabs Esmeralda, whispers in her ear and sniffs her hair. The sniffing made people ask, “Is this too far?” We got a lot of support from Peter Schneider, Tom Schumacher, and Michael Eisner.

Kathy Zielinski: Brenda Chapman came up with that idea and the storyboard. I animated it. It’s interesting, because two females were responsible for that. That scene was problematic, so they had to cut it down. It used to be a lot longer.

Brenda Chapman: I know I’m probably pushing it too far, but let’s give it a go, you know?

Kirk Wise: We agreed it was going to be a matter of execution and our collective gut would tell us whether we were crossing the line. We learned that the difference between a G and PG is the loudness of a sniff. Ultimately, that’s what it came down to.

Brenda Chapman: I never knew that! [laughing]

Don Hahn: Is it rated G? That’s surprising.

Gary Trousdale: I’m sure there was backroom bargaining done that Kirk and I didn’t know about.

Don Hahn: It’s negotiation. The same was true of The Lion King. We had intensity notes on the fight at the end. You either say, we’re going to live with that and it’s PG, or we’re not and it’s G.

Brenda Chapman: I heard stories of little kids going, “Ewww, he’s rubbing his boogers in her hair!” [laughing] If that’s what they want to think, that’s fine. But there are plenty of adults that went, “Whoa!”

Don Hahn: You make the movies for yourselves, [but] we all have families, and you try to make something that’s appropriate for that audience. So we made some changes. Frollo isn’t a member of the clergy to take out any politicizing.

Gaëtan Brizzi: We developed the idea of Frollo’s racism against the gypsies. To feel that he desires Esmeralda and he wants to kill her. It was ambiguity that was interesting to develop. In the storyboards, Paul made [Frollo] handsome with a big jaw, a guy with class. They said he was too handsome. We had to break that formula.

Stephen Schwartz: I [and others] said, “It doesn’t make any sense for him to not be the Archdeacon, because what’s he doing with Quasimodo? What possible relationship could they have?” Which is what led to the backstory that became “The Bells of Notre Dame.”

Don Hahn: The things Frollo represents are alive and well in the world. Bigotry and prejudice are human traits and always have been. One of his traits was lust. How do you portray that in a Disney movie? We tried to portray that in a way that might be over kids’ heads and may not give them nightmares necessarily, but it’s not going to pull its punches. So it was a fine line.

Stephen Schwartz: Hugo’s novel is not critical of the church the way a lot of French literature is. It creates this character of Frollo, who’s a deeply hypocritical person and tormented by his hypocrisy.

Peter Schneider: I am going to be controversial. I think it failed. The fundamental basis is problematic, if you’re going to try and do a Disney movie. In [light of] the #MeToo movement, you couldn’t still do the movie and try what we tried to do. As much as we tried to soften it, you couldn’t get away from the fundamental darkness.

Don Hahn: Yeah, that sounds like Peter. He’s always the contrarian.

Peter Schneider: I’m not sure we should have made the movie, in retrospect. I mean, it did well, Kirk and Gary did a beautiful job. The voices are beautiful. The songs are lovely, but I’m not sure we should have made the movie.

Gaëtan Brizzi: The hardest part was to stick to the commercial side of the movie…to make sure we were still addressing kids.

Kirk Wise: We knew it was going to be a challenge to honor the source material while delivering a movie that would fit comfortably on the shelf with the other Disney musicals. We embraced it.

Roy Conli: I don’t think it was too mature. I do find it at times slightly provocative, but not in a judgmental or negative way. I stand by the film 100 percent in sending a message of hope.

Peter Schneider: It never settled its tone. If you look at the gargoyles and bringing in Jason Alexander to try and give comedy to this rather bleak story of a judge keeping a deformed young man in the tower…there’s so many icky factors for a Disney movie.

Jason Alexander: Some children might be frightened by Quasi’s look or not be able to understand the complexity. But what we see is an honest, innocent and capable underdog confront his obstacles and naysayers and emerge triumphant, seen and accepted. I think young people rally to those stories. They can handle the fearsome and celebrate the good.

Brenda Chapman: There was a scene where Frollo was locking Quasimodo in the tower, and Quasi was quite upset. I had to pull back from how cruel Frollo was in that moment, if I’m remembering correctly. I wanted to make him a very human monster, which can be scarier than a real monster.

Roy Conli: We walked such a tight line and we were on the edge and the fact that Disney allowed us to be on the edge was a huge tribute to them.

“Hear the Voice”

The story was set, the songs were ready. All that was left was getting a cast together to bring the characters’ voices to life.

Jason Alexander: Disney, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Victor Hugo – you had me at hello.

Paul Kandel: I was in Tommy, on Broadway. I was also a Tony nominee. So I had those prerequisites. Then I got a call from my agent that Jeffrey Katzenberg decided he wanted a star. I was out of a job I already had. I said, “I want to go back in and audition again.” I wanted to let them choose between me and whoever had a name that would help sell the film. So that series of auditions went on and I got the job back.

Kirk Wise: Everybody auditioned, with the exception of Kevin Kline and Demi Moore. We went to them with an offer. But we had a few people come in for Quasimodo, including Meat Loaf.

Will Finn: Katzenberg saw Meat Loaf and Cher playing Quasimodo and Esmeralda – more of a rock opera. He also wanted Leno, Letterman, and Arsenio as the gargoyles at one point.

Kirk Wise: Meat Loaf sat with Alan and rehearsed the song. It was very different than what we ended up with, because Meat Loaf has a very distinct sound. Ultimately, I think his record company and Disney couldn’t play nice together, and the deal fell apart.

Gary Trousdale: We all had the drawings of the characters we were currently casting for in front of us. Instead of watching the actor, we’d be looking down at the piece of paper, trying to hear that voice come out of the drawing. And it was, we learned, a little disconcerting for some of the actors and actresses, who would put on hair and makeup and clothes and they’ve got their body language and expressions. We just want to hear the voice.

Kirk Wise: We cast Cyndi Lauper as one of the gargoyles. We thought she was hilarious and sweet. The little fat obnoxious gargoyle had a different name, and was going to be played by Sam McMurray. We had Cyndi and Sam record, and Roy Disney hated it. The quality of Cyndi’s voice and Sam’s voice were extremely grating to his ear. This is no disrespect to them – Cyndi Lauper is amazing. And Sam McMurray is very funny. But it was not working for the people in the room on that day.

Jason Alexander: The authors cast you for a reason – they think they’ve heard a voice in you that fits their character. I always try to look at the image of the character – his shape, his size, his energy and start to allow sounds, pitches, vocal tics to emerge. Then everyone kicks that around, nudging here, tweaking there and within a few minutes you have the approach to the vocalization. It’s not usually a long process, but it is fun.

Kirk Wise: We decided to reconceive the gargoyles. We always knew we wanted three of them. We wanted a Laurel and Hardy pair. The third gargoyle, the female gargoyle, was up in the air. I think it was Will Finn who said, “Why don’t we make her older?” As the wisdom-keeper. That led us to Mary Wickes, who was absolutely terrific. We thoroughly enjoyed working with Mary, and 98% of the dialogue is her. But she sadly passed away before we were finished.

Will Finn: We brought in a ton of voice-over actresses and none sounded like Mary. One night, I woke up thinking about Jane Withers, who had been a character actress in the golden age of Hollywood. She had a similar twang in her voice, and very luckily, she was alive and well.

Kirk Wise: Our first session with Kevin Kline went OK, but something was missing. It just didn’t feel like there was enough of a twinkle in his voice. Roy Conli said, “Guys, he’s an actor. Give him a prop.” For the next session, the supervising animator for Phoebus brought in a medieval broadsword. Before the session started, we said “Kevin, we’ve got a present for you.” We brought out this sword, and he lit up like a kid at Christmas. He would gesture with it and lean on it. Roy found the key there.

Gary Trousdale: Kevin Kline is naturally funny, so we may have [written] some funnier lines for him. When he’s sparring with Esmeralda in the cathedral and he gets hit by the goat. “I didn’t know you had a kid,” which is the worst line ever. But he pulls it off. He had good comic timing.

Kirk Wise: Tom Hulce had a terrific body of work, including Amadeus. But the performance that stuck with me was in Dominic and Eugene. There was a sensitivity and emotional reality to that performance that made us lean in and think he might make a good Quasimodo.

Gary Trousdale: [His voice] had a nice mix of youthful and adult. He had a maturity, but he had an innocence as well. We’re picturing Quasimodo as a guy who’s basically an innocent. It was a quality of his voice that we could hear.

Don Hahn: He’s one of those actors who could perform and act while he sang. Solo songs, especially for Quasimodo, are monologues set to music. So you’re looking for someone who can portray all the emotion of the scene. It’s about performance and storytelling, and creating a character while you’re singing. That’s why Tom rose to the top.

Stephen Schwartz: I thought Tom did great. I had known Tom a little bit beforehand, as an actor in New York. I’d seen him do Equus and I was sort of surprised. I just knew him as an actor in straight plays. I didn’t know that he sang at all, and then it turned out that he really sang.

Paul Kandel: [Tom] didn’t think of himself as a singer. He’s an actor who can sing. “Out There,” his big number – whether he’s going to admit it to you or not – that was scary for him. But a beautiful job.

Brenda Chapman: Quasimodo was the key to make it family-friendly. Tom Hulce did such a great job making him appealing.

Kirk Wise: Gary came back with the audiotape of Tom’s first session. And his first appearance with the little bird, where he asks if the bird is ready to fly…that whole scene was his rehearsal tape. His instincts were so good. He just nailed it. I think he was surprised that we went with that take. It was the least overworked and the most spontaneous, and felt emotionally real to us.

Kathy Zielinski: Early on, they wanted Anthony Hopkins to do the voice [of Frollo]. [We] did an animation test with a line of his from Silence of the Lambs.

Kirk Wise: We were thinking of Hannibal Lecter in the earliest iterations of Frollo. They made an offer, but Hopkins passed. We came full circle to Tony, because it had been such a good experience working with him on Beauty and the Beast. It was the combination of the quality of his voice, the familiarity of working with him, and knowing how professional and sharp he was.

Though the role of Quasimodo went to Tom Hulce (who did not respond to multiple requests for comment), there was one audition those involved haven’t forgotten.

Kirk Wise: We had a few people come in for Quasimodo, including Mandy Patinkin.

Stephen Schwartz: That was a difficult day. [laughing]

Kirk Wise: Mandy informed Alan and Stephen that he brought his own accompanist, which was unexpected because we had one in the room. He had taken a few liberties with [“Out There”]. He had done a little rearranging. You could see Alan’s and Stephen’s spines stiffen. It was not the feel that Alan and Stephen were going for. Stephen pretty much said so in the room. I think his words were a little sharper and more pointed than mine.

Stephen Schwartz: I’ve never worked with Mandy Patinkin. But I admired Evita and Sunday in the Park with George. He came in to audition for Quasimodo. When I came in, Ben Vereen was sitting in the hallway. Ben is a friend of mine and kind of a giant star. I felt we should be polite in terms of bringing him in relatively close to the time for which he was called.

Mandy took a long time with his audition, and asked to do it over and over again. If you’re Mandy Patinkin, you should have enough time scheduled to feel you were able to show what you wanted to show. However, that amount of time was not scheduled. At a certain point, I became a bit agitated because I knew Ben was sitting there, cooling his heels. I remember asking [to] move along or something. That created a huge contretemps.

Kirk Wise: Gary and I stepped outside to work on a dialogue scene with Mandy. As we were explaining the scene and our take on the character, Mandy threw up his hands and said, “Guys, I’m really sorry. I can’t do this.” He turned on his heel and went into the rehearsal hall and shut the door. We started hearing an intense argument. He basically went in and read Alan and Stephen the riot act. The door opens, smoke issuing from the crater that he left inside. Mandy storms out, and he’s gone. We step back in the room, asking, “What the hell happened?”

Gary Trousdale: I did a drawing of it afterwards. The Patinkin Incident.

Stephen Schwartz: Battleship Patinkin!

“Join the Party”

The darkness in the film made it difficult to market. Even some involved acknowledged the issue. In the run-up to release, Jason Alexander said to Entertainment Weekly, “Disney would have us believe this movie’s like the Ringling Bros., for children of all ages. But I won’t be taking my 4-year old. I wouldn’t expose him to it, not for another year.”

Alan Menken: There was all the outrage about Jason Alexander referring to it as a dark story that’s not for kids. Probably Disney wasn’t happy he said that.

Jason Alexander: Most Disney animated films are entertaining and engaging for any child with an attention span. All of them have elements that are frightening. But people are abused in Hunchback. These are people, not cute animals. Some children could be overwhelmed by some of it at a very young age. My son at the time could not tolerate any sense of dread in movies so it would have been hard for him. However, that is certainly not all children.

Don Hahn: I don’t think Jason was wrong. People have to decide for themselves. It probably wasn’t a movie for four-year olds. You as a parent know your kid better than I do.

If everyone agrees the score is excellent, they also agree on something that was not.

Alan Menken: God knows we couldn’t control how Disney marketing dealt with the movie, which was a parade with Quasimodo on everybody’s shoulders going, “Join the party.” [laughing]

Roy Conli: I always thought “Animation comes of age” would be a great [tagline]. I think the marketing ended up, “Join the party.”

Brenda Chapman: Marketing had it as this big party. And then you get into the story and there’s all this darkness. I think audiences were not expecting that, if they didn’t know the original story.

Kathy Zielinski: It was a hard movie for Disney to merchandise and sell to the public.

Gaëtan Brizzi: People must have been totally surprised by the dramatic sequences. The advertising was not reflecting what the movie was about.

Stephen Schwartz: To this day, they just don’t know how to market “Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I understand what their quandary is. They have developed a brand that says, “If you see the word Disney on something, it means you can take your 6-year old.” You probably shouldn’t even take your 8-year old, unless he or she is very mature, to Hunchback.

Alan Menken: We [Disney] had such a run of successful projects. It was inevitable there was going to be a time where people said, “I’ve seen all those, but what else is out there?” I had that experience sitting at a diner with my family, overhearing a family talk about Hunchback and say, “Oh yeah, we saw Beauty and Aladdin, but this one…let’s see something else.”

Stephen Schwartz: I did have a sense that some in the critical community didn’t know how to reconcile animation and an adult approach. They have the same attitude some critics have about musicals. “It’s fine if it’s tap-dancing and about silly subjects. But if it’s something that has intellectual import, you can’t do that.” Obviously we have Hamilton and Sweeney Todd and Wicked. Over the years, that’s changed to some extent, but not for everybody.

Roy Conli: Every film is not a Lion King. [But] if that story has legs and will touch people, then you’ve succeeded.

Kirk Wise: We were a little disappointed in its initial weekend. It didn’t do as well as we hoped. We were also disappointed in the critical reaction. It was well-reviewed, but more mixed. Roger Ebert loved us. The New York Times hated us! I felt whipsawed. It was the same critic [Janet Maslin] who praised Beauty and the Beast to the high heavens. She utterly shat on Hunchback.

Don Hahn: We had really good previews, but we also knew it was out of the box creatively. We were also worried about the French and we were worried about the handicapped community and those were the two communities that supported the movie the most.

Will Finn: I knew we were in trouble when the first trailers played and audiences laughed at Quasimodo singing “Out There” on the roof.

Kirk Wise: All of us were proud of the movie on an artistic level. In terms of animation and backgrounds and music and the use of the camera and the performances. It’s the entire studio operating at its peak level of performance, as far as I’m concerned.

Gary Trousdale: I didn’t think people were going to have such a negative reaction to the gargoyles. They’re a little silly. And they do undercut the gravity. But speaking with friends who were kids at the time, they have nothing but fond memories. There were adults, high school age and older when they saw it, they were turned off. We thought it was going to do really great. We thought, “We’re topping ourselves.” It’s a sophisticated story and the music is amazing.

Kirk Wise: The 2D animated movies used to be released before Christmas [or] Thanksgiving. The Lion King changed that. Now everything was a summer release. I always questioned the wisdom of releasing Hunchback in the summertime, in competition with other blockbusters.

Paul Kandel: It made $300 million and it cost $80 million to make. So they were not hurting as far as profits were concerned. But I thought it was groundbreaking in so many ways that I was surprised at the mixed reviews.

Kirk Wise: By most measures, it was a hit. I think The Lion King spoiled everybody, because [it] was such a phenomenon, a bolt from the blue, not-to-be-repeated kind of event.

Gary Trousdale: We were getting mixed reviews. Some of them were really good. “This is a stunning masterpiece.” And other people were saying, “This is a travesty.” And the box office was coming in, not as well as hoped.

Don Hahn: I was in Argentina doing South American press. I got a call from Peter Schneider, who said, “It’s performing OK, but it’s probably going to hit 100 million.” Which, for any other moviemaker, would be a goldmine. But we’d been used to huge successes. I was disappointed.

Peter Schneider: I think it was a hit, right? It just wasn’t the same. As they say in the theater, you don’t set out to make a failure.

Don Hahn: If you’re the New York Yankees, and you’ve had a winning season where you could not lose, and then people hit standup singles instead of home runs…that’s OK. But it has this aura of disappointment. That’s the feeling that’s awful to have, because it’s selfish. Animation is an art, and the arts are meant to be without a price tag hanging off of them all the time.

Paul Brizzi: We are still grateful to Kirk and Gary and Don. We worked on [Hunchback] for maybe a year or a year and a half. Every sequence, we did with passion.

Gaëtan Brizzi: Our work on Hunchback was a triumph of our career.

Kathy Zielinski: There are certainly a whole crowd of people who wish we had not [done] the comedy, because that wasn’t faithful. That’s the main complaint I heard – we should’ve gone for this total dramatic piece and not worried about the kiddies.

Gaetan Brizzi: The only concern we had was the lack of homogeneity. The drama was really strong, and the [comedy] was sometimes a little bit goofy. It was a paradox. When you go from “Hellfire” to a big joke, the transition was not working well. Otherwise, we were very proud.

James Baxter: We were happy with what we did, but we understood it was going to be a slightly harder sell. The Hunchback of Notre Dame usually doesn’t engender connotations like, “Oh, that’s going to be a Disney classic.” I was very happy that it did as well as it did.

Jason Alexander: I thought it was even more mature and emotional on screen. It was an exciting maturation of what a Disney animated feature could be. I was impressed and touched.

“An Undersung Hero”

25 years later, The Hunchback of Notre Dame endures. The animated film inspired an even darker stage show that played both domestically and overseas, and in recent years, there have been rumors that Josh Gad would star as Quasimodo in a live-action remake.

Alan Menken: I think it’s a project that with every passing year will more and more become recognized as a really important part of my career.

Stephen Schwartz: This will be immodest, but I think it’s a really fine adaptation. I think it’s the best musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, and there have been a lot. I think the music is just unbelievably good. I think, as a lyricist, I was working at pretty much the top of my form. I have so many people telling me it’s their favorite Disney film.

Alan Menken: During the pandemic, there was this hundred-piece choir doing “The Bells of Notre Dame.” People are picking up on it. It’s the combination of the storytelling and how well the score is constructed that gets it to longevity. If something is good enough, it gets found.

Paul Kandel: I think people were more sensitive. There was an expectation that a new Disney animated film would not push boundaries at all, which it did. For critics, it pushed a little too hard and I don’t think they would think that now. It’s a work of art.

Gaëtan Brizzi: Hunchback is poetic, because of its dark romanticism. We have tons of animated movies, but I think they all look alike because of the computer technique. This movie is very important in making people understand that hate has no place in our society, between a culture or people or a country. That’s the message of the movie, and of Victor Hugo himself.

Jason Alexander: I think it’s an undersung hero. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving animated films. But it is not the title that lives on everyone’s tongue. I think more people haven’t seen this one than any of the others. I adore it.

Peter Schneider: What Disney did around this period [is] we stopped making musicals. I think that was probably a mistake on some level, but the animators were bored with it.

Don Hahn: You know people reacted to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. They were successful movies in their day. You don’t know the reaction to anything else. So when [I] go to Comic-Con or do press on other movies, people started talking about Hunchback. “My favorite Alan Menken score is Hunchback.” It’s always surprising and delightful.

Kirk Wise: I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “This is my absolute favorite movie. I adored this movie as a kid. I wore out my VHS.” That makes all the difference in the world.

Paul Kandel: Sitting on my desk right now are four long letters and requests for autographs. I get 20 of those a week. People are still seeing that film and being moved by it.

Alan Menken: Now there’s a discussion about a live-action film with Hunchback. And that’s [sighs] exciting and problematic. We have to, once again, wade into the troubled waters of “What is Disney’s movie version of Hunchback?” Especially now.

Jason Alexander: Live action could work because the vast majority of characters are human. The story of an actual human who is in some ways less abled and who is defined by how he looks, rather than his heart and character, is timely and important, to say the least.

Kirk Wise: I imagine if there were a live-action adaptation, it would skew more towards the stage version. That’s just my guess.

Stephen Schwartz:  I think it would lend itself extremely well to a live-action movie, particularly if they use the stage show as the basis. I think the stage show is fantastic.

Kirk Wise: It’s gratifying to be involved in movies like Beauty and the Beast and Hunchback that have created so much affection. But animation is as legitimate a form of storytelling as live-action is. It might be different, but I don’t think it’s better. I feel like [saying], “Just put on the old one. It’s still good!”

Gary Trousdale: There were enough versions before. Somebody wants to make another version? Okay. Most people can tell the difference between the animated version and a live-action reboot. Mostly I’m not a fan of those. But if that’s what Disney wants to do, great.

Don Hahn: It’s very visual. It’s got huge potential because of its setting and the drama, and the music. It’s pretty powerful, so it makes sense to remake that movie. I think we will someday.

Brenda Chapman: It’s a history lesson. Now that Notre Dame is in such dire straits, after having burned so badly, hopefully [this] will increase interest in all that history.

James Baxter: It meant two children. I met my wife on that movie. [laughs] In a wider sense, the legacy is another step of broadening the scope of what Disney feature animation could be.

Kirk Wise: Hunchback is the movie where the final product turned out closest to the original vision. There was such terrific passion by the crew that carried throughout the process.

Roy Conli: It’s one of the most beautiful films we’ve made. 25 years later, I’d say “Join the party.” [laughs]

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