Former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung discusses his musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, now at Chicago's Bailiwick Repertory Theatre.
DeYoung is best known as the lead vocalist and keyboardist of the rock band, Styx. He penned some of the band's biggest hits, including "Babe," "Come Sail Away," "Lady," and "Mr. Roboto." Additionally, he's had a successful career as a solo artist, with albums including Desert Moon, Back to the World, and his most recent CD, One Hundred Years From Now. Beginning in late May, the artist will be embarking on a multi-city tour with his concert, Dennis DeYoung: The Music of Styx. He recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with TheaterMania.
TM: How did you first start working on Hunchback?
DD: My brother-in-law, Forbes Candlish, was the executive producer of the 20th anniversary Jesus Christ Superstar tour in the early '90s, and wanted me to be Pontius Pilate. So, I'm on the road, crucifying all over North America, and thought to myself: "Actors -- eight shows a week; writers -- write the show and then sit home." I started looking for a title, and figured, let's find a dead author. They work cheap.
TM: What is it about this specific book that appealed to you?
DD: I remembered the 1939 film with Charles Laughton, which I'd seen as a kid, so the first thing I did was rent the movie. Then I went and bought a couple different translations of the Hugo novel, and I saw the disparities between the two mediums -- what someone else had decided to do with Hugo's story. Similarly, I decided to make it the story that I wanted to tell by using the backdrop, the overall themes, and most importantly those fascinating characters: a gypsy, a deformed hunchback, and the priest.
TM: How did you approach the adaptation?
DD: I wrote a synopsis, and then invented scenes without dialogue, just overview. And I figured out what character would sing what song. I'd sit in my little studio and pretend to be Quasimodo or Frollo or Clopin, or whoever it was, and I would write a song and record it, just as a demo for me to hear the songwriting process. Then I took these songs, started to fill in dialogue and I made this little book. I had a bunch of producers interested. Everyone said the same thing to me: I love this music, you should make a CD. So, I put together a CD of all my demos -- this is 13 years ago.
TM: How has the show changed since then?
DD: We had our first production in Nashville in 1997, which was the only real production, although there were a couple of workshops. But I had a day job with a band called Styx, and the last five years, I've been focusing on a solo career that's turned out very well for me. So consequently, I put it on the back burner. Then David Zak at Bailiwick called me five years in a row, and asked me to do it at the theater. I finally said yes.
DD: The theatricality in Styx was probably mostly due to my meddling, and Kilroy was an attempt to bring to the rock stage some true theatrical elements, in that a through-story was being told and the rock performers were actually going to play characters and be actors. It was a bold thing for us to do, but my intention was not to really create a true theater piece, although some people viewed it as that. It was just a disguised rock concert.
TM: Do you find there's a big difference between writing for musical theater as opposed to the songs you penned for Styx or your solo career?
DD: You know what's wrong with Broadway most of the time? No good songs. People write music. Songwriting and writing music are two different skills. The hard thing for pop guys and rock guys coming into this medium is that it's a different skill completely -- rock people and pop people write songs in a universal sense, in that the character many times represents every man. Writing for musical theater is very specific. The lyrics must be very specific to character. You have to be careful that the words, and even the melodies that they sing are in keeping with the expectations of the reality that you create. Here's the thing about musicals: everybody knows it's a big fake job. People are dancing around and singing and that doesn't really happen. Now, having said that, the very best musicals make you believe you've entered into a reality, and the very worst ones make you aware that you have not, that you're watching a fake from start to finish.
TM: How do you overcome that?
DD: The most critical moment in any musical is the transition from dialogue to music. That moment, every time it happens, must seem flawless -- in tempo, in texture, in meaning. That's when the audience -- and I suspect 20 percent of them have been dragged there by their wives, if you catch my drift -- must feel that there is a reality and people can start singing suddenly.
TM: Bailiwick is a fairly intimate space. Are you making any adjustments to the show due to this?
DD: We have a cast of 20 and it's a small stage. One thing I learned the first time we did this, when we had a cast of 26 and a very large stage -- 26 people on a large stage looks small, 20 people on a small stage looks big!
DD: I think if you're wedded to the novel -- and I don't know what person in his right mind would be -- then you will find a lot of differences. Like all these classic novels, you have like 50, 60 characters. So, you have to find a way to condense these things. And more than condensing, I always saw it as essentially Frollo's story and wanted to follow the arc of his character, and explore the kind of man who would adopt a deformed child and end up murdering somebody. That was the story I wanted to tell. So, if you're coming looking for a faithful adaptation of the book, I think you could be disappointed in that, but if you come expecting the spirit of the characters and their dilemmas, and how they deal with it, I think you'll be fine.