The production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" stars actor Joshua Castille, who is deaf, as Quasimodo. He will deliver his song lyrics in American Sign Language (ASL), while actor E.J. Cardona, playing one of the cathedral gargoyles who come to life, sings the words.
In a 5th Avenue Theatre rehearsal room, the cast of the company’s latest production is running through a scene. The show is “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” adapted from the classic Victor Hugo novel and the animated Disney feature. And playing Quasimodo, the much-maligned Notre Dame Cathedral bell-ringer, is the fresh-faced young actor Joshua Castille.
Like the hunchbacked figure in Hugo’s story, Castille is deaf. And as the run-through of the number unfolded, he delivered song lyrics by Stephen Schwartz in energetically expressive American Sign Language (ASL), while a performer playing one of the cathedral gargoyles who come to life in the show sang the words to composer Alan Menken’s music.
It was a form of “shadow” interpreting, a departure from the more common theatrical practice of having an ASL interpreter below the stage or off to the side, in special performances accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. In this case, two forms of communication are interwoven — a practice which, at its best, looks fluid on stage, yet actually requires a deft, complex staging pattern, particularly for a musical.
Veteran director Glenn Casale was up for the challenge when he mounted his first version of “Hunchback” at Sacramento’s Music Circus in 2016. Said Casale during a rehearsal break, “Sign language is just a different language.” He noted that his process of staging what is voiced by Quasimodo and conveyed through sign and gesture, began with John McGinty, a deaf actor who took the central role in the Sacramento premiere and a subsequent L.A. staging of this version, also directed by Casale. (Different productions of the show, with hearing performers as Quasimodo, have appeared in Germany, Canada, New York and at other U.S. regional theaters.)
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“John came in and gave the most remarkable audition I’d ever seen,” Casale remembers. “I could see how when an actor signs, it’s so moving for the audience, and the actor can really get inside of the character. And Quasimodo is deaf in the novel, which not everyone realizes. I asked Disney for permission to do it with a deaf lead, and they agreed.”
His Sacramento staging was lauded as “robustly creative” by The Sacramento Bee. Now Casale is directing Castille in his debut as Quasimodo at the 5th Avenue Theatre, in an engagement playing through June 24. The new cast is augmented by the 30-voice Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union.
The boyish 23-year-old Castille won praise in Seattle last year as a rebellious deaf son in Nina Raine’s wrenching drama “Tribes” at ACT Theatre. And he’s no stranger to musicals: A couple years back, he made his Broadway debut in Deaf West’s widely praised, bilingual version of the musical “Spring Awakening.”
The exuberant actor is a gregarious Louisiana native who began acting in student shows at age 11 and “found it was something I could really do.” He went on to perform in community theater, and while a Gallaudet University student in his teens, he scored his “Spring Awakening” role and began snagging TV parts.
Though Castille uses hearing aids and speaks clearly, he preferred to converse in sign language during an interview. “Including the deafness in this show is already a great opportunity, and we [deaf actors] are getting more and more opportunities,” he commented enthusiastically, through an ASL interpreter. “In ‘Spring Awakening’ I was signing songs, and doing a lot of dancing. But this time it’s different for me because I’m the lead.”
According to Casale, “Josh was right for this because I knew I wanted somebody who had a lot of heart, like the big heart inside of Quasimodo. And Josh has that.” But the rehearsal process involved some special adjustments for Castille and his cast mates, who include 5th Avenue regulars Allen Fitzpatrick and Brandon O’Neill, and co-star Dan’yelle Williamson (making her 5th Avenue debut). Williamson portrays Esmeralda, the gypsy girl who takes pity on the physically deformed, isolated Quasimodo, and is lusted after by the hunchback’s villainous caretaker Dom Claude Frollo.
It was essential that Castille be able to communicate onstage with the other performers and vice versa. “I’m performing this without my hearing aids, so I can’t hear anyone,” reveals the actor. “So the biggest thing for me was learning how to internalize the songs, the beats, the rhythms of the music.”
Whether he’s speaking or signing in this production, “my job is to make everything clear to the audience. I have to change and adapt things all the time, and I really respect Glenn for trusting me with the process.”
While most performers in musicals respond to orchestral cues, “the other actors have to let Josh know, through a touch or gesture, when a musical number is starting,” said Casale. “And the whole cast had to learn some sign language. There’s a little timidity at first about that. But it’s great, because it gets everyone on the same level.”
Castille must maintain a special theatrical rapport with E.J. Cardona, the performer who belts out Quasimodo’s songs while Castille dynamically signs them. To “justify” this bilingual approach, the show accentuates the idea that the dozen gargoyle characters are active friends of the hunchback. They encourage Quasimodo to leave the bell tower where he’s spent his lonely life, and to join the rest of humanity in teeming medieval Paris. As the words to the pivotal song “Out There” go: “Out there, strolling by the Seine …. like ordinary men/Who freely walk about there.”
But with this freedom, Quasimodo also encounters intolerance and tragedy. The stage version of the musical is “much darker than the movie,” said Casale (who in 2016 directed Disney’s “Little Mermaid” at the 5th Avenue). “It’s dark, but so heartfelt.”
Written for the stage by Peter Parnell, this rendition of “Hunchback” is closer to Hugo’s 19th-century novel than the popular 1996 animated Disney feature, and doesn’t downplay the extreme bigotry or the mob violence in the tale. (For other interpretations of the novel, see the silent 1923 film of “Hunchback” starring Lon Chaney, and the 1939 movie with an indelible lead turn by Charles Laughton).
Quasimodo’s long confinement in a tower resonates symbolically with Casale. Though he said his own family has supported his ambitions, “some parents are very overprotective of their deaf kids. Even when they grow up they’re still seen as children — you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t, can’t, can’t.
“That makes it hard to believe in yourself, and can be very oppressive. You have to be yourself. That’s why culturally, emotionally this show is really a good fit for the deaf community.”
The 5th Avenue will host seven entirely ASL-interpreted performances of “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” as well as one open-captioned show with projected dialogue and lyrics scrolling alongside the stage. For more information, contact audience services at 206-625-1900 or 888-584-4849.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” book by Peter Parnell, score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. June 1-24, 5th Avenue Theatre, 3801 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $29; 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org