The synopsis for Les Enfants de Paris jumped out at me almost immediately with its story of a young French man's love for a Muslim refugee. Based on Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, this re-imagining adds new layers to an old classic. Performances start on October 3rd, and you can get tickets here. Until then, songwriter David Levinson and book writer Stacey Weingarten answer questions about their show:
(A.J. Shively singing "I Dance With You")
Me: How would you describe your show in one sentence?
Stacey Weingarten: As West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet, or Rent is to La Bohéme, Les Enfants de Paris is to Notre Dame de Paris, resetting the tale in 1950s Paris replete with its romance, disenfranchised youth, and xenophobia towards Muslim-Algerian refugees from the Algerian War.
Me: What was the process like re-imagining Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris in 1958 France?
David Levinson: The key to everything in the beginning was who do the ‘gypsies’ become? Or more specifically, who are our ‘oppressed people’ in this version? We didn’t want to do an update for the sake of doing an update. The backdrop of the Algerian War with the threat of terrorism and the extreme Islamophobia in France at the time gives the story a new relevance.
Stacey: It’s a reason for the update, which also allows us to not hit the audience over the head with how the themes relate to today. It wouldn’t have the same impact if it were, say, updated to modern times.
David: Something else we had noticed about the book (that many adaptations shy away from) is that the story is mostly very insular. There are a few scenes that require large crowds but other than that it’s a very small story. We definitely wanted to go the small route with this piece rather than the huge gothic adaptation it often becomes. We started with listing every character in book and go “which ones do we need and which ones do we get rid of?”. Eventually we narrowed it to seven. We also kept the Esmeralda character the protagonist and Quasimodo a more secondary character, unlike most adaptation. One of the most interesting things was that as we went through the process, some drafts were closer to the book, and some drafts were further away.
Me: I was very intrigued by the “chanson- and Arab-influenced” score. How did you approach the show musically?
David: One of my favorite things to do is be a stylistic chameleon. I thought it would be a travesty to have a show set in the 1950’s in Paris and not utilize the extremely well known and beloved romance of 1950’s La Chanson Française. I also felt the Arab world has such incredibly moving music that hasn’t been utilized in the world of musical theater as major musical vocabulary ever. I really wanted to capture the cultural tension within the score in the utilization of both styles.
I started by listening to a lot of music in the style that I wanted to write. I did this before I even wrote a note. I just listened to a lot of Piaf, Brel, Aznavour, Mathieu, etc. for the French stuff, and then people like Cherifa, Hanifa, and some more modern Arab singers like Fayrouz and Souad Massi for the Arab stuff. I just listened and tried to dissect what makes the music stylistically sound like what it sounds like?
After I felt like I was sufficiently immersed in the style, I started writing. The first reading draft of the show was a little musically off the mark. I didn’t entirely ‘go there’. I kept trying to meld a musical theater sound with those two styles. After that reading I just went whole hog and wrote entirely in the style of French Chanson and Arab music and trusted that my voice as a writer would shine through regardless.
Stacey: And it does! If you heard any of his other music, you’d recognize it. It’s the same way you can hear Sondheim a mile away. While we’re at it, if you want to hear a clip, here’s a video of Megan Reinking singing ‘Encore’:
Me: I think your show was the only one I saw that comes with a mature theme disclaimer. What can an audience expect thematically from Les Enfants de Paris?
Stacey: We like to say the two biggest themes are disenfranchisement of youth and xenophobia in France-- two themes that very much parallel America today, and more specifically our generation which has come of age in a 9/12 world. Though it’s unfortunate, we’re big believers this piece would not have existed in pre-9/11 America. It certainly wouldn’t be as relevant.
David: Islamophobia is definitely a big theme. We kind of take the nostalgia that Americans have for 1950’s Paris and we lull them into a false sense of security in the first act with lush romanticism.
Stacey: What most people don’t know about the era is that France was entrenched in an unpopular war on Algerian soil, desperately clinging to keep control. There were also attacks by Algerian Nationalists on French soil. There was a dichotomy in the perceived reality of the era and what was actually going on. Our piece walks that line.
David: As for as the mature content warning, there is fairly graphic drug abuse in the show, as well as sexual situations and nudity.
Stacey: David, our collaborator Donna, and myself are oddly in tune with our dark sides despite beig relatively light, happy people.
Me: What are you most looking forward to about NYMF?
David: We are looking forward to actually getting to see the piece on its feet. This is a very cinematic script in a lot of ways. There has been a lot that we have had to imagine in our readings that we are looking forward to getting to see fleshed out. We are also thrilled about the incredible platform that NYMF gives us as a show and as writers.
Stacey: Yes. As a new writer (recently graduated, unknown), it’s perhaps the best platform for new musicals there is. I’ve bought memberships to the festival every year since moving to the city as a freshman five years ago…
David: And I’m looking forward to having an Accordion!
David & Stacey: Last but not least, thanks for having us on your blog!!