When Americans are asked to name French musicals, their go-to is “Les Misérables,” which opened in Paris in 1980 before an extensively retooled English version went on to conquer the world a few years later.
That, or some of the films that Jacques Demy directed in the 1960s, like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort.”
Usually not mentioned on our shores are the wildly popular homegrown stage musicals that appeared in France in the late 1990s. But now the most famous of them, “Notre Dame de Paris,” is having its New York premiere at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, and will run there through July 24.
One of its creators has issues with the terminology used to describe his work, though.
“I don’t think of ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ as musical theater,” the composer Richard Cocciante said by video from Rome, where he was preparing for a concert tour in Italy. “For me it’s a people’s opera. That’s because it’s entirely sung-through. We don’t call the numbers arias, though: ‘Belle’ or ‘Le temps des cathédrales’ stand alone as songs,” he added, mentioning two of the show’s many sweeping ballads and its biggest hits.
Based, like “Les Misérables,” on an epic 19th-century novel by Victor Hugo (which also inspired the Disney animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” to name just one of many adaptations), “Notre Dame de Paris” successfully exploited a distinctively French approach to modern stage musicals.
The lyricist Luc Plamondon already had a successful career writing for artists both in his native Quebec (a certain belter released an album of his songs, “Dion chante Plamondon,” in 1992) and in France, where he wrote the lyrics for the musical “Starmania” in the late 1970s. (That perennial favorite is returning to the Paris stage in November.)
Looking for another long-form project two decades later, Plamondon thought that “Notre Dame de Paris” would be a fitting source and called up Cocciante, who happened to have a tape of odds-and-ends melodies laying around.
“The first song began with him singing ‘Time … da-da-da,’” Plamondon, 80, hummed on the phone. He had been thinking of the scene in the 1956 film adaptation in which Anthony Quinn, as the hunchback, Quasimodo, begs Gina Lollobrigida’s Esmeralda, the object of all the men’s attentions, for water. “He’s chained to the wheel and he goes ‘Belle … belle …’” Plamondon continued, quoting the French word for beautiful. “That gave me the idea to replace ‘time’ with ‘belle’ in the song.”
And they were off. “From then on it gushed out of both us,” Cocciante, 76, said. “We wrote ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ in a kind of trance.”
In the French answer to a backers’ audition, he played the score on the piano and sang all the parts for the producer Charles Talar, who signed on and booked a run at the Palais des Sports in Paris for the fall of 1998.
It was fitting for Talar to get that venue, which is not a traditional theater but a cavernous concert hall, because he came from the music industry: He wanted to release an album first, then build on it to sell the stage show. It’s an approach Andrew Lloyd Webber successfully used for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” but overall it’s not common in the United States and Britain, where a show precedes its recording.
“He assumed he could activate the networks he had built and use some of the same strategies he used to sell records,” Nicolas Talar said on Zoom, recalling his father’s game plan. (Charles Talar died in 2020.) “The idea was to familiarize audiences with the music before the show started. The specificity of French musicals is that we promote them the way we would promote a pop record. If one or two songs become popular, you’re the star of the moment, you get on television and people want to see you,” he added. “The only way to hear ‘Belle’ live was to see the musical.”
That song, a trio for the three men in love with Esmeralda, was released in the spring of 1998, months before the show’s opening, and went on to become the biggest-selling single of the year in France.
“There was this miracle — I don’t know how else to describe it — of ‘Belle,’” said Daniel Lavoie, 73, who played the archdeacon Frollo in the original production and is back in the cassock for the New York run. “It was almost 5 minutes, which was inconceivable on the radio at the time because they didn’t play anything longer than 3 minutes. I remember that at our first TV appearance we were asked to do the song again. We knew then we were onto something.”
Another number, “Le temps des cathédrales,” was almost as popular — many Americans might have discovered it on the 2015 Josh Groban album “Stages” — cementing the status of “Notre Dame” as the It show that year. And unlike in the United States, where stage personalities don’t tend to make a dent on the Billboard Hot 100, it turned the cast members Garou, Patrick Fiori and Hélène Ségara into pop stars. (Lavoie already had an established career as a singer by then.)
“Notre Dame” was so huge that other producers followed in Talar’s footsteps, most prominently Dove Attia, who was behind the popular “Les Dix Commandements” (2000), “Le Roi Soleil” (2005) and “Mozart, l’opéra rock” (2009). That last was among the few to actually, er, rock, which may partly help explain why those shows have not had much of an impact in English-speaking countries, where the tolerance for a high ratio of power ballads seems to be lower than in France, Russia or South Korea.
A decisive move by the “Notre Dame” team was to have the cast sing live to recorded tracks, which are still used in productions worldwide, though the New York engagement will supplement them with a full orchestra. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Lavoie said in English, before reverting back to French. “‘Notre Dame de Paris’ was conceived as a show outside of time.”
“Notre Dame” has been translated into eight languages and performed in 23 countries, though its producers now prefer presenting it in the original French, which is how its cast of 30 will perform it in New York (with English supertitles). Still, this and similar musicals have faced an uphill battle to win over reviewers at home.
“Musical theater doesn’t get much critical support in France,” said Laurent Valière, the producer and host of the weekly program “42e Rue” on French public radio as well as the author of a book about musicals. “The press pans it — sometimes with good reason and sometimes not.” (Full disclosure: I have been a guest commentator on the show.)
The French hit factory seems to have hit a snag in recent years as it strains to find successors to the blockbusters of the 2000s. There are oddities like the biomusical “Bernadette de Lourdes,” which is based on the true story of a young girl who claimed to see the Virgin Mary and plays in Lourdes, the town where it all happened.
In a different vein is “Résiste,” a jukebox musical based on France Gall’s pop songbook that benefited from a live band playing the original arrangements and dynamic movement thanks to the music-video choreographer Marion Motin.
Still, “Notre Dame de Paris” endures. “Another distinctive trait is that no matter where it’s playing, it’s staged the same way,” said Nicolas Talar, who is now producing the show and copresenting it in New York. (He also has producing credits on Broadway’s “Funny Girl” and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”)
“Sometimes we wonder if the show has become outdated, but the themes are evergreen and the music was intentionally arranged to sound timeless, so we keep postponing making changes,” he added. “So far audiences haven’t complained and the show is doing well, so we’re staying the course.”