Senior Kate Wayman sings "God Help the Outcast" in the cathedral of Notre Dame. The ensemble stands behind her, asking God for wealth, fame and fortunes. Wayman's character, the gypsy Esmeralda, asks God to help those that are less fortunate than herself. (Photo courtesy Adrian Knappertz.)
Pulling back the curtain
An inside look at Whitman's The Hunchback of Notre Dame
This year’s musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a drama that takes place in Paris in 1482. The story begins when the protagonist, Quasimodo — whose uncle hides him away from society because of his physical appearance — leaves the sanctuary of Notre Dame’s bell towers and spend a day in the world down below.
The show will take place on November 21, 22 and 23 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium. Tickets are sold during lunch and online.
In the dark auditorium, the air was heavy.
A student wearing a blue dress dotted with small daisies rushed to center stage, finding herself face-to-face with the director, choreographer, music director and producer — all sitting at a folding table onstage with snacks and notes scattered across it.
“Whenever you’re ready,” director Ian Coleman said.
Sheet music shaking in her hands, senior Kate Wayman looked to the exit sign in the back of the auditorium, waited for the accompanist to give her the first note, took a deep breath and sang.
“What’s going through my mind probably isn’t what is supposed to be going through my mind when I’m singing,” Wayman said. “Am I hitting the notes? Was my vibrato too intense or not intense enough? Am I acting? Am I acting?! Am I going to remember the words? Am I making too much eye contact with them? Do I look too still? Am I with the piano or off tempo?”
It’s Wayman’s fourth year performing with Whitman Drama. She spent half of the summer browsing through songs online for her final musical audition at Whitman, eventually choosing “Fly, Fly Away” from the musical Catch Me if You Can.
Kate is very particular when it comes to selecting an audition piece. She looks for songs that match the tone of the musical, fit her voice or share the same composer as the show she is auditioning for.
The audition process for this year’s musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, spanned a total of three days: one day for singing, one for dancing and one for callbacks, which are a second audition for specific roles within a group of selected actors.
In the dance audition, the actors — each wearing a loosely attached numbered tag — formed lines onstage. Coleman and the choreographer, Wood Van Meter, quickly taught the dance to the actors and then watched them perform the routine in small groups.
Sophomore Rachel Chen, who’s been dancing since third grade, said she felt more confident during the dance audition than during the singing one. Like Wayman, Chen spent the summer preparing for her singing audition, listening to her audition songs as frequently as she could and singing them alongside a recording or an accompanying piano.
“I don’t really prepare for dance auditions. I usually stretch my splits — that way I can kick high and be warm,” Chen said. “I definitely prepare more for the singing audition because you know what to prepare. When you’re going into a dance audition, you’re kind of thrown into it.”
Having the entire summer to prepare for the singing audition is a luxury for the actors — they only have one night to learn their music for callbacks.
Junior Eli Blanks prepared with other actors for his callback for the lead male role of Quasimodo in the auditorium lobby, waiting patiently for the producer, senior Emily Mayo, to call him onstage. The other actors in the room loosened up before their auditions: they rehearsed their songs, danced, cracked jokes, even did massage trains. But when Mayo cracked open the auditorium door to ask if anyone in the room was called back for the ensemble, the room froze.
“Everyone is doing weird things to stop them from being nervous,” Blanks said. “Personally, I worry practicing too much will throw out my voice. So we’re really just messing around, trying to make the time go by quicker before we actually get to go up and do our stuff.”
Toward the end of callbacks, the directors called Blanks and two other actors back once more to audition for Quasimodo. The directors decided to start with the song “Out There,” which Van Meter told the actors was one of the most emotional songs in Hunchback, Blanks said.
After the trio sang the song gathered around the piano, each actor lined up to sing it one by one. Blanks went first.
His audition wasn’t flawless, Blanks said. When the directors instructed him to start halfway into the song, he didn’t know the exact place to start singing. In fact, he had to restart several times because he had only practiced with the recording, not with someone playing the piano.
But soon after, he hit his stride at the climax of the song — Blanks’ favorite part — and by the end of the song, the emotion of his performance had moved the directors, Blanks said.
Walking off stage with his music and little Gatorade water bottle, Blanks was emotional too.
“When I actually got into the song, it was everything I’d ever hoped and dreamed it would be,” Blanks said. “When I sing that song, I feel like I really do live through the character.”
The students waited over the weekend, anxiously anticipating the release of the cast list. Finally, on Sunday night, the list revealed Blanks as Quasimodo; Wayman, Esmeralda (the female lead); and Chen, featured dancer.
Before the official start of the first rehearsal, the cast gathered in the auditorium while Coleman, their new director, explained his directing process and reasoning for choosing Hunchback as this year’s fall musical.
“Everyone outside this theater thinks we’re putting on the Disney movie,” Coleman said.
He discussed the deeper themes in the show that go beyond the Disney animation: the main character is a physically deformed, biracial orphan who struggles with his identity, and Esmeralda boldly stands up to oppression from the archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, who sexually assaults her. Coleman also explained how the treatment of the Gypsies in the story reflects today’s treatment of immigrants trying to cross the southern border of the United States.
“The show is very powerful,” Wayman said. “It’s a story that’s definitely going to move the audience — or at least, we hope is going to move the audience — because it deals with so many prevalent things in society today: sexism, rape, racism.”
After Coleman’s introduction, the cast went through a brief movement warm-up and sat on stage in a circle for a table read-through of the show. While reading a scene, the actors asked each other questions to further understand the emotions and motives behind each characters’ actions.
After that first day, rehearsals quickly picked up. Although the directors didn’t call the whole cast everyday, rehearsals ran until 6 p.m. all week long. The cast spent the first half of each rehearsal on music and the second half on choreography and blocking, which is the direction for the actions and movements of the characters in a scene.
In the second week of rehearsal, Wayman and other actors reviewed the Latin music for the opening number.
“The first number is called ‘Olim,’ and it’s all Latin,” Wayman said. “There are six parts to it, and there’s a lot of dialogue in between the actual music. It’s really important to the story because it tells the backstory of all the characters.”
In between blocking scenes, Blanks went over his lines in the back of the auditorium because Coleman expected actors to have all lines memorized after blocking. When the cast revisited a scene, he didn’t allow them to bring scripts onstage.
“We’ve had a few directors here, and not all directors do it the same,” Blanks said. “Chris [Gerken] expected people to show up memorized before he blocked a scene. Randy [Snight] didn’t mind as long as you were saying your lines. He’d rather that you held your book than not know your lines.”
The cast and crew dedicated an entire week to incorporating lights, sound and set changes into the show. They rehearsed with periodic stops to fix technical difficulties, and the tech crew smoothed out lighting and scene transitions.
“[Coleman or the technical directors] call ‘hold,’ and you just have to hold in your place. Sometimes you’re just standing there for 30 minutes,” Wayman said. “But it’s just what you have to do because they’re making the show look really cool.”
As they stood on stage waiting for tech changes, many of the actors began to fidget. Some twirled prop torches in circles, and others reviewed the dances from last year’s musical, Pippin. Senior Sammy Strent, who plays Esmeralda’s love interest, the soldier Phoebus, conspicuously hummed songs from Pippin into his microphone. They weren’t allowed to talk, especially the leads, who were wearing microphones.
“Tech week is worse than hell week,” Blanks said. “We sit onstage and we do…nothing. [But] it’s important. It’s very important.”
On Sunday, the first day of “hell week,” the cast ran through musical numbers onstage backed by the pit orchestra for the first time. They then ran the full show with lights, costumes, orchestra, microphones and props.
The empty stage from two months ago had transformed into the bustling city of Paris. When the actors rehearsed before the run through, the only light in the auditorium streamed through the stained glass windows onstage, outlining their silhouettes. The hum of strings and wind instruments filtered through the floor, and the deep sound of the choir filled the room.
“Nowhere else that I’ve been has a pit orchestra,” Blanks said. The live music gives Blanks the freedom to make mistakes and properly deliver his lines, he said.
During hell week, rehearsals run until 8:30 p.m.. The biggest difficulty during hell week for Blanks is balancing school and the show, especially now that he’s the lead, he said.
“A lot of the teachers are pretty good about accommodating for this upcoming week because the week of the show is hectic, and they know that,” Blanks said.
From weekend rehearsals to memorizing lines, dances and music, the show is a big time commitment. But for the cast and crew, it’s worth it.
“I’ve liked seeing everything come together,” Chen said. “From the ideas to the lights and the sets and stuff moving. It’s just really cool to see how Ian’s ideas and our ideas have come to life.”